In the Public Eye: A History of Reading in Modern France, 1800-1940

In the Public Eye: A History of Reading in Modern France, 1800-1940

by James Smith Allen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691604190
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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In the Public Eye

A History of Reading In Modern France, 1800â?"1940

By James Smith Allen


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03162-0



On March 19, 1863, a clerk in the Ministry of the Interior recorded a remarkable number in French history. Charged with keeping a register of all publications printed in Paris, he dutifully copied the legal declaration provided by a shop contracted to print military passes: "in-8 [format], 1 [volume], 1 [sheet], 10,000,000 [copies]." Rarely in the nineteenth century did this bureau ever record more than 100,000 copies for any printing job; the annual average ranged from a low of 880 in 1814 to a high of 6,800 in 1878 (see Table A. 1). Could this recording have been a mistake? In a hurry or bored by the tedium of his job, the clerk may have misread or miscopied the actual figure. But sixteen days later, on April 4, a different hand registered a similar declaration. Another clerk also noted 10,000,000 copies of a receipt form printed for Parisian coachdrivers. The likelihood of two such large recording mistakes within a three-week period, by two different hands in the same office, seems remote. It could well be that both of them are correct. If so, two Parisian printers in 1863 stated their intentions to produce what amounts to more than twelve copies of printed text for every man, woman, and child in France's largest city.

Although the figure of 10,000,000 falls far short of cumulative production levels in France today, it does represent an important historical trend. This declaration shared in the irregular but rapid growth in print from the First to the Second Empire that then leveled off until the outbreak of World War II. The number of books registered in annual editions of the Bibliographie de la France, the most important public catalog of new books, rose from less than 3,000 in 1814 to more than 13,800 in 1866; the latter figure, however, was exceeded only five times in the next 73 years (see Table 1.1). Similarly, the cost of printed material dropped to a new low. The price of daily newspapers, for instance, declined from a standard annual subscription of eighty francs during the Restoration to only five centimes per issue during the Second Empire; by the start of the Third Republic the price of print stopped falling. Thereafter the industrial infrastructure remained largely unchanged for seventy years. Renewed growth would have to wait until the "livre de poche revolution" in a more consumer-oriented industry after 1950. In the interim, the uneven market for printed matter would diversify to accommodate the new reading habits of an increasingly literate urban population in France. This, then, was the complex historical development suggested by the printers' declarations recorded by the Interior Ministry's clerks in 1863.

Though apparently unrelated to interpretive practices during the Second Empire, these figures do pertain to the history of reading. French publishing clearly responded to the demands generated by the market for print. How much and what people read eventually had an impact on what printers and publishers together produced for the market. This fact assumes, of course, that the relationship between publishing and reading reflects the close relationship between supply and demand. On the other hand, producers are not necessarily slaves to consumers. The printing and publishing industries themselves had an impact on how much and what people read. The availability of printed matter itself contributes to the nature and extent of the reading experience. New means of production, new modes of distribution, and new patterns of consumption coincided with, responded to, but also influenced the changing readership of France from 1800 to 1940. In this fashion, economic infrastructure was indeed tied to interpretive practice in modern France. For this reason it makes sense to examine the appropriate historical context of the printed word.


By the beginning of the Third Republic, the publication of books and newspapers in France no longer resembled what it had been in the Old Regime. Printed matter had been for centuries a luxury good produced for a limited market. Printers and booksellers acted as their own publishers and sold expensive items primarily to a well-defined clientele living in France's few large cities. The major exception to this rule was an extensive colporter network for chapbooks, almanacs, and devotionals sold in a distinctly rural and plebeian market. Otherwise, the prerevolutionary book trade appealed to a small, literate elite, certainly no more than 5 percent of the approximately 26 million inhabitants of France. And this limited demand was easily met by equipment little changed since the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. Wooden hand presses, simple lead typefaces, rag-based paper, and urine-soaked leather ink balls served the needs of an artisanal craft still largely subject to the restrictions of printers' guilds and the inconsistent censorship of a declining monarchy. The largest publishing venture in the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie, could reach only a very small audience, the traditional mixed elite of the Old Regime, so long as the editors depended on the narrow vision and limited possibilities of a traditional craft.

The Revolution of 1789 marked, among many other things, the origins of modern publishing. The awakened political consciousness of the population encouraged interest in literate skills and created a larger market for printed material. In time a new industry arose. Following the Le Chapelier Law of 1791 breaking up the guilds, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 defined the legal conditions for manufacturing and commerce more conducive to expansion and innovation. Despite the tight administrative restrictions on printing and bookselling in 1810, which lasted until the Third Republic, the production of print underwent substantial changes in the course of the nineteenth century. Above all, printers and booksellers made room for a new figure in the trade, the publisher. Printers concentrated their efforts increasingly on producing, while booksellers focused more on retailing for others. They left for the publisher the responsibility of acquiring marketable manuscripts, collecting the necessary capital, overseeing new books into print, and distributing them to appropriate outlets for sale. This specialization took decades to develop; many publishing firms, like Hachette and Nathan, still retain interests in retail outlets, however secondary they are to their main business of publishing new titles for the market. But earlier in the nineteenth century there appeared a more fully differentiated trade than had ever existed before the Revolution.

In time publishers specialized as well. Early in the nineteenth century, booksellers had already staked claims to certain kinds of books. Barba and Tresse, for instance, were known for their holdings in drama, Ladvocat and Renduel in the romantics, and Levrault and Dupont in textbooks. New publishers soon focused their activities in response to well-defined interests of the booksellers. A hawker of theater programs, Michel Lévy, founded his house on the publication of plays to coincide with their production on the stage. Similarly, the Didot brothers, booksellers and printers since the eighteenth century, concentrated on scholarly and classical texts. Some of the larger provincial publishers, Ardant, Mame, and Pellerin especially, catered to peasant readers who were reached by thousands of itinerant colporters. Others devoted themselves to periodicals; for example, Frangois Buloz began La Revue des deux mondes in 1831, and Henri Rochefort started La Lanterne in 1868. Even greater diversity in publishing would come with further integration in the financial structure of the French economy after the Second Empire. Family firms then began to incorporate, and these new limited-liability companies created their own messageries, or distribution networks.

Besides specializing in the first half of the nineteenth century, the publishing industry developed products appropriate to new market conditions. Instead of expensive multivolume titles in octavo, publishers produced single-volume works in cheaper formats. In 1838, Gervais Charpentier created a minor revolution with a standard eighteenmo edition of new titles costing only 3 francs 50, less than half the price per volume of books published for the lending libraries. His intention was to profit by large runs with lower per unit costs. The price would eventually drop even lower, to one franc, for titles still sold by other publishers for 15 francs or more. A comparable development occurred in the press. In 1836, Émile de Girardin halved the subscription price of La Presse, as Armand Dutacq did for Le Siècle, in order to enlarge circulation and thereby increase the cost-effectiveness of more expensive advertising copy. Promoted still further by the publication of sensational serial novels, this marketing strategy substantially increased the newspaper's revenues from advertisements. Accordingly, Polydore Millaud sold single issues of Le Petit journal for a very small fraction of their actual cost. By the first decade of the Third Republic, publishers issued novels, sold by successive installments of only eight pages, that resembled the daily newspaper in content as well as in format and cost. Some Calmann-Lévy publications even included advertising copy for pharmaceuticals available to the readers taking cures at various health spas.

To meet the larger audience sought by publishers, printers adopted new equipment. Versions of William Nicolson's rotary press, as modified by Frederick Koenig in 1811, rivaled the hand press nearly everywhere in France by mid-century. At first driven by hand and later by steam and electricity, the new presses were successively refined by the addition of multiple drums to expand their capacity dramatically, especially for newspapers in daily editions of 100,000 or more. Although an experienced team of artisans during the Old Regime could print as many as 250 sheets per hour on the old wooden hand presses, the largely unskilled labor of workers before World War I could easily produce more than ten times that rate on the new presses. In turn, smaller printing jobs, like the small first editions of unknown authors, were facilitated considerably by the adaptation of the hand press to new sources of power. The result was the familiar platen press with its large flywheel and rhythmic clanking. In many print shops it is still used for wedding invitations and calling cards.

Mechanized printing affected other important elements in the production process. During the Restoration, printers began using Louis-Etienne Herhan's stereotypes made from lead poured into molds of previously composed type. Once the plates had been cast, they could be used for printing larger runs, usually on the new rotary presses, without damaging the original type that was now freed for other jobs.16 This modification to composing became standard practice until the introduction of linotype in the 1880s and monotype in the 1890s. By 1900, whole pages of type could be composed in a fraction of the time it took a skilled compositor to do by hand. Like the platen press, this equipment remains in use today, despite the development of photomechanical processes and equipment. Due to the increased capacity of printers, however, traditional papermaking posed a serious bottleneck to increased production. Consequently, the manufacture of paper was also mechanized and simplified by the replacement of rags by vegetable and wood pulp after 1850. Paper was manufactured in large drums of continuous rolls for newspaper printing; hence the name "newsprint." Even the industrial production of ink saw changes with the development of chemical "vehicles," such as mineral oils, that reduced drying time and made possible more rapid printing.

Expanding operations complemented the new equipment. Even though the number of printers was limited by law and their activities were tightly controlled until 1881—one regime after another permitted only 80 printers in Paris—some operations developed the labor structure and the economies of scale typical of modern industry. Print shops were among the largest operations in Paris; 84 percent of them employed more than 10 workers, a percentage matched or exceeded by only 11 percent of all industries surveyed in 1848. Seven years later, the median Parisian printer employed between 30 and 40 workers. By 1865, one outfit run by Napoléon Chaix actually maintained a payroll for 400 workers. But labor was cheaper and more docile in the provinces, where publishers increasingly sent their work. Besides using the printers in nearby Saint-Denis, Sceaux, and Sèvres, Parisian houses sometimes turned to others much farther away, such as Berger-Levrault in Nancy and Mame in Tours, once the railroad network lowered significantly the costs of shipping. By the second decade of the Third Republic, even before legal restrictions on printing were lifted, the structure of the printing industry had altered radically to the advantage of non-Parisian printers. From 1869 to 1889, publishing in Paris experienced a serious slowdown, while provincial publication actually increased elevenfold. By 1900, Paris was no longer the center of French printing that it had been for centuries.

Books and newspapers are more easily printed than sold; much of modern publishing's success resulted from special talents and insights in marketing. Michel Lévy, for example, affected the development of the book trade perhaps more than any other individual in French history. Building on his experience of publishing dramas only after they had been successfully staged, Lévy relied heavily on both newspapers and literary reviews to identify authors likely to sell well in book form to different audiences. In this way he managed to expand the number of truly marketable titles; these bestsellers included works by Scribe, Hugo, Sand, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, and Renan. But his most enduring contribution to French publishing, one comparable to the Bibliothèque Charpentier, was his practice of variable pricing. Lévy offered titles to several different publics: expensive, well-crafted books for the lending libraries and the wealthy upper classes; high-quality literature in less expensive formats for a more modest middle-class audience; plays, drama news, and programs for Parisian theatergoers; and popular novels in brochure-sized installments for the growing mass market for sensational fiction. Even though Lévy still focused his efforts on literature, he developed a diverse publishing strategy that made his house among the largest in France. In 1872, Calmann Lévy, Michel's heir, published more than 185 new titles and 845 reissues, totalling 1,724,000 volumes, some of them distributed as premiums by chocolate and drug manufacturers.

The founder of Calmann-Lévy was rivaled by another important publisher, Louis Hachette, whose success was derived from yet another growing market. 26 Hachette was concerned less with literature for different audiences than he was with textbooks and dictionaries for the new educational institutions developing in the nineteenth century. Realizing the significance of the Guizot Law of 1833, this entrepreneur bought Paul Dupont's Bibliothèque de l'enseignement primaire and published the Manuel général, ou Journal de l'instruction primaire. Hachette's specialty in elementary-school books blossomed when his titles were either endorsed or bought in large lots by the Ministry of Public Instruction. This market continued to grow with each attempt to expand formal instruction from the Falloux Law of 1850 to the ministry of Jean Zay in 1936. Joined in this specialty by Delalain, Delagrave, and Larousse, Hachette developed another major interest in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and travel guides; this new investment resulted in the famous compilations by Littre, Vapereau, and Joanne that were consistent with the industry's increasing diversity and scale of operations. In 1854, Hachette received from the Interior Ministry an exclusive authorization to sell his inexpensive, colorfully covered books in designated train stations all over France. Only twenty years after Calmann-Lévy had become a limited-liability corporation in 1898, Hachette made the same transition, but developed additional interests in printing, binding, and distributing. This expansion led eventually to the establishment of the Messageries Hachette, the largest distribution agency in France. By 1932, the markets for both books and newspapers were coordinated under the management of the most important publisher in twentieth-century Europe.


Excerpted from In the Public Eye by James Smith Allen. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • LIST OF TABLES, pg. xi
  • Chapter 1. THE PRINTED WORD, pg. 27
  • Chapter 2. A LITERATE SOCIETY, pg. 55
  • Chapter 3. THE POLITICS OF RECEPTION, pg. 83
  • Chapter 4. CULTURAL MENTALITIES, pg. 111
  • Chapter 5. ARTISTIC IMAGES, pg. 143
  • Chapter 6. IN THE NOVEL, pg. 177
  • Chapter 7. JOURNALS AND MEMOIRS, pg. 199
  • Chapter 9. RESPONSES TO GENRE, pg. 250
  • Chapter 10. READING THE NOVEL, pg. 275
  • CONCLUSION, pg. 303
  • APPENDIX TABLES, pg. 321
  • INDEX, pg. 343

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