The lost press of Texel: Uncovering the lost world of print through newspaper advertisements

By Arthur der Weduwen |

Over the past few years the USTC team has embarked on a campaign to extend its coverage of European print by searching for the most elusive of books: those that do not survive in a single copy today. This is a quest that is not uncontroversial; but it is one that is essential if we are to understand the workings of the early modern book trade. The financial health of the industry often depended on books which were not destined for posterity: cheap, utilitarian books, like school books and almanacs, or cherished devotional works, intensively studied and worn out through repeated consultation. Tracing the lost books of early modern Europe also reshapes our understanding of the influence of print. We have to engage with the paradox that the books which were most important to the lives of early modern readers are the books we cannot study today. That this is not a straightforward pursuit is true; but try we can, and try we must.

So how does one find a ‘lost book’? Much of our energy has recently been expended on the transcription of data from printed book catalogues, documenting the sale of libraries, or listing stock available in bookshops. Last week we commenced the process of comparing some 480,000 pieces of book data from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gathered from printed catalogues, to surviving copies. This analysis is already revealing many items that cannot be found in libraries today, and we will be reporting on the findings from this process soon.

“The financial health of the industry often depended on books which were not destined for posterity”

Another particularly rich source is provided by printed newspapers, an invention of the seventeenth century. In the Dutch Republic, home to dozens of newspapers during this period, newspaper publishers very quickly took to accepting short advertisements by colleagues in the trade for forthcoming titles. We have been capturing this data systematically for the period 1621-1688, recording several thousand advertisements. Fortunately, these advertisements include all the essential data we require to identify a specific edition: an author, title, format, date and place of publication. When we compared the first 1,200 books advertised in Dutch newspapers, in the period before 1650, we found just over 400 editions which today cannot be identified in a surviving copy. Now we are extending that process into the second half of the seventeenth century, with particularly rich results.

A typical seventeenth-century Dutch newspaper
A typical seventeenth-century Dutch newspaper: an issue of the Rotterdam Zee-en Post-tijdingen (1666). Newspaper advertisements were always placed on the back page. Photo credit: Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem.

Take the Gebeden (Prayers) of the German theologian Johann Habermann (1516-1590), an extremely popular work in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. This you would not necessarily tell from surviving editions. We know of nine surviving editions published between 1640 and 1700, almost all in a single copy. If we extend our investigation to newspapers, we can trace eight lost editions, advertised between 1651 and 1686, published in Amsterdam, Leeuwarden, Dordrecht and Schiedam. Six of the advertisements refer to the format of the work: one in octavo, one in 12mo, two in 16mo, two in 24mo and one in 32mo. Most surviving editions are in octavo; naturally, the smallest, and cheapest editions tend to disappear altogether.

Newspaper advertisements can also transform what we know of the repertoire of specific publishers. Take Nicholaes Geerlingh, a Dordrecht bookseller for whom we can record four surviving devotional works printed between 1654 and 1667. We have thus far traced two advertisements placed by Geerlingh: the first in 1662, in an Amsterdam paper, when he advertises for five devotional works. None of these correspond with a surviving edition; some of them are reissues, like an edition of Boethius, or John Paget’s Meditatien van de Doot (Meditations concerning death); others are unknown texts. In 1675, Geerlingh advertised once again, in a Haarlem newspaper.

Oprechte Haerlemse Courant , 1675
The Oprechte Haerlemse Courant of 17 September 1675, with a short advertisement by Nicholaes Geerlingh. Photo credit:

This time he offered to the book-buying public a psalm book in 32mo. This advertisement extends Geerlingh’s known dates of activity by eight years. It also makes clear that publishers would go to the considerable expense of placing advertisements for works that one might consider to be rather undistinguished. But it was these sorts of texts that underpinned the health of the book trade, and the type of book that families would be purchasing repeatedly, as their copies wore out and had to be replaced.

Newspaper advertising provided publishers in small rural towns, away from the competitive book market in Holland, with a national platform. The Dutch book trade was dominated by large commercial centres, like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and university towns, including Leiden and Utrecht. But over thirty different towns in the Dutch Republic had a local press; and much of their work has now disappeared completely. The Amersfoort printer Axel Roos (no relation to the Guns N’ Roses frontman) advertised in 1670 for a devotional work in octavo by the theologian Johan Quint. The only work that has survived from the press of Roos is a placard, issued by the magistrates of Amersfoort, regulating transportation from their city to other towns in the region.

placard printed by Axel Roos, 1671
The 1671 placard printed by Axel Roos, the only extant evidence of his press in Amersfoort. Photo credit: Stadsarchief, Kampen.

Axel Roos was a printer who has almost disappeared from the record. The single surviving broadsheet luckily gives us an example of his typography. For other printers, we are less fortunate, and all trace of their press has vanished. It is only in a newspaper advertisement that we find evidence of their existence. One such printer is Lodewijck Vermeulen, who operated a print shop on the island of Texel, to the north of the Dutch province of Holland. In the seventeenth century Texel was the gateway for vessels departing from the ports of the Zuiderzee, including Amsterdam, Enkhuizen and Hoorn. Here Dutch fleets assembled for the journey up to the fishing grounds of the North Sea, or the long and dangerous voyage to the East Indies. Texel itself was home to fewer than a thousand inhabitants, mostly gathered in the small town of Den Burg, but the island saw thousands of sailors pass by its shores every year. Here, on the frontier of the Dutch state, Lodewijck Vermeulen established a press. The Amsterdam Tijdinghe uyt verscheyde Quartieren of 21 August 1666 includes an advertisement by Vermeulen for two works printed by him, written by a local preacher, H.J. Kraegh. Both of these works were also available in Amsterdam with the bookseller Jan Bouman.

It would make sense for Vermeulen to supply his books to a colleague in Amsterdam, but we may also assume that Vermeulen would have been supplying some of the Dutch fleets with a range of titles. We know from regulations of Dutch East-Indiamen departing the Dutch Republic that every ship would have to be equipped with a large range of devotional works for the spiritual comfort of its occupants. That Vermeulen catered for such a range is made clear from a second advertisement, placed by him eleven years later. On 20 May 1677 he advertised in the Haerlemse Courant for the publication of a devotional work entitled Het geestelijck schip, toegetakelt en uytgerust om onder goed convoy te zeylen na Canaan (The spiritual ship, equipped and furnished to sail under proper convoy to Canaan).

Oprechte Haerlemse Courant , 1677
The second known advertisement placed by Lodewijck Vermeulen, here in the Oprechte Haerlemse Courant of 20 May 1677. Photo credit:

That a printing press was established on the island of Texel in the seventeenth century is remarkable enough. That it survived for over a decade testifies that it may have been a successful venture. The absence of any surviving copies from the Texel press of Lodewijck Vermeulen should not be interpreted as a failure of his business. Rather, these precious advertisements provide us with a glimpse into a world of books which played a vital role in the lives of the thousands of sailors who worked, read, prayed and perished aboard the vessels of the Dutch Golden Age. To trace printers like Vermeulen is to enrich our understanding of the business of print, and its remarkable influence on the history of early modern Europe.


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Dr Arthur der Weduwen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., Brill, 2017). His PhD (2018) is a study of government attempts to shape public opinion in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. He is a long-term associate of the Universal Short Title Catalogue project.  His most recent book, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree), will appear in 2019 with Yale University Press (in English) and Atlas Contact (in Dutch).

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