3.0: 1725 - 1830 - Introduction

The period 1725-1830 belongs to the typographical 'ancien régime': the great technical improvements in printing were only to take place during the nineteenth century. In spite of this, major developments took place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the world of the printed word. The Enlightenment ideal of the dissemination of knowledge and civilisation entailed the use of printed matter on a hitherto unknown scale to make new insights public, to transfer knowledge, to propagate ideas and to promote discussion. The initial contours were beginning to show of a national communications society even if, in fact, as yet only a small minority of the population took part. In addition, the forming of public cultural opinion was first given continuity through the popularity enjoyed by the journal. (The newspapers of that time limited themselves almost exclusively to political news.) Scholarly journals had already appeared in the seventeenth-century Republic, but were intended for the international 'Republic of Scholars' and therefore in French. In 1692, however, Petrus Rabus had created a medium with his popularising Boekzaal der geleerde wereld which informed not only scholars but also a wider interested public of developments in the sciences, arts and literature. This formula of a general cultural journal with articles and book reviews (usually more like abstracts than actual reviews) was, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, to be exceptionally popular in all kinds of variations. Besides, periodicals which were more specialised or aimed at a specific target group attempted to make their mark, but the fact that most of them quickly gave up, indicates that the market for this sort of material was still limited. In the meantime, Justus van Effen had introduced another type of journal with his agreeably constructed Hollandsche spectator (1731-1735), in which not intellectual information, but moral and social education was addressed. He, too, had many imitators.

The same process of differentiation, in which a preference for information and education was also apparent, characterises a major part of eighteenth-century book production. Popularised science, history, travelogues, collections of enlightened sermons, moral novels and, not to be forgotten, children's books were new genres which seemed to be popular and which, in turn, were given much attention in the book reviews. This led to the supposition of a 'reading revolution' where the emancipated middle classes emerged as the reading public alongside traditional readers of the social and intellectual elite. This representation probably underestimates the size of the traditional reading public and overestimates that of the circle of new readers. That reading increased in importance for the lower social levels, however, may be derived from the growing production of other types of reading material which were much cheaper and had a particularly practical function such as elementary textbooks for all kinds of traditional crafts, common or garden books, cheap almanacs, etc. Also, the Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen (Society for public welfare), established in 1784 for the purpose of integrating the 'common people' into civilised society, took advantage of the appetite for reading among its target group with the distribution of instructive and moralising reading material. The Society also had a major part to play in the Education Act of 1806 which regulated proper elementary schooling for all, including the poor.

The growing importance of the consumption of reading material in a gradually widening circle cannot be disassociated from those processes occurring at the same time as specialisation, rationalisation and innovation in the production and distribution of the book. The combination of bookseller-publisher was still usual throughout the whole period but in general, the focus came gradually to rest on one of the activities. A beginning was also to be seen of a separation between dealers in new and antiquarian books. Exchange decreased in importance in business transactions and commission trading took its place. The intensification of interurban connections led to the creation of a network of main urban correspondents. All this led to a larger and more up to date range in the bookshops, even in the provincial towns. Besides this rationalisation, the second half of the eighteenth century showed innovation in the form of two institutes which provided avid readers with much pleasure at a relatively low price: the commercial lending library and the reading society. Both became very popular and the reading societies in particular conquered the countryside where there was a lack of bookshops. Gradually the book - at least particular types of books - moved from being a luxury article to become a consumer item. Symptomatic of this is the increase in the smaller formats octavo and duodecimo and the fact that more and more books, instead of being sold in gatherings, were offered sewn and provided with a simple paper printed cover.

In a market which was becoming busier and busier, it was necessary to attract the attention of the customer which was done mostly by way of advertisements in newspapers. There was also a need within the branch itself for regular and full information on what was being produced and by whom. From 1790 onwards this was provided by a fortnightly List of new books - the first predecessor of the Boekblad.

These developments relate to the so-called 'Dutch book trade'. The high point of the internationally oriented 'French book trade' had been before 1740, although Elie Luzac and Marc-Michel Rey continued the tradition of daring publications for a few decades. This decline is often interpreted as being a result of Dutch lack of attention and complacency but it was, in fact, the result of multiple factors. Firstly, the intellectual climate in France had become more liberal, there was also more competition from towns just outside the French border and, as the international political position of the Republic weakened, the government was more careful about provoking neighbouring countries with unwelcome publications; they were quicker to decide upon prohibition. Finally, French was losing ground outside France to the national languages: internationally rising nationalism was competing with the cultural orientation of the elite which had traditionally been focused on France. (The Revolutionary Batavian regime decreed an official spelling regulation for the Dutch language, partly to take the wind out of the sails of French which had been standardised for more than a century. This was accepted in 1804 and brought an end to the orthographic diversity which had existed up until that point).

The question may be asked whether the modernisation of the book trade described above coincided with an economic prosperity in the branch. There are indications that the book trade declined in the third quarter of the eighteenth century when the national economy stagnated. Commercial inventiveness may have been partially brought about due to economic necessity. The enormous amounts of controversial printed matter from the turbulent revolutionary years and, later, the flood of official publications from the Batavian era will have meant a profit for the printers and booksellers involved, but will not have done the book trade as a whole any good. The years 1810-1813, when the country was annexed to France, were absolutely ruinous. In accordance with the French system, the whole book trade was brought under the control of the authorities. For every publication prior approval had to be obtained which involved long bureaucratic procedures irrespective of the outcome.

A period of slow recovery started after 1813. Preventive censorship was immediately abolished again by Royal Decree but, just as in the old Republic, an offensive work could be prohibited later and its publisher punished. Less popular was the final abolition of the guilds in 1815: many feared unfair competition from unscrupulous newcomers, a fear which was possibly heightened by the union which had now come about with the Southern Netherlands. This led to the first national branch organisation, the Vereeniging ter Bevordering van de Belangen des Boekhandels (Association for the Promotion of the Interests of the Book Trade).

An author was still not legally protected in the new legislation: when, in 1817, copyright was regulated by law, it remained in the hands of the publisher.

author: J.J. Kloek