Bookselling History

The Stationarii

Since starting my research about early BC booksellers, I’ve been curious about why they were so often called stationers.

True, most bookstores of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sold stationery products in addition to books (as they do today). But it turns out that their proprietors’ common title of “stationer” had a lot more to do with the historical origins of bookselling than with their inventory.

“In the Middle Ages, booksellers in Rome were called stationarii.”

In the Middle Ages, booksellers in Rome were called stationarii, “either from the practice of stationing themselves at booths or stalls in the streets (in contradistinction to the itinerant vendors) or from the other meaning of the Latin term statio, [meaning] entrepôt or depository…The term stationer soon became synonymous with bookseller.” (1)

Illustration from Frank A. Mumby, The Romance of Bookselling, p. 12.

It is easy to romanticize these stationarii at their stalls, disseminating learning and ideas to a literate Roman public. However, the Middle Ages book trade evolved from a less-than-wonderful method of making books that were both plentiful and cheap.

Centuries earlier, in the time of the emperor Augustus (d. AD 14), “every respectable house possessed a library, and among the better classes, the slave-readers (anagnostœ) and the slave-transcribers (librarii) were almost as indispensable as cooks and scullions.” (2)

Initially, “these slaves were employed in making copies of celebrated books for their masters; but gradually the natural division of labour produced a separate class of publishers.”

The first of these was a man named Atticus, who “saw an opening for his energies in the production of copies of favourite authors upon a large scale. He employed a number of slaves to copy from dictation simultaneously, and was thus able to multiply books as quickly as they were demanded.”

By the time of the stationarii in about the thirteenth century, monks and university-trained copyists had largely replaced slaves as the main source of transcription labour. And two centuries later, the printing press would, when it came to book reproduction, displace the human hand for good.


(1) Henry Curwen, A History of Booksellers, the Old and the New (London: Chatto and Windus, 1873), 13-14.

(2) This and the next two quotes are from Curwen, 10-11.

Books for Sale · Victoria

At the Bookstore, 1888: Zola’s La Terre

One of the books for sale at BC bookstores in 1888 caused a great deal of hand-wringing and finger-wagging among members of the book trade—and, no doubt, a large number of discrete purchases by curious and more adventurous readers.

The book was Émile Zola’s The Soil, the English translation of his La Terre, first published in France by Charpentier in 1887.

The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards (I’ve just finished it and was quite moved by it…more on that in a moment), caused quite a sensation on its initial publication in Europe.

The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards, caused quite a sensation.

In anticipation of an English translation coming to the shores of British Columbia, the Daily Colonist asked in October 1887 if such a book indicated an undesirable change in literary tendencies.

“Zola’s work will, of course, be translated for perusal in this country…it will be read all the more eagerly as it is declared to contain matter which…is unfit for publication,” the newspaper predicted. “In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order; they expect a lively demand for ‘La Terre.’ The question arises whether our taste is drifting into the direction of impropriety.”

A book’s suitability to be read at girls’ boarding schools seemed to be the Daily Colonist‘s standard for respectable literature.

“In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order.” [Daily Colonist, October 15, 1887]

In 1888, the London publisher Vizetelly & Co. released the English translation of Zola’s novel as The Soil, and soon Canadian and American book industry publications came out against the book’s importation. “It would appear that ‘La Terre’ is even more nasty than Zola’s other novels, although that was needless,” sniffed Books and Notions in Toronto in December 1888.

Title page of Zola’s controversial novel in its English translation (Internet Archive,

Noting that Vizetelly had been fined $500 for publishing the translation and that the New York Post Office and US Customs authorities had refused it admission to the US, the Books and Notions article concluded, “We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?”

“We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?” [Books and Notions, December 1888]

In the following months, the publication provided an update that Vizetelly had been imprisoned for publishing Zola’s novel and that Canadian Customs officials had seized a shipment of Zola’s works bound for a Hamilton bookseller.

Meanwhile, at least one Victoria bookseller, Robert Jamieson, stocked the novel, and in fact highlighted its controversial nature in his promotions.

Victoria bookseller Robert Jamieson’s ad for La Terre in the Daily Colonist, March 29, 1888

“Public curiosity alone will give it an immense number of readers in this country,” the Jamieson ad declared.

The ad went on to praise the novel and its author. “It is certainly a great novel, powerful in the highest degree, and absorbingly interesting. Zola may well be proud of his latest production, for it is the crowning triumph of his literary career.”

I have just finished the 1888 translation published by Vizetelly, and was gobsmacked. Where has Zola been hiding on me all this time?

It turns out that La Terre is the fifteenth novel in a twenty-book series set during the Second French Empire (1852-70). La Terre takes place in rural France, and its characters are mainly farming peasants whose lives feature endless drudgery just to get enough to eat and to clothe and shelter themselves.

“Whole years were necessary for the accomplishment of any really perceptible change in that weary, dull life of work and toil, which began afresh with every returning day,” one passage reads.

Most of the characters are completely miserable, and there are, indeed, several difficult scenes of physical and sexual violence, particularly against women and the aged. But there’s a raw realness to the story that drove me through page after page.

Perhaps it was the glimpse into these peasants’ impossible and violent lives that made the book so objectionable to the establishment of the day.

In 1894, Publisher’s Weekly reported that US Customs authorities in New York had decided to admit La Terre into the state at last, “though the book in question is one that must be handled with care, if it be not avoided altogether.”


Books for Sale · New Westminster · Victoria

At the Bookstore, 1861: Chambers’s Information for the People

(British Columbian, February 21, 1861)

Chambers’s Information for the People, one of the volume sets featured in an 1861 ad for Seth Tilley’s Colonial Book Store in New Westminster, offered everything “that is requisite for a generally well-informed man in the less highly educated portions of society”—or so claimed the book’s preface.

“Designed in an especial manner for the People, though adapted for all classes,” the preface continued, “the work will be found to comprise those subjects on which information is of the most importance … The ruling object, indeed, has been to afford the means of self-education, and to introduce into the mind, thus liberated and expanded, a craving after still further advancement.”

Astronomy, geology, meterology, geography, botany, zoology, natural philosophy, mechanics, optics, acoustics, electricity, chronology, chemistry, textile manufacturing, mining, metals, the steam engine, engineering, architecture, agriculture, animal husbandry, health, food preparation, and more: all these were covered in volume 1 alone, which ran to a hefty 824 pages:

(Source: Hathi Trust.)

Volume 2 packed a similar wallop, covering topics such as history, language, society, military and naval organization, countries, the human mind, phrenology, logic, theology and major religions, morality, political economy, commerce, education, social statistics, grammar, mathematics, drawing, gymnastics, indoor amusements, rhetoric, printing, engraving, and household hints.

The regularly updated reference work was edited by brothers William and Robert Chambers and was targeted at the working and trade classes. It played a role in the increasing influence of science and philosophical thought as a challenge to religion. To put the 1860 edition shown above in context: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published only one year before, in 1859.