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The peddler ; Print, Einsiedeln, 19th century

The expression Kolportage ( French porter à col ' to wear on the neck / collar' , analogously: 'to carry on the shoulders ') referred to the distribution of books in individual deliveries by peddlers (Kolporteurs). The verb gossip refers to the spread of rumors , unaccounted news and social gossip , for example in tabloids and the rainbow press or on the Internet, based on its original meaning today .

The colporteurs and their opponents

Colporteurs mostly came from simple social backgrounds and often saw the colportage as the only way to earn their daily bread. They wandered the country with small vendor's shops and distributed writings printed on poor, cheap paper. Sometimes they also read from it. For the rural population of the 18th and 19th centuries, colporteurs were the most important suppliers of literature and news carriers, because hardly any peasant owned his own books or had access to lending libraries .

Although the peddlers were mostly prevented from delivering political news by the police, they were allowed to report on new sensations, battles or non-political reports of war. In addition, the colporteur was a carrier of ideas for broad sections of the population. The range of books distributed by peddlers was very large for the time: pious books for praying, singing or learning to read, books with superstitious content such as magical recipes or prophecies and, last but not least, entertaining literature - sometimes more, sometimes less demanding - for spending your free time.

But from the beginning, the work of the colporteurs was always strictly monitored and made difficult. As early as 1635, police regulations in France stipulated that they had to wear a coat of arms on their shoulders and that they had to have a printed permit from the city to carry out their work. Almost 100 years later the instruction followed that the books distributed by colporteurs could not contain more than eight sheets , i.e. 128 pages. In addition, a colporteur had to be able to read and write, was not allowed to open his own shop, had nothing to be printed at his own expense and had to renew and pay for his police license every month.

From 1791 onwards, the ban on the profession seemed to be relaxed, since anyone who obtained a patent for this in the municipal offices was now allowed to practice this profession.

But the state censorship in particular has always put obstacles in the way of the colportage trade. The state saw a threat in literature that kept citizens from work and gave rise to supposedly stupid thoughts. In Germany people feared the emergence of revolutionary ideas inspired by the example of the French Revolution . So it was a matter of suppressing the reading culture. To this end, a large number of reading materials were subjected to censorship, book printers were strictly controlled and the colporteurs and their colporte diaries were carefully observed.

Despite its great importance for the rural population, the colporteur never found many admirers from educated classes.


Colporteur at home worship in Sweden. ( Ny Illustrerad Tidning )

Colportage literature has its origins in the 15th century, where mainly religious edification literature , folk books and calendars were offered in houses and at fairs. In the 18th century the focus was on chivalric and horror novels and in the course of the Enlightenment and the literacy that went with it, the need for simple and cheap reading material grew. At first, the primary aim was to convey useful knowledge to people through the medium of the book, but gradually the readers asked not only to be taught but also to be entertained through reading. The adults wanted to find out what was happening in the world, children and young people wanted to be able to let their imagination run wild in adventure stories, fairy tales and legends.

In order to meet this new reading demand, the Bibliothèque Bleue in France put together a first collection of popular booklet literature and found imitation in the Reutlingen printers, who had been distributing similar booklets in Germany in large numbers since the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. So the so-called “Kolportageromane” - mostly published as serial novels - emerged with which the Kolporteurs now also supplied the citizens of the rural areas in Germany who had no access to the above-mentioned lending libraries.

In the early 19th century, the publishers of particularly extensive works ( e.g. Brockhaus-Lexikon , Meyers Konversationslexikon ) minimized their risk by dividing them into deliveries of two sheets - i.e. 32 pages - and having them sold by peddlers in this way. So they only ever had to produce small quantities and even non-wealthy customers could pay for the deliveries. If the customer had received all the deliveries of a volume in this way, he had them bound by the bookbinder .

Colportage was also an important instrument of Christian mission in the 19th century . Bibles , religious treatises , printed collections of sermons and other Christian literature were brought to the most remote areas by colporteurs. During such trips, the colporteurs also held house services and Bible studies . Not infrequently, they were the victims of state and state church repression. Fines and prison sentences were the norm. Many free church congregations owe their origin to the colportage. One of the best-known publishers who worked with colporteurs in the free church sector was the Oncken Verlag , which still exists today .

In some places, customers were encouraged to buy by giving bonuses with the last delivery of a ribbon, such as B. watches, rings, women's clothes and sewing machines, because the advent of new means of communication such as newspapers , magazines or weekly papers that were brought by post, or public institutions such as village libraries, bookshops or book clubs , the colport diary trade faced powerful competition, which faster, could offer cheaper and richer reading material. However, such bonuses were forbidden in the German Reich . All of the printing works sold by Kolportage had to bear the total price of the work on each individual delivery. And so the demise of the peddler trade could no longer be stopped by the previously so successful trade in serial novels. Little by little , only trivial literature was sold in this way , and the reputable publishers withdrew from the colportage business.

So it can be said that the majority of the colportage literature certainly could not offer any material for the learned world, but “only” pious texts, prayers, songs, adventure stories, sensational news, recipes or jokes. But it was precisely these small books that were widely distributed, which - in addition to the legacy of the great “poets and thinkers” - shaped the intellectual image of many people in the 19th century and thus contributed to the formation of our world today.

The German folk writer Karl May , who later became known as the author of his collected travel stories, wrote five extensive colportage novels for the Münchmeyer publishing house (Das Waldröschen, Die Liebe des Uhlans , The Prodigal Son, German Hearts, German Heroes and The Way to Happiness) in the 1880s . The novel Waldröschen is considered the most successful colportage novel of the 19th century.

Organizational history of the colportage industry

In the middle of the 19th century, the colportage publishers began to decouple from the general book trade. The reason for this was the special types of business with a simultaneous strong growth in the colportage book trade. It is estimated that around 100 million booklets and brochures were printed in France in the mid-19th century. Trade magazines for the industry were created long before the colportage associations. A total of around three dozen colportage journals in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been identified, but hardly any copies have survived. Many of these periodicals only appeared for a short time or changed titles frequently. In these magazines there was also a discussion about the establishment of an association of colportage publishers and dealers.

The first association to be founded in 1880 was the “Association of German Colportage Book Dealers in Berlin” with the special, specialist and protective sheet for the German Colportage book trade . Berlin was also chosen as the headquarters in order to distinguish itself from the rest of the publishing industry concentrated in Leipzig. The driving force behind the establishment was Emil Malzahn . He wanted to regulate business practices in favor of small traders and against wholesalers. The colportage industry took on a further boom after the amendment to the Trade Act of 1883, which relaxed censorship and trade barriers for peddling literature. This led to the increased appearance of the colport diary dealers as an independent branch of the industry and to further influx of the association. In 1890, an estimated 15 percent of colportal book dealers belonged to the association, which for the first time represented a joint representation of interests in the industry.

In 1885, Malzahn was voted out of office as chairman as part of a dispute about the organization of the association. Ernst Schulze, managing director of the "Mecklenburg'sche wholesale bookstore", became the new chairman. Malzahn founded the "Association of German Colportage Book Dealers Associations" in Leipzig, took over the old club magazine and renamed it the stock market newspaper for the German Colportage and railway book trade . The old association renamed itself on June 24th to the “General Association of German Colportage Booksellers” and published the Centralblatt for the Colportage book trade as a new organ . Although the two associations initially fought each other, on June 29, 1886 they reunited with the "Association of German Publishing Booksellers" under the name "Central Association of German Colportage Booksellers".

The special, technical and protective sheet appeared twice a month with 3500 copies. Even after the association was merged, the Börsenzeitung remained in existence. The content of both publications consisted of notifications from the association, the various disputes within the publishers and comments on trade and industry policy. After several specialist journals for the colportage trade had appeared in the following years, in September 1889 the Börsenzeitung and Centralblatt merged to form the Deutsche Colportage-Zeitung, the central organ for the colportage book trade .

An important colportage trade journal was Bolms Börsenblatt for the assortment, colportage and railway book trade , which was founded in 1880, but went back to a forerunner from 1871. Publisher August Bolm was a staunch opponent of the founding of clubs in the colportage trade and propagated this point of view in the Börsenblatt .

The associations of the Kolportagebuchhandel pursued several social and political goals. Socially, an increase in the image of the colportal book trade was sought. The main thing was to catch up with the retail book trade, which despised the colportal book trade as low literature. The Central Association, on the other hand, represented the colporteurs as mediators of culture in new social circles and as a modern form of book trade in a modern, rational world. Politically, the association primarily opposed the changes to the trade regulations aimed at by the Center Party in 1893 and 1896 . The Center Party sought to ensure that peddler transactions should not include installment payments, lending or renting. "Serious" publishers were also affected, and on February 11, 1893, together with the colportage publishers, they founded the "Leipzig Commission to Combat Center Motions". Through lobbying, petitions and petitions to the Reichstag , they finally prevented the new regulations that were disadvantageous for them.

In 1891 the Association of German Colportage Booksellers "Palm" was founded in Munich, which primarily wanted to implement a modified discount regulation between publishers and colportage dealers. When this goal was largely achieved, "Palm" dissolved again in 1895.

From September 1902, the Deutsche Colportage-Zeitung appeared as a new organ of the Central Association with 5000 copies per week. The negative term “colportage” was increasingly discussed in it. The association changed its name accordingly in 1906 to "Central Association of German Book and Magazine Dealers". In the following years, the colportage industry had to defend itself against so-called trash campaigns. During the First World War , the club's activities were continued to a very limited extent. After the war, the colport diary dealers and publishers initially recorded economic success and high profits. However, inflation triggered a severe crisis in the industry. In 1935 the specialist magazine der Kolporteure ceased to appear under pressure from the National Socialist government.

In addition, full-time preachers of Jehovah's Witnesses (then: "Bible Students", today: so-called pioneers ) were called "colporteurs" until the first half of the 20th century .

Usage of the term today

Since then, Kolportage referred to literature that was produced at a low level. It is comparable to today's dime novels and the English term pulp .

In Austria, street vendors of newspapers are still called colporteurs today. Since the advent of commuter newspapers, the term has returned to the vocabulary in Switzerland and describes the people who distribute these newspapers.

In a figurative sense, a media report is referred to as a colportage, which contains assumptions with the purpose of provoking the attacked person (s) to react - and thereby first revaluing the assertion that was originally not based on any evidence.

With the characterization of a text or a fictitious representation in the electronic media as "colportage", "colportage-like", "colportage-like features" etc., works are criticized that hardly or not at all subject their subject to a differentiated, balanced or discursive representation. Colportage is deliberately kept intellectually flat, uses generally widespread clichéd ideas and images and, in principle, avoids gaining new knowledge. This journalistic genre is therefore neither part of literature nor art, but part of the entertainment industry .

Famous Colportage novels

  • John Retcliffe : Nena Sahib or the indignation in India. Berlin 1858.
  • Otfrid Mylius : New Parisian Mysteries. A moral painting from the 2nd empire. Stuttgart 1862.
  • Hugo Sternberg : Count Arnulf, the feared bandit of the steppe. Dresden 1877–1878 (notorious for its drastic illustrations).
  • Karl May : Waldröschen or the avenger hunt around the world . Dresden 1882–1884 (most famous colportage novel of the 19th century)
  • NJ Anders : Cornflower and Violet or “Our Wilhelm” and “Our Fritz”. Berlin 1888–1890 (with 4808 pages longest continuous novel in German)
  • Victor von Falk : The executioner of Berlin. Berlin 1890 (most discussed colportage novel of the 19th century).
  • Robert Kraft : Atalanta or the secrets of the slave lake . Dresden 1911.
  • Walther Kabel : The Azores' gold treasure. Berlin 1924 (most famous science fiction colortage novel).
  • A. D'Ancona : Little mom. Frankfurt am Main 1958 (last colportage novel with a large number of copies).

(Source: Kosch / Nagl)


  • Roger Chartier, Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (Eds.): Colportage et lecture populaire. Imprimés de large circulation en Europe, XVIe - XIXe siècles. Actes du colloque of 21-24 April 1991 Wolfenbüttel. Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine u. a., Paris 1996, ISBN 2-7351-0713-2 ( Collection "n octavo" ).
  • Günter Kosch, Manfred Nagl: The Kolportageroman. Bibliography 1850 to 1960. Metzler, Stuttgart 1993, ISBN 3-476-00940-8 (= Repertories on German literary history. 17), (detailed bibliography based on the Kosch collection; also contains as a reprint: Friedrich Streissler: Der Kolportagehandel. Practical tips for the establishment and operation of the colportage in assortment stores . Leipzig 1887).
  • Dirk Sadowski: Pakn treger. In: Dan Diner (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Jewish History and Culture (EJGK). Volume 4: Ly-Po. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02504-3 , pp. 476–478.
  • Mirko Skull: The Colportage Novel. The fairground attraction of literature . In: From the second-hand bookshop . NF 17, no. 4 , 2019, ISSN  0343-186X , p. 158-167 .
  • Gabriele Scheidt: The Kolportagebuchhandel (1869-1905). A system-theoretical reconstruction. M & P Verlag for Science and Research, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-476-45046-5 (also: Munich, University, dissertation, 1992).
  • Rudolf Schenda : The reading material of the little people. Studies of popular literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. (= Beck'sche Schwarze Reihe. 146) Beck, Munich 1976, ISBN 3-406-04946-X .
  • Rudolf Schenda: Colporteurs and Colportage Book Trade. In: Rudolf Schenda: People without a book. Studies on the social history of popular reading materials 1770–1910. (= Studies on philosophy and literature of the nineteenth century. 5, ISSN  0081-735X ) Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1970, pp. 228-270.

Web links

Wiktionary: Kolportage  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Duden Foreign Dictionary. 5th edition, 1990.