Forgotten Best-Sellers: The World Displayed; or, a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels

From the moment I began to seriously crunch the numbers on the borrowers’ records of the Royal High School, the unrivalled popularity of two titles came to the fore: Charles Rollin’s Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Greeks and The World Displayed; or, a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels, recorded simply as ‘World Displayed’ in the borrowers’ records. Rollin’s work was hardly surprising; it dominates student borrowing records at the Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow (discussed here by Gerry) and so its popularity among schoolboys at the Royal High School could certainly be expected. However, World Displayed is not a title that appears elsewhere in the borrowing records for our other libraries and was not one I had personally come across before.

Title page of vol 4 of World Displayed

A 20-volume compendium of travel writing marketed specifically to children, published by John Newbery and introduced by Samuel Johnson, it has been noted by Barbara Schaff, in her Handbook of British Travel Writing,  as a “plainly-commercial” publication.[1] The twenty volumes encompass a collection of famous travel narratives structured within a history of navigation. It was not the only collection of travel writing in the school library but it was by far the most popular.

Certainly, its high number of volumes worked in its favour in the context of a school library when many volumes can be loaned to different pupils at once (for much of the period, pupils were restricted to borrowing just one volume at a time) but I don’t think this is the only cause of its success. It was often borrowed by school pupils who only visited the library once, suggesting that they sought out this particular book.

example of pupil borrowing world displayed
Thomas Vandeleur visits the library once on the 23rd of March c. 1786 to borrow World Displayed

Although John Newbery was not the first publisher to market books specifically to children, he was the first to have a separate children’s list.[2] As the only library in the Books and Borrowing project to consist almost entirely of child readers it follows that the collection included children’s books which were not found in our other libraries. The fact that World Displayed was written and produced with a child readership in mind would explain its particular inclusion and success at the Royal High School, which as a school library, had a specific agenda of ensuring that the works encountered by the boys were appropriate for young readers.

World Displayed is also heavily illustrated. The title page states that it contains a “variety of maps and prints by the best hands”. Illustrations were a feature of popular works not only among children, but also adults. At the Library of Innerpeffray, Jill Dye identified a high number of illustrations in a work as contributing factor to the popularity of certain texts.[3] It would certainly seem that appealing images also contributed to the work’s success at the Royal High School.

frontispiece of world displayed depicting 'Columbus describing the countries he had encountered'.
Frontispiece of Volume 1 of World Displayed, available at Historical Texts.

Finally, the boys at the Royal High School, like many children at the time, had a keen interest in tales of adventure and heroism. Travel narratives like those contained in World Displayed tapped into an interest in, and fascination with, the British Empire and travel more broadly. The genre reflects not only ideal masculine characteristics of ingenuity and bravery but also a romanticised reflection of some of the roles these boys would go on to take in the Empire. Walter Scott later reflected on the fates of many of his classmates, remarking that many went on either to ‘die in active service of their country’ or ‘sought distant lands to return no more’.[4] Perhaps then the aspirations that these boys held to take on these perceived heroic roles led to many of the sad outcomes Scott reflects upon, with their reading in the school library feeding their imaginations of what a future on the high seas could look like.

[1] Barbara Schaff, Handbook of British Travel Writing (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), p. 183

[2] Maxted, I.  Newbery, John (bap. 1713, d. 1767), publisher. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 3 Sep. 2022

[3] Jill Dye, ‘Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray c. 1680-1855, (University of Stirling: Unpublished thesis 2018), p. 136 (available at http://hdl.handle.net/1893/28881_

[4] Sir Walter Scott, ‘No III Anecdote of School Days, upon which Mr Thomas Scott proposed to found a tale of fiction’, Waverley  (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 562