Ignace Faivre was the only bookseller in Pontarlier, the first French town across the border with Switzerland and the main hub for shipments that arrived from Neuchâtel. With a population of only 3,300, Pontarlier did not provide much of a market for books. Faivre supported himself in large part by serving as a smuggler and expediter for the STN and other Swiss publishers.
After he arrived in Pontarlier, the first town on the French side of the Swiss-French border, Favarger sent an urgent letter to the home office in Neuchâtel. He had not expected to write so soon after his departure, but while crossing through the border area, he made an important discovery. He stopped off first in the Swiss town of Saint Sulpice in order to discuss business with Meuron frères, a firm of “commissionnaires” or shipping agents often employed by the STN to handle the first leg of its shipments into France. At that time, however, it had shifted most of its business to Jean-François Pion, who ran a rival shipping service from Pontarlier. While talking shop, one of the Meuron brothers mentioned that they had recently transported five 500-pound bales of the octavo edition of the Encyclopédie across the border. That edition, published in Lausanne and Berne, was banned in France, not because the French authorities still considered the text of the book outrageous but because they had been persuaded to protect a competing edition, a quarto published by a consortium that included the powerful Parisian press baron, Charles Joseph Panckoucke, and the STN. The French market was the most important object in a fierce commercial war. How had the octavo publishers managed to get their Encyclopédie across the border?
Favarger tried hard to wring an answer to that question out of Meuron, but all he could get in reply was “Quand nous avons de vrais amis, nous savons aussi dans le besoin leur donner un coup d’épaule.” As soon as he arrived in Pontarlier, Favarger put the same question to Pion’s son, who was tending the shop while his father was on a business trip to Besançon. Young Pion had no direct knowledge, but he had noticed several acquits à caution or customs certificates that had been discharged at Dijon and returned via Pontarlier to the customs station in the border village of Frambourg. Acquits à caution were the key implements used by the French government and the Ferme Générale, a financial corporation that administered France’s customs, to control imports. When a wagon driver appeared at a customs station with a bale of books, the officer from the Ferme issued an acquit à caution, which had to accompany the bale and be discharged by an official in a chambre syndicale or booksellers’ guild in a designated provincial capital after the bale had been inspected. The bale could then be forwarded to its final destination while the wagon driver returned the acquit à caution, with a “certificat de décharge” attached to it, to the customs station where it had been issued.
This procedure may seem to be little more than red tape used by an increasingly bureaucratic French monarchy, but a great deal was at stake in the execution of the formalities. Somehow, Meuron frères had managed to get acquits à caution issued for the illegal shipment of the octavo Encyclopédies, and the octavo publishers had persuaded Jean-Baptiste Capel, a syndic of the Dijon chambre syndicale, to discharge them, thereby opening the way for the volumes to be distributed to the octavo’s subscribers. Favarger pieced this information together; he reported it to the STN; the STN informed Panckoucke; Pancoucke alerted the government agency in charge of the book trade; and soon the shipment was confiscated. It was a crucial victory in the Encyclopédie wars of the 1770s, one worth hundreds of thousands of livres. It also was a (temporary) breakthrough in the system for controlling books, because the chambre syndicale of Dijon had not been authorized to discharge acquits à caution. Capel had done so on the sly, and therefore the STN followed up its victory by contacting him in the hope that “pour de l’argent il nous rendra le même service.”
The Encyclopédie episode illustrates something larger—the frenetic activities of all sorts of middlemen who intervened to get books from one country to another. These passeurs—smugglers and a large assortment of their accomplices—inhabited border zones, which deserve special study, not only for their strategic importance in international trade and politics but also because the people who lived in them are so interesting.
When Favarger passed through Frambourg, the tiny border station between Switzerland and France high up in the Jura Mountains, he entered foreign territory. He became subject to the authority of the king of France, along with codes, customs, and religious practices that made the country alien. Yet it looked the same—granite cliffs above fir-covered slopes and deep, green valleys. The villages also seemed the same—thick-walled houses under steep, shingled roofs strung out along the muddy mountain roads. And the people spoke the same kind of French, slow with a sing-song lilt. Everything was familiarly jurassien, yet everything was different.
Borders are ambiguous, no matter how precise they look on maps. To travelers who cross them, the boundary lines blur, and differences between one country and another shade off into multifarious nuances, geological, political, economic, and cultural. Regimes have often tried to fence themselves off from their neighbors, but their points of entry take the traveler through transitional zones—no man’s land or indeterminate areas, as in the case of international airports, which all look more or less the same, despite the distinctive uniforms of the officials checking passports. Transit zones require a great deal of checking, of goods as well as persons, because border crossings involve a shift from one set of rules to another and a state of suspension exists between them. Most rules can be broken, or at least bent, and therefore border regions favor the development of intermediaries who specialize in negotiating passages. Whether actual “passeurs” or merely guides and money changers, these middlemen constitute a crucial human element in geography.
They proliferated at many points along the Swiss border during the eighteenth century, and their population was especially dense in the Val de Travers (see the maps on this website), where Switzerland shaded off into France. All kinds of goods—not just books, but calicoes, watches, and cheeses—passed through Frambourg on their way to French consumers. When the former head of the French book trade administration, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, toured the borderlands in 1778, he was told that all the local peasants, French and Swiss alike, practiced contraband of some kind. It was relatively easy and inevitable, he concluded, owing to the porousness of the border and the profits to be made, especially in the case of books: “Deux cent exemplaires d’une brochure défendue ne sont pas un gros volume. Il me semble bien aisé de les introduire par toutes les voitures qui traversent le pays avec des marchandises de tout genre” [Malesherbes, Voyages des montagnes neuchâteloises en été 1778 (Geneva, 2011), p. 80].
Books required special attention by the French authorities, because the state, under pressure from the booksellers’ guild in Paris, took various measures to block the importation of pirated as well as prohibited works. In order to favor the Parisian publishers, it even imposed a stiff tariff on all book imports. The rate varied, but in 1772, it came to 28 livres (strictly speaking, a duty of 20 livres plus a surtax of 8 sous per livre) per hundredweight or about 18.5 percent of the value of the merchandise. Smugglers adapted to the book trade just as they had handled calicoes, which were subjected to a prohibitive tariff designed to protect the domestic silk industry. Of course, book smuggling posed an ideological danger, as it had done since the religious wars of the sixteenth century. But it was basically a business, a service supplied to satisfy demand, and it came in many varieties.
At its most professional, smuggling was known as “insurance” (“assurance”; see the essay on Guillon on this website). Entrepreneurs signed contracts with publishers guaranteeing to get shipments across the border for a set fee. They hired teams of porters from the local peasantry to carry packs from towns on the Swiss side of the border to clandestine warehouses on the French side, where shipping agents combined them into large bales and forwarded them to booksellers scattered throughout the kingdom. If the porters were caught by a patrol (“brigade”) of the French Ferme Générale, the books would be confiscated, and the insurer would reimburse the publisher or its client for their wholesale value as set on the bill of lading. The porters would face punishment, which at its severest could include branding with the letters GAL for “galérien” and a sentence of nine years in the galleys of Toulon.
More common forms of smuggling involved techniques of slipping illegal material into shipments sent through normal commercial channels. Publishers shipped books in bundles of loose sheets packed into bales, and the retail bookseller had them bound or, more commonly, left the binding to his customers. When packing the bales, the STN larded sheets of prohibited books into those of legal works, or it hid them in the bottom of the packing, covered with hay. The bale was not normally inspected at the border. When the wagon driver pulled up at a border station (“bureaud’entrée”) such as Frambourg, a customs agent would give him an “acquit à caution”, which was to accompany the bale to a designated “ville d’entrée” such as Lyon, where it would be inspected in the chambre syndicale.
Inspection could amount to little more than glancing at a fewsheets at the top of the bale, especially if the inspector, an officer of the guild, did business with the STN or was susceptible to bribes. (He might be accompanied, however, by a special “inspecteur de la librairie” of the local police.) To prevent foul play en route, the customs agent tied a rope around the bale and secured the rope with lead seals. These functions were executed in various ways at the border crossing of Frambourg. Sometimes the “buraliste” or “receveur” would only issue the acquità caution, and the roping and sealing would be handled by another agent in the nearby town of Pontarlier, where the Ferme Générale also had an office—or the second buraliste would leave this chore to a shipping agent hired by the STN in Pontarlier. The agent, commonly called a “commissionnaire,” played a key role in the process. His charges included a fee, 10 to 30 sols, for “acquit, cordes, et plombs”; and above all he assumed responsibility for the shipment. He usually hired the wagon driver for the next leg of the journey. His name appeared on the bill of lading (“lettre de voiture”), which accompanied the bale, and he was liable for the discharge of the acquitàcaution. When the wagon driver delivered the bale with its seals intact to the chambre syndicale, he would receive the “certificat de décharge,” which he would leave with the shipping agent in Pontarlier or the buraliste in Frambourg on his return trip. Once the discharged acquit was registered by the buraliste, the legal circuit had been completed. But as all the formalities and paperwork implied, a great deal could go wrong. If a duly discharged acquit failed to arrive within the allotted time, the shipping agent would have to pay a stiff fee, sometimes 2,000 livres.
A border crossing of a bale of books was therefore a complicated affair. It could extend in a formal sense from a bureau d’entrée to a ville d’entrée—in the case of shipments from Frambourg to Lyon, a distance of 150 miles—because the bale could not be integrated in the French economy until it had passed inspection in a designated chambre syndicale. (Of the many chambres syndicales in France, only the following could discharge acquits à caution: Paris, Lyon, Rouen, Strasbourg, Nantes, Marseille, Bordeaux, Metz, Reims, Amiens, Lille, and Calais.) Along the way it passed through several hands, and therefore the STN had to mobilize all sorts of middlemen in the border area. They came in many shapes and sizes—insurers, porters, wagon drivers, innkeepers, customs officials, shipping agents, and booksellers.
The porters were the most obscure. They appear in the archives only incidentally, never by name. According to references by their employers, they always demanded wine or a shot of schnapps before setting off from entrepôts such as the inn of Jannet in Les Verrières, where the STN stockpiled illegal books that it had packed into bundles suitable for a man’s back. The backpacks usually weighed 60 pounds, although the insurer permitted 50-pound loads when the snow was deep. (Guillon l’aîné, an insurer farther south at Clairvaux-les-Lacs, required his men to haul 80-pound packs, perhaps because the mountain trails in that area were less arduous.) For short hauls, the porters earned 25 sols a day—the equivalent of a day’s wages for an unskilled laborer in Paris. If they spotted a border patrol, they were instructed to drop their packs and run for it. Not that the insurers expressed any sympathy for men tramping over trails a thousand meters high in harsh conditions and constant danger of arrest. One insurer, Ignace Faivre of Pontarlier, wrote many porters off as “gueux d’ivrognes.”
The wagon drivers appear everywhere on bills of lading and commercial correspondence, but as little more than names: Jean Heuby, J.-J. Bovet, Pierre David, Daniel Henry Vaucher…They were men from the border towns or nearby areas of the principality of Neuchâtel et Valangin and the Franche-Comté, because they worked for local shipping agents and usually traveled only as far as Lyon or Besançon, where other agents hired other drivers to take the goods to more distant destinations. The STN and its customers often complained about the slowness and negligence of these “rouliers” and “voituriers,” but the drivers had to cope with hard conditions. They needed to manage loads weighing as much as 2,500 pounds pulled by three or sometimes five horses. The trip from Neuchâtel to Pontarlier took two days over steep and slippery mountain roads, which were often blocked by snow. In November, 1779, the drivers found the route so difficult that they abandoned their wagons in order to save the horses [see Meuron to STN, November 27, 1779].
Although the trip from Pontarlier to Lyon passed over less primitive roads, it took at least 13 days; and the shipping agents sometimes forced the pace by imposing fines on drivers who failed to deliver the goods within a time limit. Meuron frères of Saint Sulpice required the drivers they hired to make it from Neuchâtel to Lyon within 20 days or pay a fine equivalent to a third of the transport costs, which came to 5 livres per hundredweight in 1778. Delays often occurred because the drivers waited until they had accumulated enough freight to make a sufficient profit, or until they could find an adequate load for their return trip. Although the STN packed the bales and protected them with layers of waste paper (“maculature”) in its warehouse, the drivers had to load them on the wagons in such a manner as to prevent friction from the ropes, which sometimes cut into the printed sheets, and they had to cover them with a tarpaulin fixed firmly enough to protect the paper from rain and snow. Loading and covering (“bâchage”) was an art. It took place at several stages of a journey—for example, at first for the haul from Neuchâtel to Pontarlier, then from Pontarlier to Lyon, and again from Lyon to Paris and other destinations or to barges bound for Marseille. It also required strength, because according to French regulations, the bales had to weigh at least 50 pounds (poids de marc, the pound or livre being the equivalent of 489.5 modern grams); and the drivers tried to avoid accumulating loads made up of many small packages [see Meuron to STN, March 21, 1776 and September 20, 1781 and Gresset to STN, October 5, 1776].
Some drivers worked full time for important shipping agents such as Pion in Pontarlier, but most were peasants with horses and wagons of their own, and they were available only when they could take time off from their farms. Shipping agents often lamented that they could find no drivers during the planting season in April and May and the “saison des fromages” in September [Meuron to STN, September 28, 1778 and May 3, 1783]. The Jura region produced some of the best horses in Europe, but the roads through the mountains required powerful animals. In a letter of April 22, 1780, Meuron frères warned the STN that they had to delay a shipment, because an ordinary team could not haul it: “Il fallait trois bons chevaux. Les voituriers nous font la loi.” They also complained that the drivers would not arrive on time unless threatened with fines: “Le seul motif de l’intérêt peut les mettre en règle” [letter of June 26, 1783]. But self-interest drove everyone within the system, and everyone found someone else to blame when things went wrong.
The men at the center of it all, those charged with coordinating its many moving parts, were the “commissionnaires”—a term that covered a wide variety of activities and that can be translated loosely as “shipping agents.” Dozens of them existed in the border areas, and hundreds more were scattered at all the nodal points of the transport system within France. Their primary function was to forward the goods entrusted to them—that is, to hire wagon drivers, expedite procedures at the border stations, and assume responsibility for the shipment after it left their hands. They served as the “caution” or guarantor behind the acquits à caution; so they were liable for mishaps, and they intervened when shipments went astray or were confiscated. A good commissionnaire could mobilize “protections” and persuade the authorities to have illegal books returned to the sender instead of being impounded or destroyed. In general, the shipping agents also paid all the costs that had accumulated up to the point where they took charge of a shipment. Publishers often paid transport costs for a certain distance, from Neuchâtel to Pontarlier or Lyon in the case of the STN, but shipments usually were financed according to a collect-on-delivery principle, whereby the shipping agent covered the costs up to his leg of the journey and then was reimbursed from the agent who took over at the next leg. The bookseller would have to pay all the accumulated costs when the bale arrived at its final destination—an endless source of complaints from the STN’s customers.
Because they made such payments, the shipping agents had to dispose of a certain amount of capital; and because they handled all kinds of goods, they often developed sidelines in merchandising. As opportunities arose, they stocked and sold soap or textiles or paper and books. A few even became important booksellers, although they had to operate outside the law (see the page on Malherbe of Loudun on this website). In border areas, they often took up smuggling, or at least cooperated with smugglers, but those who did business on a large scale generally avoided illegal entanglements. Pion, the dominant shipping agent in Pontarlier, told the STN bluntly: “Je ne suis point assureur.” [Pion to STN, June 12, 1779] All the commissionnaires who handled “libry,” as the bales were marked, knew the book trade well, not only its routes but the ways it operated and the operators who lived off it. All of them built up a network of contacts. While forwarding shipments, they exchanged information with customers and with one another, dispatching and receiving a constant stream of letters. The STN received 498 letters from the Meuron brothers in Saint Sulpice and 539 from Luc Preiswerck, its main agent in Basel. To survive in a highly competitive business, agents had to cultivate connections. Their most important asset was knowledge.
Given the minimal qualifications for the job—largely a matter of savvy and hustle—many small-time entrepreneurs took it up. They often acquired the basic skills by serving as a clerk for an established commissionnaire. After several years of drawing up accounts, taking dictation, and writing copies of the commercial correspondence, they learned the tricks of the trade; and if they had accumulated some capital, they could set up business on their own. Jean-Jacques Montaudon of Nyon on Lac Léman provides an example of this kind of enterprise. He worked for nine years as a clerk in the large firm of Nicole et Gaillard, which handled the STN’s shipments to Geneva and to France through the border station of Morez in the southern Jura. Montaudon signed three successive three-year contracts, which forbade him to make any outside use of the knowledge he acquired and, in particular, to found his own business. By 1771 he had had enough. His wages had risen to only 366 livres a year, and Nicole et Gaillard had refused his requests to be taken on as a partner, even though he did a large proportion of the work and had acquired the status of a local citizen (“bourgeois”). Therefore, he sent out a printed notice announcing that he had created his own business. In a covering letter to the STN of July 16, 1771 he explained:
Aujourd’hui je suis bourgeois de la ville comme eux et en faculté de faire des affaires. Il n’appartient qu’aux souverains de dire, “Je veux gêner l’industrie d’un homme et le droit des gens et d’ordonner [que] vous ne vous établirez à aucun endroit à mon prejudice”…La paie de 366 [livres] ne peut entretenir une famille et par consequent ne peut me convenir. Si je n’avais eu des héritages et n’eus pas redoublé mes travaux et que ma femme n’eût pas correspondu par son talent à m’aider, j’aurais manger de mes propres fonds en bien travaillant….J’ai dirigé les affaires comme un maître et non comme un commis….Vous voyez donc, Messieurs, si j’ai tort, après toutes mes propositions, de me retirer à lâge de 40 ans pour m’établir.
The STN agreed to send some of its shipments to Montaudon, hoping to find another route past the inspectors at the border and inside the kingdom. He did his best to win over the customs agent at Morez, “pour savoir sur quel pied il danse;” and the STN recommended a judicious dose of bribery. But the confiscation of several clandestine shipments of calicoes at the Morez crossing increased the vigilance of all the agents in the area, and in the end the STN had to fall back on the more permeable segment of the border at Frambourg.
The STN dealt with many shipping agents in this area, negotiating rates, shifting routes, and playing them off against one another. It divided most of its trade between the Meuron brothers, Theodore Abram and Pierre Friedrich, of Saint Sulpice (their firm was reorganized three times under different names between 1770 and 1787) and Pion of Pontarlier. They competed fiercely for its business. Pion had the advantage of superior access to horses. He kept a stable of his own, and his drivers could harness five at a time to haul large loads when the roads were clogged with snow and mud. But he refused to do any outright smuggling (a little fraud with works shipped under acquits à caution was acceptable), and his service suffered from a further drawback: incompetence, or downright stupidity. That, at least, was the view of the Meuron brothers, who constantly pointed out Pion’s defects in their letters to the STN. On one occasion he sent a bale of books to Nantes instead of Rennes. On another, he shipped a barrel of sauerkraut to the wrong address in Lyon, and it was consumed before the error could be corrected.
The Meurons, by contrast, had to contract their shipping out to local farmers and therefore struggled against a chronic shortage of horses and drivers, especially during the plowing season in the spring. Desperate to win a large order from the STN in 1778, they sent express letters to Besançon and Salins to procure “des rouliers à tout prix.“ But they hired only drivers who could be trusted—“de bons rouliers de confiance”—so that the goods would arrive at the right time and the right place, including clandestine entrepôts such as Aux Trois Flacons, an inn outside Lyon [Meuron to STN, May 11 and August 17, 1778]. Unlike Pion, who could not manage complicated shipments, they adjusted to shifting conditions by pulling strings in a network of collaborators, which they had built up over many years. Their contacts included obscure but strategically-placed middlemen, such as Millavaux in Besançon, “très intelligent et en état de vous servir à votre grande satisfaction” [Meuron to STN, April 19, 1779]. Although only a small-time haberdasher, he had been a head clerk in the coach service at Besançon and knew all the intricacies of France’s transport system. The Meurons favored hungry and hard-working agents like Veuve Rameau in Dijon whom they recommended over the better-known firm of Jacques Nubla et fils: “MM. Nubla ne sont plus propres à faire la commission. Ces Messieurs sont riches. Ils passent les trois quarts du temps à la campagne, de manière qu’ils ne peuvent pas donner les soins convenables à cette partie” [Meuron to STN, July 3, 1779]. The Meurons themselves belonged to the category of the feisty entrepreneurs. They scrambled for every scrap of business they could get, charging a commission of only 10 sols for handling bales that weighed 200 pounds. Their human network offset, at least in part, their lack of horses, for as they put it to the STN in a letter of June 25, 1770, “Avec des amis on fait tout.”
Contacts were especially important in the customs office at the border. Pion knew Petit, the “buraliste” at Frambourg in 1771. But when the STN asked for information about which books would be permitted into France, Pion managed only to forward a letter from Petit that revealed nothing beyond the obvious:
Je ne peux dire à M. Pion positivement quels sont les livres qui sont défendus. En général, tout ce qui est contre la religion, l’Etat, et les bonnes moeurs ne peut entrer. Il y a quelques livres positivement proscrits comme une histoire de France contrefaite, l’Encyclopédie et autres. La qualité des livres ne regarde pas trop les bureaux. C’est l’affaire des chambres syndicales des libraires [Pion to STN, November 21, 1771]
For the next four years, the STN relied on Pion for most of the shipments that it sent through Pontarlier, but in 1776 the French government issued special orders for the customs station at Frambourg to inspect the bales and to confiscate anything explicitly forbidden, instead of leaving the inspections to the chambres syndicales. The STN then turned to Meuron frères, who contacted the new “buraliste,” an accommodating official named Daubone. He agreed to sift through the STN’s shipments, extract the prohibited books, set them aside for the STN to repossesss, and allow the rest to proceed on their way. The Meurons arranged for this service “au moyen de quelque générosité. Cette espèce de gens ne s’attendrissent pas différemment” [Meuron to STNMarch 31, 1776]. In fact, this method proved unworkable, because, as the STN complained after several attempts, it caused too much delay in the shipments: “Tant il faudra les décharger au Frambourg pour être visités, décordés, examinés, pièce à pièce, il est impossible qu’il n’en résulte des retards infinis qui ne peuvent nous permettre de passer à ce bureau. Il nous faut une méthode fixe” [STN to Meuron, April 9, 1776]. Stymied, the Meurons could only say in their defense, “Ce n’est point à nous à établir une méthode fixe pour l’ordre à observer dans les expéditions des bureaux. C’est aux ministres et autres supérieurs qui font les changements qu’ils jugent à propos—sans dire d’autres raisons que tel est le bon plaisir de Louis” [Meuron to STN, May 9, 1776].
At this point, the STN shifted most of its business back to Pion, who offered cheaper rates. But he ran into financial difficulties and fell into a form of bankruptcy—that is, a suspension of payments on his debts—in January 1779. The Meurons attributed his difficulties to general mismanagement: “M. Pion a mal combiné ses entreprises. Il s’est vu dans le cas de faire des revirements ruineux qui ont absorbé ses bénéfices, altréré son crédit, et il a été obligé le 30 janvier de termoyer avec ses créanciers” [Meuron to STN, February 11, 1779]. For his part, Pion claimed that he had merely fallen behind in some scheduled payments and that his creditors had readily granted him an eight-year extension, with interest: “Je goûte la douce satisfaction de voir la confiance que j’ai éprouvée est toujours la même” [Pion to STN, February 8, 1779]. Although it is impossible to know at a distance of more than two centuries, it seems that Pion was indeed negligent in his ways of doing business. The STN’s customers complained that he did not follow instructions and fill in important details on bills of lading, and in 1773 he was condemned to a 2,000 livre fine for failing to return an acquit à caution to the customs bureau.
While Pion attempted to put his finances in order, the STN fell back again on Meuron frères, but they had difficulty in finding horses just when it needed to send large shipments of its edition of the Encyclopédie to Lyon. The STN also worked out a system of clearing illegal books through the Lyonnais chambre syndicale, thanks to an arrangement with Jacques Revol, a Lyonnais commissionnaire turned smuggler [see his page on this website]. Therefore, it resumed shipping via Pion in the spring of 1779, although it continued to make the most of whatever services the Meurons could provide. These included an arrangement to get acquits à caution discharged, without much inspection of the shipments, in Besançon, thanks to the intervention of Félix Charmet, a bookseller who enjoyed the protection of the local intendant [see his page on this website]. Both conduits to the markets deep in France—Revol’s in Lyon, Charmet’s in Besançon—eventually broke down and then were replaced by others. The STN was constantly cobbling together such arrangements—building them, repairing them, and abandoning them for services at another border crossing or chambre syndicale. It continued in this fashion for the next five years, adjusting its use of middlemen and playing them off against one another according to changes in circumstances. Pion and his horses, the Meurons and their stratagems, were part of a larger picture, a kaleidoscope of shifting human networks.
To understand the place of Pontarlier in this pattern, it is important to consult a final dossier, that of Ignace Faivre, Pontarlier’s only bookseller. He had learned his way around the book trade during the 1760s in Neuchâtel, probably in the shop of Samuel Fauche, one of the founding partners of the STN. The first letters in the dossier are addressed to Fauche, and they contain several remarks indicating that Faivre had become a friend of the entire Fauche family, including their children for whom he bought small gifts. The STN’s principal partner, Frédéric Samuel Ostervald, also knew Faivre quite well. When a Parisian bookseller asked for information about him, Ostervald replied: “Le sieur Faivre qui fait ici quelqu’affaire en librairie est un homme fort actif, intriguant même, mais qui ne possède rien au-delà de son savoir faire. Il doit quitter notre ville, où il est étranger, pour aller s’établir à Pontarlier” [Ostervald to Saillant et Nyon, January 17, 1771]. Businessmen often exchanged character sketches of this sort in the eighteenth century, because they needed to assess the risk of establishing relations with unknown persons. In Faivre’s case, the only asset to compensate for his lack of capital was connections. Apparently he was a native of Pontarlier, where there were eight Faivre families in the 1770s. After he set up his bookshop in June 1771, he wrote to the STN that he had relatives in the town who were friends of the intendant’s subdelegate—that is, the most important official in Pontarlier, whose functions included that of “censeur de la librairie.” The subdelegate, he claimed, had given him permission to import all the books he liked without subjecting them to any inspection.
Soon Faivre was ordering some highly illegal works such as d’Holbach’s Système de la nature, Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, and La Fille de joie. Whether he sold many of them in Pontarlier seems unlikely. The town had only about 3,000 inhabitants and no cultural institutions of any importance. It lived from the French-Swiss trade and a few regional products: paper, wood, cheese, iron, and the sale of the sturdy Comtois horses. Faivre’s letters indicated that he sold books to other booksellers in Dijon, Besançon, and Nancy, probably because of his ability to provide them with forbidden works. Pontarlier served him primarily as a base for functioning as a middleman between Swiss publishers and the retail trade in Eastern France. Not that he did business on a large scale. He frequented country fairs and was often on the road, seizing whatever opportunities arose while his wife tended the shop at home. She handled the correspondence in his absence and seemed to be well informed about the accounts and the trade in general.
Faivre’s role as an intermediary shaded off into smuggling. The STN and his other suppliers sent their shipments to a stockroom in Jannet’s inn in Les Verrières. Faivre dispatched porters to pick them up and deliver them to him in Pontarlier for a daily wage of 25 sols. He charged 10 livres per hundredweight for his own services. Although he did not assume responsibility as an “insurer,” he promised the STN that it would not run the slightest risk: “Vous n’avez pas besoin de rien craindre pour ces livres….Ne craignez de rien.”
But complications soon set in. In September, 1771 some agents of the Ferme Générale in Salins confiscated a bale that Faivre had forwarded to an underground dealer in Versailles without declaring it as “libry” on its bill of lading. He pulled strings inside the intendancy at Besançon but did not get very far. If the bale contained pirated books, he was told, they could be shipped back to Switzerland, but any prohibited books would be burned. Soon afterwards, he learned that the government had imposed a tariff of 20 livres per hundredweight on all imports of books. That measure threatened to upset his arrangement for getting past the customs house in Frambourg, where the “receveurs” were likely to be strict, at least at first, in collecting the new duty. He also feared that an informer had told the French authorities about his operation in Jannet’s inn, and he became embroiled in a lawsuit with Félix Charmet, the main bookseller in Besançon. Then he quarreled with the STN over the balance that he owed in his account. It, too, threatened to sue, and to force his hand it refused to send the last two volumes of the nine-volume sets of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie that he had purchased and that he needed to supply to his own customers in order to collect from them.
In January, 1772, Faivre declared bankruptcy—that is, he deposited a balance sheet with a bailiff and suspended payments on his debts, while continuing his business as best he could. The STN engaged a lawyer in Pontarlier to take its case to court, but Faivre wrote defiantly that it would never recover enough to cover its legal fees, even if it won, because he would tie the case up in appeals. As he wrote in a later letter, “Il ne faut pas toujours écouter les avocats et gens de justice, qui ne cherchent que de gagner de l’argent et entraîner les parties dans des labyrinthes de procédures où jamais vous ne verrez la fin.” More important, he had nothing for it to confiscate. Like many marginal entrepreneurs who overplayed their hands, he had engineered a kind of divorce known as “séparation de corps et de biens” in order to preserve the assets that his wife had brought to their marriage:
Vous devez pensez que je suis démuni de tous biens par une séparation de biens que ma femme m’a tentée, dont elle a obtenu un jugement, ce qui la met à l’abri de toutes les poursuites de mes créanciers, n’ayant pas trouvé en meubles et marchandises de quoi se payer. C’est pour vous faire apercevoir que vous courez tout risque de perdre votre somme en général.
In fact, Faivre’s wife continued to collaborate actively in their business and even went on sales trips of her own. Faivre did indeed appeal the case; the STN accumulated heavy legal fees, just as he had warned; and by July, 1783 they had agreed on a settlement.
At that point, the situation at the border had been transformed by an order of the French foreign minister issued on June 12, 1783, which required all book imports to be shipped under acquits à caution for inspection in the chambre syndicale of Paris before being forwarded to their final destination. This regulation threatened to destroy most of the STN’s trade in France, because the Parisian inspectors were eager to confiscate all pirated editions and because the detour to Paris would make the transport costs of shipments to cities like Lyon and Marseille impossibly expensive. If it were to maintain access to its French markets, the STN had to find a new passage through the clandestine channels. The border crossing became more important than ever, for once it got its bales into France, it could have them sent as domestic shipments directly to its customers. They merely needed to be labeled “libry” and accompanied by a bill of lading signed by a French bookseller from the border area, although they would ultimately have to be cleared in a provincial chambre syndicale. The ideal man for the job, someone “actif, intriguant même” and primed with “savoir faire,” was Ignace Faivre.
Faivre had an ally in one of the scrappiest commissionnaires on the Swiss side of the border, François Michaut. In the early 1770s Michaut had worked as a clerk for the Meuron brothers in Saint Sulpice. He set up his own shipping agency in Les Verrières in 1779, just as Montaudon had left Nicole et Gaillard, the commissionnaires in Nyon, to do business on his own in 1771. In a letter to the STN of October 30, 1783, Michaut offered to organize a team of porters, give them a stiff drink at the inn of Jannet, and send them off with backpacks at a cost of 12 livres per hundredweight. He would serve as a “commissionnaire,” not as an “assureur,” charging a moderate fee; and he attached only one condition to his proposal: the STN must guarantee that the packs did not contain any prohibited works. The porters could be persuaded to smuggle pirated books, but they would not risk the severe punishment inflicted on anyone caught carrying political libels or attacks on the Church. Also, the STN would have to make a firm arrangement with Faivre, who would receive the backpacks, repackage them as bales, store them in a clandestine entrepôt, and send them on to the STN’s French clients with his signature on the bill of lading. The signature of a mere commissionnaire such as Pion would not provide adequate protection. Furthermore, Faivre could smoothe the way for the porters by bribing the border patrols of the Ferme. In fact, he had already looked into this possibility: “Je lui [Faivre] avais procuré un homme qui, au lieu de vouloir être porteur, simplement s’était abouché avec un quidam qui a certaine autorité sur une brigade et par ce moyen s’en serait chargé à forfait; mais il lui demandait le triple plus qu’il n’en aurait coûté pour Paris.” And as a final step, the STN could send one of its most trustworthy printers to work full-time for Faivre, supposedly as an employee but in fact to handle the STN’s shipments. The printer would easily find a way to bribe “certain chef de brigade,” because the members of the patrols did not receive a bounty for capturing contraband books and therefore were easy to corrupt.
Having settled his lawsuit with the STN and overcome its hostility by some minor services, Faivre traveled to Neuchâtel in October, 1783 in order to agree on a contract for a smuggling operation. Although he did not mention its terms in his correspondence, it probably corresponded to the proposal made by Michaut. Faivre failed in his first attempts to execute it, owing to difficulties in recruiting porters: “Les ordres sont si forts que je ne peux rien gagner sur l’esprit de qui que ce soit pour me donner la main pour le passage des balles. L’on craint que ce ne soient des mauvais livres, malgré que je leur persuade le [sic] contraire. Il faut encore avoir patience quelques jours, ou je crois prendre une autre voie pour le passage.” A temporary solution involved the use of “passavants” (transires or customs permits) in place of acquits à caution. They could be issued at the customs station in Frambourg, and they certified that a bale had been presented to the Ferme Générale at a bureau d’entrée, thereby protecting it from inspection on short hauls to Besançon or Lyon, where the STN could get it cleared by its allies in the chambres syndicales. As this procedure violated the government’s order of June 12, Faivre spent two months trying to bribe officials of the Ferme. On December 20, 1783, he finally announced that he had succeeded. But he could not mount a full-scale insurance operation for the price stipulated in the contract with the STN: “Je vous préviens que je ne peux pas être assureur de vos balles à 15 livres, parce qu’il me faut payer au porteur 15 livres du cent pesant. Il me faut à ces porteurs du vin, et 8 louis d’or à ceux avec qui je me suis abouché, mais avec ces 8 louis d’or je veux entrer 50 à 60 balles et plus.”
The STN refused to pay any increase, while Faivre tried to bargain hard and even asked it to send back its copy of the contract. He also noted that his system was working well for other Swiss publishers, including Samuel Fauche, who had left the STN and continued to do business on his own after a quarrel in 1773. Faivre bragged that he had got 8 of Fauche’s bales safely to Pontarlier at the end of December by paying his men 100 livres. But he stood to gain a great deal from the STN’s trade, and therefore signed a new contract , which maintained the rate of 15 livres per hundredweight. The STN sent one of its most trusted associates, François Bornand, to sign the contract on its behalf at a meeting with Faivre in Les Verrières on January 23, 1784. Fortunately, Faivre transcribed its text in a letter to the STN of August 4, 1785; so his correspondence, available on this website, contains what may be the only copy of a formal agreement for smuggling books that has survived from the eighteenth century.
In straightforward, business-like language, Faivre agreed to get the STN’s bales from François Michaut’s storerooms in Les Verrières, to Pontarlier, “à mes périls et risques et aux moyens de quinze livres de France par quintal poids du marc.” Faivre would then forward them to its customers at the cheapest shipping rates; and if the shipments ran into difficulties with the Ferme en route, he would claim them as his own merchandise “et en ferai mon affaire pour tout ce qui pourrait en résulter.” The STN committed itself to send only legal works (that is, pirated editions of books permitted in France) and no books that had been explicitly prohibited. The contract made an exception for the STN’s expanded edition of Description des arts et métiers, which the government had condemned at the request of the publisher of the original edition, and therefore shipments that contained it would pay an extra three livres per hundredweight. To sweeten the deal, the STN promised to use Faivre as its agent in Pontarlier for all of its ordinary shipments sent under an acquit à caution. And he assumed the responsibilities of an insurer: “En cas d’événement fâcheux, je paierai la marchandise dans une année de la reception aux Verrières suivant le prix de la facture.”
The contract set the ground rules for Faivre’s smuggling for the next year and a half, but he constantly had to improvise new tactics according to shifting circumstances. Snows delayed shipments throughout February and March. In April, his porters still complained about the accumulation of snow and asked that their packs weigh no more than 60 pounds, but they successfully hauled thirty shipments from publishers in Lausanne and Bern as well as from the STN. Shipments suffered from delays in May, when many of the local horses were being used for plowing. June and July were good months, but in August five bales with forbidden book were confiscated at Frambourg. Although Faivre was not implicated, he had to suspend all his operations: “Depuis ce malheureux moment, tous les employés des Fermes sont nuit et jour en alerte.”
Faivre found it impossible to resume business for several months, because the porters feared that the new vigilance exposed them to prison sentences: “Cette malheureuse affaire a dégoûté tellement ces gens qu’ils ne veulent pas y retourner. Cependant, je crois les ranimer en leur promettant quelque chose de plus. J’écris à Monsieur Michaut par ce courier de faire monter sur le sommet de la montagne une douzaine de balles qu’ils iront prendre, parce qu’il y a des espions et des coquins aux Verrières qui vendent les autres, et les porteurs ne veulent plus y aller.” The danger of spies in Jannet’s inn and patrols on the mountain trails continued to deter the porters until October 14, when Faivre wrote that he had at last persuaded them to resume work. They were to pick up the bales at night from a secret entrepôt that Michaut had established at the summit of a mountain, and then they could follow a trail that Faivre had cleared for them by means of some strategically placed bribery:
J’ai tant fait et promis à ces porteurs que je leur donnerai de quoi boire et qu’ils seront contents, ce qui les a ranimés à retourner par ce que je leur ai promis. Je n’ai aucun avantage de plus. Je suis au moment de traiter avec un employé des Fermes pour nous laisser passer librement la nuit et m’indiquer les chemins où l’on doit passer en sûreté. Si je réussis à cette entreprise, l’on pourra passer beaucoup de balles.
The bribes went to a “receveur” named Saint André in the customs station in Frambourg and a colleague of his who oversaw operations from the Ferme’s other office nearby in Pontarlier. Faivre knew them well. To ingratiate himself, he asked the STN to send them a translation of Fanny Burney’s six-volume novel, Cecilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress. (He also requested a third copy for a customs officer in Saint Claude farther to the south, where he apparently had organized another clandestine operation.) The STN followed up this favor by giving Saint André two free subscriptions to its Journal helvétique. As it explained in a covering letter, the gifts were a token of gratitude for his services: “Nous vous rendons milles grâces, Monsieur, de la manière obligeante dont vous voulez bien en user à l’égard des livres de nos envois qui passent par votre bureau.” A few months later, when the new smuggling system was functioning effectively, Faivre requested two copies of Necker’s De l’Administration des finances, because he was soon to have dinner with Saint André and needed an appropriate gift. In the small world of Pontarlier-Frambourg, the members of the educated elite all knew one another and read many of the same books, whether they were selling them or refraining from confiscating them.
The smuggling went well for the next four months, although Faivre constantly had to make adjustments. As the shipments increased, his workers demanded higher wages. “Les porteurs me rançonnent,” he wrote. “Ils m’ont augmenté de six deniers par livre.” They quarreled with Michaut, and so he had to shift his recruiting station to the Meuron brothers in Saint Sulpice. He also complained that his own profit was not adequate and that the STN did not send him enough shipments of legal books to compensate for all the time and effort he devoted to the clandestine operations. But in January, 1785 he devised a more efficient system, one that did away with the porters: “J’ai trouvé une route à faire passer par char et non par porteur, en traversant les montagnes avec de bons chevaux .” Although secret trips with wagons meant using roads high up in the mountains (and also probably required bribes among employees of the Ferme), Faivre congratulated himself on finding “une route sûr, solide.” The STN could now send bales weighing 200 to 400 pounds instead of packs of 50 to 60 pounds designed to be carried on a porter’s back. The only problem was snow, more than three feet of it in February, which made the roads impassable: “Aucun voiturier n’a voulu se hasarder d’y aller en traineau.” The high-mountain route remained blocked until late April, while the STN’s shipments of legal works and pirated books hidden in bales with acquits à caution made it into France at lower altitudes.
The STN sent many of these ordinary shipments via Pion, who charged less but still refused to function as an insurer. Faivre had planned to handle all of the STN’s trade, assuming a double role as a commissionnaire-assureur, and he had rented a warehouse to stock the large number of books that he expected to transport across the border. His contract with the STN did indeed commit it to favor him for everything it shipped to France. He especially needed to process bales with acquits à caution, because he used them to hide the illegal works that he transported for other publishers. His letters suggest that, like other forwarding agents such as Jacques Revol of Lyon, he slipped packets of forbidden books into large bales of books that the authorities tolerated. Thanks to his connections with the customs agents, he could do the repackaging in Pontarlier before the bales were sealed; and the booksellers who ordered the shipments could find ways to extract the illegal works or have them pass unnoticed during inspections in the chambres syndicales. In response to Faivre’s increasingly indignant complaints, the STN justified its employment of Pion by complaining back that Faivre’s services took too long. He replied that he had served it diligently throughout all of 1784 and had been forced to hold back some shipments in early 1785 only because of the heavy snows. Without a high volume of trade, he argued, his insurance operation would not be worthwhile. He now had no use for the warehouse that he had rented for three years at 33 livres a year. If the STN would pay for the rest of the rent, he wrote on August 15, 1785, he would return their contract, and they could cease to do business.
At this point, the STN completely stopped sending shipments to Faivre. Faced with financial difficulties of its own, it had begun to cut back drastically in its publishing. It closed his account in January, 1786, collecting a small balance of 300 livres. As far as one can tell from the last letters in his dossier, Faivre’s business as a bookseller continued to hold up. Despite their ostensible separation, his wife still worked with him, accompanied by their grown-up daughter in the late 1780s. He probably continued to smuggle books for other publishers until 1789, whether by “insurance” operations or sleight of hand at the customs station. Faivre survived by hustle and hard work. His story shows how an entrepreneur could cobble together a living in the book trade from a small town at a high altitude in the semi-lawless borderland of eastern France.