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DePaul University Special Collections and Archives

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Hogarth and His Works--No. VII.

Cover of The Penny Magazine for October 18, 1834 featuring an illustration captioned, "Hogarth's Perspective."

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Reform-minded members of the English Whig party created the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. Their goal was to extend scientific and other high-minded information to the rapidly expanding reading public.

Technological developments in the printing industry facilitated the diffusion of knowledge. These innovations included steam driven presses and even railway distirbution. The stereotyping process also offered an advantage, enabling printers to cast text and illustration pages for rapid printing.

Members of the Society agreed to avoid controversy, yet they fell into it nonetheless. A progressive cast of actors produced the publications. Their goal to undermine political radicalism through rational information led others to view their efforts as subversive. Some conservatives charged that the SDUK encouraged the masses to rise above their stations. These critics even claimed the SDUK was a danger to society.

The Boa Constrictor

The cover of The Penny Magazine for October 11, 1834 featuring the illustration captioned, "Attack of the Boa Constrictor on a Sleeping Lascar."

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Stratford-on-Avon.

Spread in The Penny Magazine for September 1, 1832 from an article on William Shakespeare called "Stratford-on-Avon."

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The printer and publisher, Charles Knight, produced the Society's most successful publications, including The Penny Magazine. Released between 1832 and 1845, it reached a peak circulation of 200,000 copies per week. Despite these numbers, the publication was not the overwhelming success that some had hoped.
 
Knight sought to create an engaging and heavily illustrated miscellany that appealed to all. Yet, some members of his intended working class audience considered these efforts dry. Certainly, the inclusion of didactic messages to avoid drunkenness and other vulgar behaviors may have sounded preachy. The Society dissolved in 1848.
Responsibility of Drunkards.

Ever mindful of the place of temperance in self-education, The Penny Magazine often inserted such paragraphs as this one from page 104 for June 9, 1832.

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Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge