Welcome to World Book Day 1666

If you had been celebrating World Book Day in 1666, the year in which my novel The White Phoenix is set, things would have been a bit different.

Here’s my handy guide to World Book Day 1666.

Illustrations © Kate Randall

1. There are NO children’s books

No one has yet thought of producing books especially for children. It will be another 80 years before the publication of (wait for it…)  A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer.  

This is generally considered to be the first children’s book. It was just a collection of simple rhymes for each of the letters of the alphabet, but at least it came with a free toy – a ball for a boy, or a pincushion for a girl! (I’m not sure that girls in 1744 would have thought of a pincushion as a toy. I hope they managed to get the ball instead if they wanted it.)

2. Lots of children can’t read. (Actually lots of adults can’t read either)

I’m afraid there is a big difference here between boys and girls. Many more boys can read than girls, because it isn’t thought necessary for girls to be able to read. Why do they need to read when they are just going to be running a household when they grow up?  (You’ll be glad to know that by 1700, girls were catching up fast though.) In general, the more money your family has, the more likely you are to go to school, but even so, most girls stop school at around the age of 11. Lots of them can’t read when they leave school, and hardly any of them know how to write.

Some boys are able to continue their education in school. Even the big famous schools like St Paul’s School aren’t expensive to go to, but your family might need you to go out to work and earn money instead, or you might think it is better to learn a trade by becoming an apprentice.

If you’ve read The White Phoenix, you’ll know that being an apprentice isn’t a walk in the park either – you have to leave home and live with your Master and his family for SEVEN years while you learn your trade. And that’s without ANY holiday (apart from the odd public holiday to celebrate the King’s birthday, religious festivals etc.) On the plus side, at the end of your apprenticeship, you can become a Freeman of the City of London, and you’ll have a trade which you can earn a good living from for the rest of your life.

3. If you do carry on with school after the age of 11, you spend all your time learning Latin and Greek

You don’t study modern languages, maths or science, or even the works of Shakespeare. In fact, nothing that seems useful to us today. People do learn all these things of course (the 1660s were a time of great advances in all the sciences, for instance), but not at school. In fact, it seems to me that the more prestigious the school was, the less likely it was to teach you anything useful!

It isn’t even like books are all written in Latin – most books are now in English, so if you can read at all, you can read most books.

4. Find your bookshop

Suppose you can read, and you want a book, the next problem is to FIND your bookshop. There are no chains of bookshops, so you can’t just go looking for the nearest branch of Waterstones. Booksellers are all independent, but they don’t have signs up saying ‘Bookshop’. Instead they have signs hanging over the door with a picture on them, so you need to know which picture you are looking for.


Bookshop signs in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1600 include

  • The Angel
  • The Parrot
  • The Ship
  • The Crane
  • The White Greyhound
  • The Green Dragon
  • The White Phoenix (whoops! I just slipped that one in. I made it up.)

5. Once you’ve found your bookshop, you’ll find that it looks a bit different from a bookshop in 2021

The books are sold as folded sheets, with no covers on them, so once you’ve bought your book, you have to take it to a bookbinder to get it bound. Some booksellers will bind books for you (like in The White Phoenix) but there are also bookbinderies where you can take your folded sheets and get them bound into a beautiful book.

Despite all the differences, there are still lots and lots of wonderful books to buy in 1666. Although no one is selling books for children to read just for pleasure, there are ABC books to teach you to read, as well as school text books, and huge, beautifully coloured atlases imported from Holland which you are welcome to look at even if you can’t afford to buy one. There are also almanacs, published every year like our annuals, which are full of everything from astronomy to first aid to historical facts to advice about gardening. And for the adults, there are books about history, law, maths, Divinity (the study of God and religion) as well as plays and poetry. They also sell lots and lots of Bibles which are now printed in English so that everyone can read them.

And just like today, bookshops are friendly places where people can meet for a chat, although I don’t think they have lovely cosy cafes like so many bookshops do today.