The Trilby Boom

Advertising poster for "The Author of 'Trilby'" in McClure's, April 1895.
Advertising poster for "The Author of 'Trilby'" in
McClure's, April 1895
Offset lithograph, 16 1/2 × 11 7/8 in.
Delaware Art Museum,
Gift of Lucinda and David Pollack, 2017

The popularity of Trilby is impossible to overstate. Author and poet Margaret Sangster acknowledged the profound effect it had on popular culture in her 1894 Harper’s Weekly article, “Trilby from a Woman’s Point of View”:

There are not a few people who will remember the first half of 1894, not for the hard times, nor for the strikes, nor the yacht-races, nor any other thing of public interest or private concern, so much as for the pleasure they had in reading Trilby. Never before did the month intervening between installments seem so long, nor did so many readers anxiously await the next development.

A spokesperson for the Chicago Public Library stated that the 26 copies of the book in their collection were not enough: “I believe we could use 260 and never find a copy on the shelves. Every one of our 54,000 card-holders seems determined to read the book.”

Trilby’s success was as much due to the timing of its release as to du Maurier’s skill as a writer and illustrator. The 1890s saw a convergence of several factors that worked together to allow for just such a success, including an increase in literacy, the mass circulation of magazines, changes in the marketing and distribution of books, and the emergence of new printing technologies, particularly photomechanical reproduction of line drawings. “Trilby was the first great example of how the machinery of promotion, distribution, secondary rights, and social hoopla would work,” asserts author L. Edward Purcell.

Advertisement for "The Trilby"
Advertisement for “The Trilby” from the Montgomery Ward & Company Catalogue & Buyers' Guide, 1895
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

By the end of 1894 Trilby was a cultural phenomenon that had permeated nearly every facet of society, from fashion (Trilby-inspired shoes, hats, and—coinciding with another craze of the times—bicycling costumes) to housewares (foot-shaped toothpick holders and snuff boxes), to food (ice cream and even sausages in the shape of a foot). 

"Trilby on the Bicycle" crop
"Trilby on the Bicycle," The Gazette (Stevens Point, Wisconsin), August 7, 1895
Read the entire article here

The Critic, a weekly literary magazine, ran a regular column documenting Trilby-related news and events. So popular were the columns that the editors compiled them all into the pamphlet, Trilbyana: The Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel, "in response to a popular call" from the magazine's readers.

Read the entire pamphlet here.

Trilbyana: The Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel
Trilbyana: The Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel, by Joseph Benson Gilder and Jeannette Leonard Gilder (New York: The Critic, 1895)
Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum