| The appeal of the early annuals was in owning and appreciating the beauty of the steel engravings. In many cases, editors commissioned poems and stories to accompany and explain the engravings. The Index data reveals 1,831 engravings were matched by textual commentary in eleven literary annual series, and 194 instances in three juvenile annual series. Readers paid close attention to the engravings and the accompanying poems and prose as evidenced by Charlotte Brontė's critical comments that appear in her juvenile writing (See Engraved Illustrations in Annuals section).
After the mid-1830s, there was a decline in the physical quality of the plates, and the predominant subjects changed from famous paintings by masters and scenes of foreign locations by contemporary artists to idealized portrayals of maidens and portraits of noblewomen. The evolution of the engravings to primarily feminine subjects is paralleled by the change in the bindings of the annuals.
Many innovations in book binding technology were developed and tested on the literary annuals. Early volumes had colored and glazed paperboards printed with decorative titles and designs with slipcases of the same design. In 1828, The Amulet appeared in green silk, and The Keepsake appeared in a red watered silk, suggestive of women's dress material, giving the books a feminine as well as an expensive look (Ledbetter 97). Robert Southey wrote in a letter to his daughter, "Heath has sold 15,000 copies of The Keepsake last year, and has bespoken 4,000 yards of red watered silk, at three shillings a yard, for binding the next volume" (Watts 269). That same year Friendship's Offering appeared in an embossed leather binding. Although this was not the first book to have an embossed leather trade binding, it was the first annual to do so and was an immediate success (Faxon 9). The following year, The Keepsake was issued in an optional large-paper edition in gilt-tooled leather. The print face remained the same size, but all paper margins were widened in the large-paper format. Embossed bindings were usually executed in arabesque, floral or pictorial designs with elaborate, repetitive framing (Jamieson 10). Figure 2-1 shows several annuals.
The earliest annuals, Forget-Me-Not (1823) and Friendship's Offering (1824), were 5-3/4 in. high by 3-7/8 in. wide and contained about 300 pages. Relatively small and portable, they did not take up much space in the boudoir. When The Keepsake (1828) came out, it was 7-1/2 in. high by 4-3/4 in. and also had about 300 pages. In 1832, Forget-Me-Not and other annuals responded by increasing their sizes to 6-1/2 in. by 4-1/8 in. In 1838, The Keepsake increased page size to 9-1/2 in. by 6-1/2 in. and decreased in length to about 270 pages. This gradual increase in size and ostentation promoted their display as conversation pieces. On the other hand, Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book, always intended for display, contained thirty-six engraved plates in a format of 11 in. high by 8-1/2 in. wide and about 70 pages. These exterior embellishments in the size and bindings of annuals were accompanied by changes in the literary contributors and contents, to reflect the change in reading audience.
The reading public had been expanding with British society, embracing the middle-class, as well as tradesmen, and their families. Trade connections abroad with North America and India formed a ready market for the annuals, and these countries created their own annuals, often drawing heavily on previous literary material published for the British annual readership. Charles Heath, publisher of The Keepsake, initially sought famous authors and offered high prices for their contributions, but he soon found that fashionable people with aristocratic titles had equal attraction for his readers. A further benefit was that they would contribute their work free so as not to appear in trade. The Index reveals that there were 652 items in total from titled contributors, 202 in The Keepsake, and 124 in Heath's Book of Beauty. Later contributions by well-known authors to The Keepsake, were the results of entreaties by the editor, Lady Blessington. Anthony Dyson says: "One element in the evolution of English society during the nineteenth century was the impulse of the rising middle classes to emulate those they consider their social superiors" (Dyson 4). During the 1830s, "silver fork" novels that described fashionable manners and activities of drawing-room society were popular, and annuals rapidly adopted this interest. Middle-class families emulated imagined upper-class conventions and conversation by displaying an annual on their parlor table or boudoir. This social aspect underlines the importance of women as a target market for the annuals.