"A Preliminary Word" (Saturday, 30 March 1850)

We aspire to live in the Household affections, and to be numbered among the Household thoughts, of our readers. We hope to be the comrade and friend of many thousands of people, of both sexes, and of all ages and conditions, on whose faces we may never look. We seek to bring to innumerable homes, from the stirring world around us, the knowledge of many social wonders, good and evil, that are not calculated to render any of us less ardently persevering in ourselves, less faithful in the progress of mankind, less thankful for the privilege of living in this summer-dawn of time.--Charles Dickens, "A Preliminary Word," Household Words, No. 1, Page 1.

The title page of the first issue of Household Words, published on Wednesday 27 March 1850, but dated Saturday 30 March 1850. Source: Internet Archive.

Dickens the Journalist

Although novelist Charles Dickens regularly contributed to such periodicals as The Examiner and The Daily News, much of his journalistic writing first appeared in the organs he himself established, Household Words (1850-59) and All the Year Round (1859-70). For two years early in his career as a professional writer, Dickens had served as the editor of publisher Richard Bentley's weekly magazine Bentley's Miscellany, in which Dickens published stories, poems, sketches, and a complete novel, Oliver Twist (24 instalments, February 1837 through April 1839). However, he enjoyed the greatest freedom as editor and writer with the two later magazines.

He didn't have to report the day's news, or discuss the week's unless something happened on which he wanted to comment. But he enjoyed the outlet for his overflowing feelings, and he wrote such bright journalistic prose that his readers enjoyed them too. [Fido 29]

The Diverse Nature of the Contents: Information, Entertainment, and Instruction — All with a Social Edge

Household Words betrays itself as a Shakespearean allusion in its full title: "Familiar in their mouths as Household Words" (Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii, line, 52 — in the young monarch's famous "Saint Crispin's day" speech). Charles Dickens and his London publishers, Bradbury and Evans, founded ÊHousehold Words as a weekly magazine with the purpose "to show to all, that in all familiar things, even those which are repellant on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out" ("Preliminary Word" 1). It provided each week three distinctly different kinds of articles: "Material of social import, informational articles, and material for entertainment" (Lohrli 4). although Household Words pilloried the goverment for its corrupt and incompetent handling of the Crimean War; championed the cause of health, sanitation, and clean water; and agitated for a national and truly accessible system of public education,

None of the abuses decried in Household Words, none of the reforms advocated, none of the conditions criticized, were first brought to public attention by Household Words; but the popular — "readable" — discussion of these matters in Dickens's widely read periodical brought them attention that their sober presentation in specialized journals and in upper- class journals did not give them. [Lohrli 5]

Despite the fact that it was always dated on Saturday, it was actually published every Wednesday from 27 March 1850 to 28 May 1859 at the offices at No. 16 Wellington Street North, Strand (Covent Garden), each number costing a mere tuppence, thereby ensuring a wide readership. Theoretically, it championed the cause of the poor and working classes, but in fact addressed itself almost exclusively to the burgeoning middle class. Only the name of Charles Dickens, the journal's "conductor," appeared; articles were unsigned (although authors of serialised novels were identified) and, in spite of its regularly featuring an "advertiser," unillustrated.

During its first years the magazine did valuable work in the cause of sanitary reform (especially London's water supply and sewerage system), than a topical issue and provided information about emigration to Australia. [Bentley et al, 124]

Typically, each issue or number offered readers six to ten items, was printed in double columns, and was twenty-four pages or 22,000 words in length. When the second instalment of his article on the lost Franklin expedition appeared on 9 December 1854, for example, Household Words for that week also contained "Madame Busque's" by George A. Sala, "The Saucy Arethusa" by Grenville Murray, Chapters 29 and 30 of Gaskell's North and South, and "The Great Red Book," also by Sala. "Poems, for edification and for pleasure, appeared more frequently in earlier volumes than in later ones" (Lohrli 18).

The style of the articles, whether verse, non-fiction, or fiction, was decidely rhetorical and fanciful. Inspired by (or perhaps consciously emulating) Dickens, contributors used figure rather than journalistic language, employing frequently such devices as personification, contrived conversation, exaggeration, and distortion. Even reportage and social commentary utilized "fantasy, vision, fable, imaginary travels, . . . and the use of fictitious characters to serve as mouthpieces of information and opinion" (Lohrli 9).

Although the lead item might be an article dealing with an issue of social import, the instalments of both Hard Times and The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices always led off the issues in which they appeared. although serialising his own novels had not originally figured in Dickens's plans for Household Words, which he primarily intended to be a vehicle for topical journalism, essays, short fiction, and occasional poetry, in 1853 he determined to run Hard Times for These Times (1 April through 12 August 1854) in order to bolster the sagging circulation and ensure his income as writer, editor, and publisher should not be jeopardized, for as the founder and conductor he received both a salary and a share of the profits. He found the experience of writing for weekly serialisation, however, quite wearing, and determined not to engage in the practice again — and, in fact, he did not until the launching of his new weekly, All the Year Round in 1859.

The Contributors: "Some Three Hundred Ninety Writers" (Lohrli 24)

Thanks to the painstaking sleuthing of Anne Lohrli through the record of payments to contributors in the office book kept by subeditor William Henry Wills, we know precisely who wrote what over the journal's nine-year existence — and how much or little each was paid:

Taken as a whole, the Household Words were a diverse group. They included an occasional poet and novelist whose works are still acclaimed — and persons so obscure that their names appear in no biographical compilation. They included writers old and young — from veteran survivors of the Romantic Age to writers who lived well into the twentieth century. They included people of all social classes — from the factory worker to the gentleman, from the self-taught to the master of arts and the honorary doctor of laws. They included men of various professions — barristers and divines, medical men and naturalists, soldiers and sailors. They included people from most parts of the British Isles and from various parts of the Empire — India, Ceylon, Australasia, as well as an pccassional foreigner — American, German, Belgian, Italian, Polish, Hungarian. They included, incidentally some ninety women contributors" [Lohrli 24]

— although, unfortunately, the leading female writer of the age, George Eliot, declined Dickens's invitations to contribute because she was daunted by the prospect of weekly serialisation. Noted contributors included Dickens's deputy-editor, W. H. Wills, and members of the "stable" of writers Dickens patronized, encouraged, exhorted and criticized: Dickens's close friends Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Noon Talfourd, Chancy Hare Townshend, John Forster, and Wilkie Collins; two colonial journalists, John Capper and John Lang; occasional contributors of fiction, including Charles Whitehead, Henry Spicer, and Thomas Wilkinson Speight; then-popular poets Edwin Arnold, Coventry Patmore, Mary Howitt, Dora Greenell, William Cox Bennett, John Critchley Prince, Thomas Miller, Mary Jane Tomkins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Adelaide Anne Procter (whose pseudonym for submissions to the magazine, "Mary Berwick," Dickens failed to penetrate); four journalists who had been associates of Dickens at the Daily News: Dudley Costello, Frederick Knight Hunt, Sidney Laman Blanchard, and William Blanchard Jerrold; Grenville Murray, Harriet Martineau, the Rev. James White, John Forster, George Meredith, Percy Fitzgerald, Leigh Hunt, Caroline Chisholm, Sheridan Le Fanu, R. H. Horne, Charles Reade, T. A. Trollope, Henry Morley, H. A. Sala, James Payn, Edmund Yates, Walter Thornbury, John Hollingshead, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Charles Lever, Eliza Lynn Linton; and letter-writers who did not contribute directly, but whose correspondence to friends and relatives back in Britain arrived at 16 Wellington Street North "through one means or another" (Lohrli 33).

Of the established group of writers who contributed mainly non-fiction prose, some wrote on subjects on which they were well informed by reason of their background, as Capper on Ceylon and India, Lang on India, Wreford on Italy. Some wrote on subjects related to their experience and professional training: Costello had been in the army, Hannay in the navy; Hunt and Morley were both licensed medical men; Morley, in addition, had been a schoolmaster, and became, in 1857, a King's College lecturer in English language and literature. On subjects of their special knowledge, these writers, and others of comparable background or experience, wrote with some authority. [Lohrli 30]

The regulars who contributed the preponderance of articles numbered thirty-five. Paul Schlicke gives the number of regular contributors as exceeding 380, and estimates the weekly magazine's normal weekly circulation as 38,500, although its initial numbers sold over 100,000 copies and the Extra Christmas Numbers over 80,000. With a fifty-per cent share to protect (his publishers had only a twenty-five per cent interest) Dickens insisted that all contributions conform to his strict standards for "family reading," since the journal would publish only wholesome fiction and journalism.Ê He received payment as a contributor, plus a £500 annual salary for his work as editor-in-chief. Dickens took his role as conductor seriously, carefully vetting every contribution for accuracy, style, readability, and consistency. "Editorial revision was extensive — and drastic. Dickens sometimes rewrote articles and stories almost entirely" (Lohrli 15).

Dickens's own contributions to Household Words were both plentiful and significant: in addition to providing the magazine with weekly instalments of Hard Times, in its pages he published both A Child's History of England (1851) and The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (1857) serially, and contributed in his own right 108 essays and articles (as well as collaborating on a further 45). Over a quarter of the pieces in Household Words were written by Dickens's regular editorial staff of five (Dickens, Collins, Wills, Horne, and Morley), who thought themselves well remunerated at £5 per week. Another thirty writers over the decade of its existence provided the magazine with between twenty and 140 pieces each; some 200 writers each contributed just a single piece. "The stated rate of payment for prose contributions was a guinea for a two-column page" (Lohrli 21), verse being remunerated at about twice that rate. As self-appointed guardian of the Household Words purse, however, Wills paid somewhat less than the going rate for at least eighty prose contributions.

Advertisements and announcements published in Household Words followed the last item in a number. They concerned the two supplementary publications (the Household Narrative of Current Events and the Household Words Almanac), the availability of Household Words in monthly parts and in bound volumes, the extra Christmas numbers, forthcoming serials, the publication in book form of three Household Words serials (A Child's History of England, Hard Times, and The Dead Secret, and Dickens's public readings. [Lohrli 19]

Among the decade's major novelists, aside from Dickens himself and Wilkie Collins (whose A Rogue's Life and The Dead Secret ran in 1856 and 1857 respectively in the magazine), only Elizabeth Gaskell published novels in serial instalments in Household Words: Lizzie Leigh (three parts, March 30, 8 and 15 April 1850), Cranford (13 December 1851 through 21 May 1853), North and South (2 September 1854 through 27 January 1855), and My Lady Ludlow (19 June through 25 September 1858). The Christmas Stories, in fact "framed-tale" novellas (to three of which Gaskell contributed), became a regular feature in the "extra-double" numbers that Dickens produced in conjunction with other staff writers for the holiday season: The Seven Poor Travellers (1854), The Holly-Tree (1855), The Wreck of the Golden Mary (1856), The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (1857), and A House To Let (1858).

Wrapping Up Household Words

The end of Household Words reveals several interesting facets of Dickens's personality. After he separated from his wife of three decades, Catherine, in May 1858, there began to circulate rumour of adultery, which Dickens attempted to quash by offering a full-page defence in the 12 June 1858 issue. However, when his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, refused to republish the same notice in their other highly successful journal, Punch, Dickens offered to buy out (or to find a buyer for) their one-quarter share. They countered that they and not Dickens controlled the trade name of Household Words, but in a suit in the Court of Chancery Dickens won the day; he swiftly wound up the magazine's affairs, incorporating it into his new weekly, All the Year Round. When his eldest son married Evans's daughter, Dickens, doubtless still smarting from his supposed ill-treatment, refused to attend the wedding!

Related Material


Bentley, Nicholas; Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1990.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark and Facts On File, 1999.

Fido, Martin. The World of Charles Dickens. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1997.

[Illustration source] Household Words: I. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1850. Internet Archive. Contributed by Dickens Journals Online (DJO), University of Buckingham Collection. Web. 27 March 2017.

Lohrli, Anne. Household Words: A Weekly Journal 1850-1859 Conducted by Charles Dickens — Table of Contents, List of Contributors and Their Contributions Based on The Household Words Office Book in the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists, Princeton University Library. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Schlicke, Paul. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1999.

Illustration added 27 March 2017