August 19, 2012
The House of Elsevier
Our postings on the great publishers and printers continues with the house of Elsevier. The Elseviers were a Dutch family of printers, publishers and booksellers who flourished in Holland for over one hundred years from about 1585 until 1712. They were one of many fine printing establishments that conducted business in more than one city. During the period they were in operation Holland was a maritime world power and enjoyed what has come to be known as the Dutch Golden Age. Literature, science and the arts flourished with painters of the era including Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was also the golden age of the Dutch book trade. Elsevier books were attractive and well made, inexpensive and sold all over Europe. The founding member of the establishment was Louis Elsevier (1546-1617) who was most likely born at Louvain in Belgium. He left there around 1565 and went to Antwerp where he worked a short time for Christopher Plantin. After working for Plantin he moved from place to place until he settled in Leiden in 1580. At that time Leiden was the most important city in Holland next to Amsterdam. After initial failures at bookbinding and printing he made his first attempt at publishing in 1582 with I. Drusii Ebraicarum Quaestionum. He was given space at the University of Leiden in 1587 and published for himself and for the school.
During the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century the University of Leiden grew to become one of the finest schools in Europe. It attracted an international faculty with some of the foremost scholars of the day including Joseph Juste Scaliger, Claude Saumaise and Daniel Heinsius. Almost half of the student body came from foreign countries including Norway, Ireland, Spain, Poland, Turkey and Persia. The Elseviers maintained a relationship with the University for most of the seventeenth century and it is very likely the students took their books back home with them.
In addition to the Leiden office, subsidiary branches were set up during Louis's lifetime at The Hague and Utrecht. The shop at The Hague was in operation from 1590 until 1665 and was located in the Great Hall. The shop at Utrecht was not as important as the one at The Hague and less is known about the business conducted there. It is known that the shop was established in 1600 by Joost, the fourth son of Louis, at the sign of the Red Goose.
When Lewis died in 1617 his business at Leiden was taken over by his hiers. The Leiden establishment achieved its greatest prominence under the direction of Bonaventure (1583-1652)and Abraham Elsevier (1592-1652). Abraham was the son of Matthias (d. 1640) who was one of the founding Louis's sons. Bonaventure was Matthias's brother. Abraham had a son Isaac (1596-1651) who established his own printing business and produced work for his father, uncle and other booksellers. In 1629 Abraham and Bonaventure began a series of duodecimo books, small pocket size editions, of the Latin classics that made the Elsevier name famous. The volumes produced in this series didn't come to an end until 1665. They produced another series of small books known as "The Republics" between 1626 and 1649 which gained immediate popularity. Each volume in the series was devoted to the history, economy, geography and other facts about a country in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Near East. These books may be considered the precursors of modern day travel guides. Some texts were reprints of older titles like Contareni's book on Venice and others included only excerpts from older works. There were also newly commissioned titles issued in the Republics series.
Around 1655, after management of the Leiden shop passed out of the hands of Bonaventure and Abraham, the main Elsevier establishment became the one based at Amsterdam. It was under the direction of Louis (1604-1670), the son of the founder of the family business, and his cousin Daniël (1626-1680). Since they were not affiliated with a university it was not as necessary for them to print books about theology and the classics. Their publications included the works of Erasmus, Bacon, Molière and Descartes among others. When Daniël died in 1680 he was one of Europe's famous publishers and with his death the Amsterdam house came to an end. The era of the Elsevier publishing dynasty as a whole came to a rather undistinguished close at Leiden with the death of Abraham in 1712. Abraham (1653-1712) was the great-great grandson of the founding father Louis. Abraham did not apply himself to the responsibility of maintaining the business that was still located on the premises of the University of Leiden. In fact, the senate of the University complained in 1711 about the chickens and dogs kept around the shop that were making too much of a mess and too much noise.
The subjects most published by all the Elseviers were religion and theology followed by law, politics, the classics, French plays and belles lettres. They were also known for their books published in non-Roman alphabets. The years the Elseviers were in business coincided with a period of intense study of Semitic languages in the Netherlands. They sometimes published under a fictitious imprint or anonymously if the books were about religious or political subjects that could have been detrimental to their business reputation. As a whole the family members did not have the best educations and were not scholars. The quality of their texts was dependent upon the caliber of their proof-readers and by the time of the Elseviers the era of the scholar proof-reader had for the most part ended. However, in the main, their texts were well edited and reliable and intended for the scholarly and educated classes. Although they are best known for their small format books, duodecimos like the Republics and classics series, the Elseviers also published larger books, octavos and folios. No matter how one chooses to evaluate their small books the Elseviers deserve credit for providing good books at affordable prices. The worth of these may be judged from the tendency of many other contemporary printers and publishers to imitate or forge their productions. Some of the more learned members of the day were not greatly enthusiastic about the small Elsevier books but others valued them highly. Indeed, one Sir Thomas Browne who died in 1682 had stipulated in his will that "on my coffin when in the grave I desire may be deposited in its leather case or coffin my Elzevir's Horace … worn out with and by me."
The Elsevier name came into use again in 1880 when Jacobus Robbers named his publishing company "Elsevier." He even used the printer's device that Isaac, the printer at Leiden, had used. An old man stands underneath an elm tree which is considered the tree of knowledge. The motto, "non solus," means "not alone." The Elsevier name is still with us today as a part of the Reed-Elsevier conglomerate which is one of the major publishers of healthcare and scientific literature.
Davies, David William, The World of the Elseviers, 1580-1712. The Hague: Nijoff, 1954.
Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall, Encylopedia of the Book.. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 1996
Hartz, Sem, The Elseviers and their contemporaries: an illustrated commentary. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1955.
Lyons, Martyn, Books: a Living History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.
Steinberg, Sigfrid Henry, Five Hundred Years of Printing. London: British Library; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1996.
Traister, Daniel, "The Elsevier Republics" in The Elsevier Republics: Guide to the Microfiche Edition Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Services,Inc., 1988.
Image 1 above: Engraved title page from Casparis Contareni's De republica Venetorum libri quinque published at Leiden in 1628. One of the titles from The Republics series.
Image 2 above: Engraved title page from volume one of the works of Cicero published at Leiden in 1642. One of the titles from the Latin classics series.
Image 3 above: Printer's device used by the Elseviers from the title page of Dan. Heinsii De tragoediae constitvtione liber. In qvo inter caetera tota de hac Aristotelis sententia dilucide explicatur. Editio auctior multo. Cui & Aristotelis De poëtica libellus, cum ejusdem notis & interpretatione, accedit. Lvgd. Batav., ex officinâ Elsevirianâ, 1643.
For more information contact the Department of Special Collections at the Kelvin Smith Library at 216-368-0189