The Stationers' Company

By Feist, Timothy | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Stationers' Company


Feist, Timothy, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


The Worshipful Company of Stationers was the London guild of merchants and artisans associated with the printing trade. Its members included printers, bookbinders, type-founders, engravers, papermakers, and booksellers. It was unique among English guilds because while it performed the normal functions of a trade association by regulating trade practices, providing charity to impoverished members, and so forth, it also functioned as a commercial concern in its own right. The Company's legal, commercial, and political dominance of the printing industry made it a pervasive influence in early modern English literature.1

Membership and Hierarchy

Readers should envision relationships between stationers in the physical context of Stationers' Hall, a complex of substantial brick buildings at the corner of Ave Maria Lane and Paternoster Row just north of St. Martin's of Ludgate Church in London. This acre of ground on Ludgate Hill contained two rows of houses let to tenants, as well as an imposing Hall set behind iron gates where the Company held its meetings and functions. The Hall was the epicenter of English publishing, "a point of passage, rendezvous, and negotiation for all members of the book trade." Despite the absence of battlements and moats, Adrian Johns's characterization of the Hall as "a castle" seems particularly apt; with its secluded centrality, the Hall made an appropriate setting for the highly structured society of its denizens.2

One could acquire membership in the Company of Stationers by four different means-service, patrimony, redemption, or translation. As -with other London guilds, acquiring the freedom of the Company was synonymous with receiving the freedom of the City, and the customs of the City governed Company policy on apprenticeship and freedom. At the same time it should be noted that by the early eighteenth century, a tradesman could conduct business quite freely in London without joining any guild at all. Company membership offered certain advantages, but it had ceased to be a legal prerequisite for trade.

Freedom by "service" meant that an individual completed an agreed period of indenture-as apprentice to a master member of the Company; by the 1700s, term length had been standardized at seven years. At the end of an indenture, a master presented his apprentice before the Company's ruling body, the Court, and the Court officially bestowed membership-or "freedom"-on the apprentice. "Patrimony" offered a shortcut to this process. Any member of the Company had the right to present his or her children for the Company's freedom without first indenting them. On both occasions, whether freeing someone by service or patrimony, the master (usually, although sometimes the apprentice's family) paid a 3s. 4d. fine to the Company.3 Stationers learning their trade abroad or through apprenticeship to a nonmember could enter the Company by "redemption" or "purchase." Such would-be freemen paid negotiated fines averaging around £5. More rarely, some members were "translated" from another guild at their own request, pending the consent of both the losing and gaining guilds. Negotiations determined the fines paid to both companies, as well as the translated member's relative seniority in his new company.4

Freeing by redemption and translation appear to have caused resentment, especially among printers. In his biographical list of printers, John Dunton described some of his subjects as being "bred a printer" because they had served apprenticeships under reputable masters.5 Similarly, Samuel Negus-himself a printer freed by service-disparaged those "who never have been brought up to that business, and ought to be put down."6 Where Dunton implied a higher level of professional competence among those bred to the trade, Negus asserted that upstart printers were more likely to print seditious or troublesome literature. Both statements smack of special pleading, but it is not hard to imagine veterans who had earned their place the hard way viewing redemption as illegitimate, a cheap shortcut around honest effort. …

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