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18 vintage photos and illustrations that show people reading

Wonderful vintage illustrations that show people reading

A list of wonderful illustrations and photos showing people who read – from the times when reading was still a privilege.

When thinking about reading, most of us take it for granted. It’s just there, it’s a thing we are given, nobody has to try hard to learn to read.

One or two hundred years ago it was not that easy, and the images from old books of that time are a great way to realize this.

At the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, almost 60% of adult Americans could read. Since that time literacy rates in America grew rapidly to reach 80% in 1870.

The 19th century was, however, the time when reading was still a privilege. In 1820 as much as 80% of the African-American population was illiterate.

I especially like the photo of blind boys with books that are “printed with raised letters, which they read by feeling of them.”

There are also two illustrations of Abraham Lincoln reading, one from a book about his childhood, and the other one from a drama A Man of the People.

On the list, there is also a rare image of Charles Dickens reading a book at the back of his country house Gads Hill Place, in Higham, Kent. The photograph comes from a biography written by his daughter Mamie Dickens, My Father as I Recall Him (great read by the way).

I found these wonderful images in ebooks, available on Project Gutenberg. It’s great that books that entered public domain are available for online viewing, as it’s possible to search their content easily, including images.

18 vintage illustrations that show people reading


The Child's World - Hetty S. Browne

Oh, for a nook and a story-book,
With tales both new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look
Is better to me than gold.

– Old English Song

Illustration from The Child’s World by Hetty S. Brown, W. K. Tate, and Sarah Withers. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


A short history of travel

Caption: “These books I got, and read them over and over; which did much strengthen my belief in the truth of the reports: yet by no means could I tell which was my way.” From A Short History of a Long Travel from Babylon to Bethel by Stephen Crisp. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


The Aldine

Illustration from The Aldine, A Typographic Art Journal, Vol. 5. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Reading by touch instead of sight

Caption: “Reading by touch instead of sight. These boys are blind; their books are printed with raised letters, which they read by feeling of them.” From The Child’s Day, The Woods Hutchinson Health Series, by Woods Hutchinson. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Mr. Punch Railway Book

Caption: “Reading between the lines.” From Mr. Punch’s Railway Book⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Child Land

Child-Land is a children picture book with 200 illustrations by Oscar Pletsch and M. Richter. The book consists of one-paragraph stories, each one illustrated.

The picture above accompanies the story called “The Bookseller”: “The boys like to call on Mr. Leaf, because he has such nice books. But sometimes they merely sit down and read them.” ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Reading the Sunday newspapers

Caption: “Reading the Sunday newspapers.” From Coffee and Repartee by John Kendrick Bangs. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Riley Songs of Home

Illustration by Will Vawter from Riley Songs of Home by James Whitcomb Riley. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Punch Vol 107

Kitty (reading a fairy tale). “Once upon a time there was a Frog——”
Mabel (interrupting). “I bet it’s a Princess! Go on!”

From Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol. 107 by various authors. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


The Mary Frances Cook Book

Illustration by Margaret G. Hays from The Mary Frances Cook Book written by Jane Earye Fryer. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Dr Stall reading to his grandchildren

One of preface illustrations of With the Children on Sunday by Sylvanus Stall. Caption says: “Dr. Stall reading to his grandchildren.” ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


The Nursery

One day she came running home from school, and said, “O mamma! a little American girl named Clara now comes to our school. She says she will teach me to read.”

From The Nursery, March 1881, Vol. XXIX. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Abe Lincoln

The opening image of the 8th chapter of Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance by Frances Cavanah. The text goes:

Abe sat up late, holding his book close to the flickering flames in the fireplace. As the rain drummed on the roof, his thoughts were far away. He was with General Washington in a small boat crossing the Delaware River on a cold Christmas night many years before. He was fighting the battle of Trenton with a handful of brave American soldiers. They must have wanted very much to be free, he decided, to be willing to fight so hard and suffer so much.

⇢ Project Gutenberg


A Man of the People

Ex Libris from A Man of the People: A Drama of Abraham Lincoln written by Thomas Dixon:

The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. –Abraham Lincoln

⇢ Project Gutenberg


Said the Observer

The caption says: “They usually read Dante’s Inferno and think how sweet it is to suffer.” From Said the Observer by Louis J. Stellman. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


The Boys' And Girls' Library

From The Boys’ And Girls’ Library, a book collecting a variety of useful and instructive reading for children, comes the story “Henry and his sister”:

Said Henry, one day,
As from school he came in,
“Don’t you think, sister dear,
A good boy I have been,

Such a beautiful book to have gained?
“Just look at these pictures,
The bird on the tree,
These lambs in the meadow,

This flower, and this bee,
With its honey from blossoms obtained.
“And here is a story,
And here is a song;

Let me read the story,
It won’t take me long;”
And so the nice story he read.
“Oh, what a nice story!”

And little Jane’s smile
Played on her face,
Like a sunbeam, awhile—
“I’m so glad you were good!” then she said.

⇢ Project Gutenberg


Little Philippe of Belgium

A photographic illustration from a book Little Philippe of Belgium by Madeline Brandeis, published in 1930. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.


Charles Dickens reading

Charles Dickens reading. A photograph from My Father as I Recall Him by Mamie Dickens. ⇢ Project Gutenberg.

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Vintage composition notebook iPhone case

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Innovative reading light

Compact and innovative reading light

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Hands-free pillow stand

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