Nowadays many of us take for granted how easy it is to get a book — we head to the local library, hop on the subway to go to our favorite store, open up a browser to order something online, and in a matter of hours or a few days we have a new book in our hands. Most of us probably don’t spend too much time wondering how the books got to the store or library in the first place.
Back before the invention of modern transportation, getting books from one place to another was an intensive process that could take months of negotiations with local authorities and businesses. Rough terrain slowed down shipments, licensing and copyright laws limited what books could be sold where, and religious and secular disputes over the content of the books further complicated matters. Enter the colporteurs — itinerant book-peddlers traveling from village to village.
The Grolier Club has in its collection Anne Claude de Caylus’s Mémoires de l’Académie des colporteurs, a description of colporteurs written as a parody of the French Academy’s annual reports. The frontispiece, by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, illustrates a colporteur hawking his wares on the street:
While colporteurs could be found all over Europe and the United States, the term itself is derived from the French comporter, “to peddle” and col, “neck” — colporteurs who traveled by foot often carried their wares on their backs. They played a particularly important role in pre-Revolutionary France, where the heavy regulation of books — who could print them, who could sell them, what they could be about — led to a thriving smuggling operation along the borders of the country. Publishing houses such as the Société typographique de Neuchâtel established extensive networks across the French/Swiss border to facilitate the importing of forbidden books, in some cases relying on colporteurs who traveled at night over dangerous mountain paths to avoid customs agents and border patrols on the roads. The porters would deposit the books in warehouses, where they could then be sent out to the rest of France as domestic shipments.
The French government tried to regulate the colportage profession, of course; A 1723 royal edict, for example, required that they be literate, that they register with the local authorities, and that they carry an identifying plaque. Not surprisingly, a number of colporteurs did not bother with these rules, and were content to be known as traffickers.
The work could be dangerous, too. In addition to the treacherous conditions they often traveled through, in 1757 a royal edict mandated the death penalty for any colporteur caught distributing banned or otherwise illegal books, and by 1793 they were being heavily surveilled. Nonetheless, the porters were generally willing to carry all but the most controversial works, deeming the risk worth the rewards — a certain number of livres per hundredweight, plus a free drink (or more, for especially risky trips) before setting off. The wine was non-negotiable.
The numbers of colporteurs in France peaked in 1848, and then began to decline as they were made obsolete by an expanding railway system and the presence of bookstalls at many stations. The concept of taking books to areas under-served by mainstream booksellers lives on, however, in bookmobiles and the Little Free Libraries program.
By Janalyn Martínez
References and Further Reading:
Robert Darnton. A Literary Tour de France. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Robin Myers, Michael Harris, Giles Mandelbrote, eds. Fairs, Markets and the Itinerant Book Trade. New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library, 2007.
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Colporteur” (accessed June 14, 2019) https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colporteur.