Pamphlets first emerged in the 1500s, closely following the invention of the printing press. They were cheap, small-format publications produced mainly by independent publishers as a means of sharing ideas not dealt with in mainstream media. They rose in popularity through the early modern period, alongside improving literacy levels and printing technologies. Despite the unremarkable exteriors of their crumbling, flimsy pages, the words that they contain have proved to be the catalyst to ignite revolutions, overthrow governments and alter the course of history.
Where the political elite had previously been able to easily withhold information from the masses, pamphlets, sold typically at little more than one penny and written in accessible language, opened up access and enabled ordinary people to criticise their political and religious masters and hold them to account. By the nineteenth century, the medium had become closely associated with radical and scandalous ideas and political and religious dissent. Pamphlets were used to share government reports, court proceedings and political speeches, but their greatest strength lies in the weaponry of their words for political and social protest.
(1) This anonymously published pamphlet discusses the problem of overcrowded and unsanitary housing in London, arguing for the government to pass new housing legislation. An overview of recent public health research is provided, arming readers and the people living in inadequate housing with the information necessary to argue for government action.
(2) Lydia Denny shares her statement and supporting documents regarding the physical and emotional abuse she faced by her husband, her attempt to divorce him and subsequent confinement in an asylum for alleged 'insanity'. Denny remained imprisoned in the asylum for 18 months, subjected to invasive treatments and being constantly assured that her husband 'loved [her] very dearly'. This pamphlet provided Denny with the ability to share her experiences in her own words, asserting her sanity and explaining her unfair treatment and the lack of marital and health rights for women that facilitated it.
(3) This short work of science fiction, uses a comical tale about a man's chance encounter with a 'lunar excursionist', who explains to him how the society that inhabits the moon has abandoned religious belief, allowing them to advance far more than the inhabitant's of Earth. The excursionist explains how his own society only consume chemically created meat, have abolished money and all private property except for libraries, and women no longer choose to reproduce. The story is a lighthearted and easily readable way for the author to promote his atheist views and illustrate the ways that religious belief holds society back.
(4) George Holyoake, convicted of blasphemy in 1842, used the pamphlet medium as a means to share details of his trial and explain why he believed he should be the last person ever to be convicted of this crime. Following Holyoake's conviction for stating blasphemous ideas at a public lecture at Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute, he and the socialist Emma Martin formed the Anti-Persecution Union to support free thinkers facing arrest for their beliefs. This pamphlet acted as a promotional tool for their campaign.