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Iceland Moss and Charles Dickens


Thanks to bibliophile George Arents, the Rare Book Division's holdings include an extensive collection of nineteenth century books in parts, and they are fascinating artifacts of their time. Little did I know, however, that I'd learn about a healthful and tasty lichen drink while reading one.

Sarah Augusta Dickson, the first curator of the George Arents Collection, defined this particular form of serial fiction as "published piecemeal over a period of time, each unit having its separate cover, usually paper or boards, and in many cases with the title-page and other preliminary matter for the volume or volumes at the end of the last part." A nineteenth century reader of books in parts would purchase a new part in the series perhaps once a month, and at the novel's end would be able to take the entire stack of parts, with their inserted supplemental pages like illustrative plates and title page, to be bound together into a standalone novel.

Dickens famously published his work in parts, and recently I had the opportunity to study Our Mutual Friend (pictured above), published in monthly installments from May 1864 to November 1865. It's often the pages found at the beginning and end of each part that are most interesting to readers and scholars. These pages include ads for household products, fashion, foods, remedies, and other books promoted by the publisher. And the advertisement that caught my eye in Our Mutual Friend was this one, for Fry's Iceland Moss Cocoa.

A lichen, Iceland moss was once commonly used to treat pulmonary difficulties, inflammation, and digestive ailments. It was usually prepared by boiling and steeping before drinking, and chocolate and sugar were popular additions to the mixture to make it taste better. Today, you might find it in toothpaste, as a baking ingredient in a dried and ground version, and — just as in Dickens's time — in hot drinks made to treat colds and coughs. This particular advertisement appears only once in our series, in part one, although other Fry & Sons advertisements appear later, promoting other cocoa concoctions.

If you want to learn more about the world of Our Mutual Friend, I recommend visiting the University of Santa Cruz's Dickens Project, where you'll find information and images covering nineteenth century London, Dickens as a writer, the advertisements like the one above, illustrations of the novel, and more.


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