Publishers and Historians in around 1900

by Olaf Blaschke

The crucial role of publishers in the advancement of history should be understood in the context of three important tendencies during the nineteenth century: nation-building, the spread of literacy, and professionalization.

Publishers supported the increasingly widespread desire to develop a national identity based on the construction of historical traditions. Both in nation-states and in countries without a unified state but with a strong cultural identity, commercial publishers prepared the ground for the historical master narratives. Louis Hachette in Paris published the first volumes of Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (1837–1867) and others of his works. In Madrid, the Establecimiento tipográfico of Francisco de Paula Mellado issued the most widely read national history of Spain: Modesto Lafuente’s 29-volume Historia general de España (1850–1866). The family link which Thomas Norton Longman established in 1825 between his London company and Thomas Macaulay lasted for over a century. When the 1848 Revolution broke out on the continent, Macaulay’s History of England appeared in five volumes which recounted to the British public that their ancestors had already accomplished a successful revolution. In Italy, a single master narrative on the French or British model was lacking. However, in the 1870s, the publisher Vallardi undertook the enterprise of producing a Storia d’Italia scritta da una società di professori within the framework of a larger project which also included the literary history of the nation.

Liberal German historians, blurring the boundaries between Prussian and German history, cooperated with liberal publishers. In 1824 the publisher Georg Reimer noticed Leopold von Ranke’s writing skills. Many German publishers felt themselves responsible for the creation of a cultural nation as the prerequisite for the national state. Reimer’s son, Karl, and Salomon Hirzel successfully networked with national authors from 1830 onwards. In 1838 Reimer and Hirzel persuaded the Grimm brothers to write their Deutsches Wörterbuch, and in 1849 they talked the inert Theodor Mommsen into writing a Roman history which later won him the Nobel Prize. Ludwig Häusser’s Deutsche Geschichte (1854–1857) and other works of importance for the growing national sentiment were published by them. Hirzel established his own Leipzig company in 1853 and published Johann Gustav Droysen and Treitschke’s eminent Deutsche Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts (1879–1894).

The success of national historiography depended on the progress of literacy. History books were intended for a tiny educated elite, although in the course of time they reached increasing numbers of readers. Whereas in the mid-nineteenth century nearly 50 per cent of Europeans were still illiterate, by 1910 the rate had fallen to less than 10 per cent. However, there were wide variations between societies. Illiteracy in Scandinavia and Germany had nearly disappeared, although this did not necessarily mean that those capable of reading consulted history books; but in Portugal, South Italy and remote parts of France more than 60 per cent of the inhabitants could not read any sort of text, which necessarily meant they could participate indirectly in what was written in newspapers and history books only if someone told them about it.

The professionalization of historiography, with the establishment of academic standards and institutions, was paralleled by a similar process in book publishing, which evolved from a cottage industry to more professional methods for literature production. Publishing companies expanded, they created departments for different branches, and they started to advertise their products in catalogues. Copyrights for authors and international terms of trade were introduced. In 1825, the Börsenverein der Deutschen Buchhändler (Publishers and Book Sellers Association) was founded in Leipzig and still today represents the interests of the three branches of the book business: publishers, booksellers, and the intermediate book trade. Austria followed suit in 1859 with a similar association.

British booksellers gathered together in the Associate Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland (later the Booksellers Association) in 1895, while the Publishers Association was created in 1896. Both organizations drew up the Net Book Agreement, which came into effect in 1900 to guarantee fixed book prices, so that publishers could produce less marketable books (scholarly works, long sellers) and bookshops could maintain stocks of books. In Germany, a similar price agreement had already been established in 1888. Other countries followed, although in some countries prices were never fixed. In the wake of pre-war internationalization important legal standards such as international copyright were unified.

As the professionalization of academic disciplines proceeded and as higher education expanded, the university presses entered the scene of scholarly publishing. Hitherto, publication of the works of amateur historians and a growing number of professional historians had been undertaken by commercial publishers like Hachette in France, Macmillan and Longman in England, and in Germany by Friedrich C. Perthes and Rudolf Oldenbourg, who in 1858 agreed with Heinrich von Sybel to create the Historische Zeitschrift. Other historical journals had existed previously, some of them being founded by a commercial publisher. The Florentine publisher Gian Pietro Vieusseux took the initiative by launching the Archivio Storico Italiano (1842), which still exists today. But the template for the institutionalization of professional historiography was the Historische Zeitschrift. It served as the model for Norton Longman’s British pendant, the English Historical Review, which first appeared in 1886. Besides commercial publishers, also historical institutions and associations brought out periodicals.

But in the late nineteenth century university presses changed from being service-printers for their universities into outright publishing enterprises like Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. New university presses were founded, among them, in 1904, Manchester University Press, launched by the medievalist Th. Frederick Tout, and they became major players in the field of history in the early twentieth century. Cambridge University Press, for example, which relied for its survival on licensing printers to produce the Bible, turned into a publisher in its own name in the 1870s. The oldest printing and publishing house in the world, founded in 1584, it only issued its first catalogue of proprietary works in 1875, one year after the first Secretary of the Syndicate had been appointed with responsibility for supervising the press’s production schedule. Richard T. Wright, the second Secretary (1892–1911), developed Cambridge University Press into one of the major history publishers in Europe, when he, in the name of the Syndics, invited Lord Acton to edit the Cambridge Modern History (1902–1912). He even provided Acton with a full-time paid assistant in order to carry the huge project forward.

Publishers did not merely await unsolicited manuscripts in order to convert them into books. On the contrary, they rejected most of them. They often took the initiative for those that they published, sometimes treating academic authors as the servants of their company. Numerous famous books were commissioned, such as Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte (1852–1856). In 1892, Hachette contracted Ernest Lavisse to write a Histoire de France (18 volumes, 1903–1911). Besides issuing important scholarly monographs and serials, publishers were also involved in projects for the publication of archival resources like the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Hahnsche Buchhandlung, Hannover, since 1826).

The Great War marked a watershed in the production of history books: Germany lost its guiding role in the professionalization of the discipline. The ‘German footnote’, so admired and imitated, suddenly aroused fierce animosity abroad. At the same time, Germany (31,281 titles in 1910, followed by Russia with 29,057, the USA with 13,470, and France with 12,615) lost its world primacy in the production of new book titles, although it recovered it in the 1920s. Despite severe economic problems in Europe, the production of history books (about 5 per cent of all new books) and demand for them on the market expanded during the inter-war period. Again, historiography and the publishing industry underwent parallel development.

In countries like France and Germany, where history was polarized, publishers took sides with certain positions. Lay republican historians and editors stood against Catholic agents. Innovative historians solidarized with progressive publishers against the orthodoxy. Conservative historiography was challenged by left-wing historians who chose or were chosen by leftist publishing houses. Even in liberal England, where publishers accepted whatever they found promising, regardless of political preferences, during the 1930s the imprint of Penguin and Gollancz on history books indicated that they were evidently left wing in their leanings.

Blaschke, O. (2010). Publishers and Historians in around 1900. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (pp. 26–27). Palgrave.


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