2.2.7: 1585 - 1725 - Working conditions

More and more people were employed in the book trade due to the enormous expansion of printing, publishing and bookselling since the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time, specialisation increased: the type foundry became an independent business, the trade in paper separated from the book trade, some printers only worked to order and more and more publisher-booksellers focused on specific market segments. Little is known, however, of the conditions under which the work was undertaken in these various branches of the business.

Most companies were small businesses in which the whole family found employment. This applied primarily to the sons who usually pursued the same trade as their father and in that way became familiar with business operations. Wives and daughters also helped, especially in the bookshops where they assisted customers and saw to the administration. If they had any staff at all in these small family businesses, it did not amount to more than a servant and one or two apprentices.

More staff was, of course, employed in the larger companies. Under the supervision of the owner, the masterprinter or bookseller, the supervisor or foreman, various labourers and apprentices worked, all having different duties. Workers (day labourers) were employed when necessary. A clear difference in status existed in the printing house between the compositors, who were better educated, and the printers. Correctors were not usually among the permanent staff of a printing office.

A few facts are known about the working hours and wages of personnel from surviving employment contracts. Working days were long (except Sundays and holidays), from 5 am in the summer and 6 am in winter to 8 pm with a few short breaks. Wages were not higher than of those working in other crafts. A printer's assistant in a printing house in the west of the country earned 6 to 7 guilders (about € 3.-) a week, that is if he was not paid on a piecework basis; wages were lower elsewhere. The apprentices received considerably less, depending on their ages from six stivers (about € 0.14) a week in the first year to 2 to 3 guilders (about € 1.-) in the last year of their apprenticeship. An annual bonus from some employers was a pair of new shoes; at the end of the apprenticeship perhaps a new hat. It was not unusual, however, for apprentices, or rather their parents, to contribute money especially when they enjoyed board and lodgings with their employer. Their work consisted, in addition to composition, printing or bookbinding, of running errands, delivering orders and looking after the shop.

Due to the poor working conditions and low wages, arguments often developed between employer and employees or among the staff. As a result, personnel turnover was high. On the other hand, personnel was sometimes poached by competitors in spite of the provisions of the guild regulations. Such mobility seems to have been fairly localised; there are no indications of a migrating workforce as was usual in the early years of printing. Only an occasional trace has been found of the existence in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic of a chapel, the kind of personnel association found in, for example, the Plantin-Moretus firm in Antwerp.

author: P.G. Hoftijzer

Working conditions