A Literary Tour de France

Although Guillon did business only briefly with the STN, his dossier is especially revealing, because it shows how book smuggling operated as an “insurance” business.  Guillon contracted to get books from the tiny village of Le Brassus on the Swiss side of the Jura Mountains to a secret storehouse across the border near Clairvaux-les-Lacs in France.  Click on the relevant document in the maps section to have a view of the route.  Guillon charged a certain percentage of the value of the goods, and he promised to reimburse the STN or its customers for their full value if the shipments were confiscated by a flying squadron of the Ferme générale or customs police.

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Smuggling was an important industry in the border towns of Switzerland in the eighteenth century—and perhaps it still is: I was informed in the 1960s that Swiss peasants backpacked cheap cigarettes across mountain trails to Italy, where taxes made cigarettes especially expensive, and that the loads had a standard weight of 40 kilos, about 80 pounds, exactly as the book packs did among the smugglers who worked for the STN.  The boom in Swiss publishing created such a demand to get books across the French border that smuggling took many forms.  It usually involved bribing customs officials and inspectors in the chambres syndicales of the book guilds in provincial cities.  But the most dangerous and illegal books required special handling.  Entrepreneurs developed elaborate organizations to get them into France, and they referred to their operations as “insurance” (assurance), because they acted as insurance agents, calculating risks and profits with great care.  They charged set fees for their services; and if the books were captured, they reimbursed the shipper or his client for the value of the merchandise.

This postcard, probably from the interwar years, shows Swiss smugglers carrying backpacks much as their predecessors did in the eighteenth century.

          The transformation of smuggling into an insurance business made perfect sense, in principle.  In practice, the businesses often broke down, because they depended on a human element, which kept getting caught in the gears.  The dossier of Guillon l’aîné, an insurer who operated out of the town of Clairvaux-les-Lacs on the French side of the border in the Jura Mountains high above Lac Léman, illustrates the difficulties of holding a smuggling system together.  Although the STN finally gave up on Guillon, it worked with him and his agents long enough for one to study each element in a business plan that looked perfectly rational until it was put into operation. 

          The STN took up this business-like approach to smuggling in response to a suggestion from Robert, Gauthier, et Vernarel, a bookseller in Bourg-en-Bresse (see that dossier on this website), who dealt heavily in the clandestine trade.  In a letter of July 22, 1772, Robert, the senior partner in the firm, suggested that it seek out “assureurs” such as those who smuggled calicoes (“indiennes”) from Swiss factories into France for 20 to 25 livres per hundredweight.  The French had tried to keep cheap calicoes out of the kingdom in order to protect the domestic silk industry, and the STN could get all the information it needed by consulting some nearby manufacturers.  (In fact, Abram Bosset de Luze, who joined the STN as a partner in 1777, ran an important calico factory located near Neuchâtel.)  Two months later Robert wrote that he had found just the man for the job: Guillon l’ainé, a “commissionnaire” or shipping agent in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, who could get shipments from Nyon on Lac Léman to Lons-le-Saunier in the French Jura for 12 percent of the value of the merchandise.  Robert et Gauthier would split the cost of the insurance with the STN, and soon they would be doing business on a large scale. 

          It was an attractive prospect.  The little Jura village of Clairvaux-les-Lacs could serve as the thin edge of a wedge that would pry open markets not only in Lons-le-Saunier, but also in Bourg-en-Bresse, Chalon-sur-Saône, Lyon, Dijon, and even Paris, provided that the STN and Guillon could coordinate the work of wagon drivers and shipping agents along the routes.  Once inside France, the bales of books could be forwarded to the STN’s customers as domestic shipments, avoiding the heavy import duty on books: 28 livres per hundredweight.  They also would be spared inspection in the chambres syndicales of “villes d’entrée” such as Lyon, and therefore they could contain prohibited “livres philosophiques” as well as the less dangerous variety of pirated books.  By mid-October 1772, the STN was corresponding directly with Guillon, and by mid-November he had received its first shipment.

          At that point, he and the STN had to fine tune the details of their agreement, which ultimately took the form of a written contract negotiated at a meeting in Neuchâtel.  Shipments were normally financed through a c.o.d. (collect on delivery) system, whereby each middleman, usually a shipping agent or “commissionnaire,” paid for all the costs accumulated up to that point and then forwarded the goods to the next agent, who would reimburse him.  The STN sent its books for Guillon in packs (“ballots” rather than large bales or “balles”) suitable for being carried on the backs of porters (“porteurs,” or “portes cols”).  It dispatched the load by wagon along the Lac de Neuchâtel to the town of Orbe, then south to Ouchy on Lac Léman, where they were loaded on barges and transported to Nyon near the Genevan end of the lake, then loaded again onto wagons and delivered via Rolle to Le Brassus, a village high up in the Jura, which served as the departure point for Guillon’s porters.  An innkeeper named Rochat stored the packs until the porters gathered at the inn for the hazardous trek across the mountain to Clairvaux-les-Lacs, Guillon’s headquarters at an inn, Aux Treize Cantons, run by a Mme Chapuis.  After their arrival, Guillon would pay the porters, combine the packs into large bales, and forward them to Robert, Gauthier et Vernarel in Lons-le-Saunier or to their principal bookshop in Bourg-en-Bresse.  Guillon and Robert warned the STN to take care with its communications; so its letters to Guillon should be hidden inside an outer letter addressed to Mme Chapuis; and in notifying Robert of a shipment, it should put only “R.G.V.” (for Robert, Gauthier et Vernarel) on the invoice, “à cause du risque.”

This schematic map shows the main stops in the route of Guillon’s smuggling operation.

Despite these complications, the first shipment arrived without difficulty at Clairvaux-les-Lacs, but it had accumulated so much in shipping charges that Guillon did not clear any profit.  He therefore wrote that he would have to increase the insurance rate from 12 to 16 percent of the value of the merchandise.  To understand his strategy, it is necessary to calculate the cost of the constraints within the system.  The STN set a standard wholesale price for its books at one sou per sheet. An unbound octavo volume of 320 pages would contain 20 sheets and would therefore cost 20 sous or one livre (tournois) to a retail bookseller.  Reams composed of 500 sheets normally weighed 16 pounds (poids de marc).  So it would take 6 reams (3,000 sheets) to make a hundredweight or quintal, and the hundredweight of printed sheets would have a value of 150 livres.  Compared with many imported goods, books had relatively little intrinsic value: their price per pound (wholesale and unbound) was typically one and a half times their weight.

In setting his price, Guillon also had to take into account the import duty that the French levied on books.  If he charged nearly as much as the cost of the duty, the STN would be likely to ship its books through normal channels, pay the duty, and count on its allies in the chambres syndicales to do a superficial job of inspecting the bales.  In 1772, the duty was 28 livres per hundredweight (technically 20 livres plus a surtax of 8 sous per livre, which made a total of 28 livres, a very steep duty.)  That amounted to 18.5 percent (28/150) of the value of the merchandise.  By setting his rate at 16 percent, Guillon kept it just far enough below the cost of the duty to make his insurance service worthwhile. 

But he had miscalculated how much his porters could carry relative to the value of the merchandise, probably because he had more experience with calicoes than with books.  He had thought that a man could carry a load worth 300 livres; but at the STN’s price, that would have come to about 200 pounds.  Under normal conditions, porters hauled packs that weighed 80 pounds maximum and that contained books worth about 120 livres.  So Guillon had badly underestimated how much labor it would take to get a shipment across the border—that is, how much he would have to pay his porters.  He did not mention their wages, but 3 sous per pound was a typical rate.  In a letter to the STN of October 19, 1787, for example, Jérémie Witel—who by then had set up business as a printer and bookseller near the French border in Les Verrières—offered his service on the following terms, which were meant to undercut the STN’s usual smuggler-insurer, Ignace Faivre of Pontarlier:

 “Je me chargerais volontiers pour votre maison de l’introduction de vos expéditions en France, et je réponds de l’événement jusqu’à Pontarlier.  Je ne puis le faire à [here there is a hold in the paper; the missing words probably were “moins de”] 15 livres du quintal, parce que je ne veux rien hasarder par la [another hole occurs here]  Pion peut vous dire que je paye 3 sous la livre au porteur.  Vous pouvez compter sur l’exactitude et la plus grande célérité, ce que vous n’aviez pas avec Faivre.   

At 3 sous per pound, an 80-pound load would bring a porter 12 livres in wages—good pay for two days of work, although the risk was commensurately great.  At an insurance rate of 16 percent of the value, the load, valued at 120 livres, would cost 19 livres, leaving the insurer with a profit of 7 livres.  Those figures are approximate, but they are close enough to explain the economics of “insurance.”  Guillon could sustain his business at an insurance rate of 16 percent, but his initial proposal, 12 percent, was not feasible.  He therefore raised his rate, and the STN agreed.  It also promised to suit the needs of his porters by making its bundles narrower and longer.

          Having made these adjustments, the STN and Guillon continued to work together throughout the winter and spring of 1773.  Complications set in, because Guillon pursued several other enterprises and was constantly on the road—to Lyon, to the fair in Beaucaire, and in June to Neuchâtel itself, where he and the STN agreed on further arrangements.  Clairvaux-les-Lacs merely served as his base of operations.  In March he informed the STN that four packs had arrived safely and soon would be forwarded to Robert, Gauthier, et Vernarel in Lons-le-Saunier.  But everything took longer than he had anticipated.  The snow had made the mountain trails hard going for his men.  They probably used passes about 800 meters high along the range dominated by Mont Tendre, which rose to 1,679 meters, and therefore Guillon asked that the STN reduce the weight of its packs from 80 to 70 pounds.  He also said that he had moved to Au Sauvage, another inn in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, and that he had taken on an associate, a young man named Joseph Janod, to look after the shipments. 

Unfortunately, Janod was not much of a letter writer.  The STN sent him notice of shipment after shipment  and received no replies.  It finally complained in a letter to Guillon that it did not know where the packs were: “Nous nous voyons avec beaucoup de peine dans une grande inquiétude causée par son silence, ce qui est (qu’il nous permette de dire) très irrégulier pour des faits de cette nature.”  Writing letters was a crucial aspect oflong-distance shipping, especially in the case of illegal books, because publishers and their customers had to be able to track each stage of the journey and to alert the middlemen along the way.  When the STN sent off shipments to booksellers, it notified them with a letter containing an invoice (“lettre d’avis” and “facture”), and it also dispatched letters to the main shipping agents who would pay the wagon drivers and forward the goods to the next stop (see my essay, “Entre l’éditeur et le libraire: les étapes des ventes,” under “Publications” on this website).  In activating Guillon’s smuggling system, it sent streams of letters to Robert, Gauthier et Vernarel, the booksellers located in Lons-le-Saunier and Bourg-en-Bresse; to Nicole et Gaillard, the key shipping agent in Nyon, who was to forward the packs to Le Brassus, where they would be stored by the innkeeper Rochat; and to Janod, who would arrange for the smugglers to haul the packs from Rochat’s inn to Guillon’s depot in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, where he would repack them as bales and ship them on to Lons-le-Saulnier or Bourg-en-Bresse.   

Nicole et Gaillard, a seasoned expediter and careful correspondent, reported in March 1773 that they had relayed 13 packs to Le Brassus, but they did not know what had become of 7 of them, because they had received no word from Janod.  Unnerved by a continuous lack of information, the STN sent one of its clerks to investigate the situation at Clairvaux-les-Lacs.  He reported that Janod knew nothing about the missing packs.  The STN then sent an angry letter to Janod, reproaching him for his silence and poor service.  He replied that his porters must be at fault, for he had not been able to recruit “des gens habiles dans ce métier.  Les gens à qui nous avions donné commission de les prendre nous ont trompés.  Ainsi il faut nous donner le temps de faire d’autres connaissances.”  Eventually, Nicole et Gaillard located the packs in the village of Burtigny, half way up the mountain to Le Brassus, where the porters had abandoned them, because they could not make further headway through the snow.  Nicole et Gaillard reclaimed the packs in July and shipped them through Geneva, but after a long delay and at great expense.

Janod’s complaints about his porters resulted from a problem far more serious than poor communications.  Guillon explained it at length in a letter written during a stopover in Clairvaux-les-Lacs on April 6:

Malgré tous les soins et diligences possibles de nos colporteurs, deux se sont laissés prendre avec leurs charges, qui sont celles marquées MM nº 24, AD nº 28 [“marques” written on the outside of shipments were used to identify them.]  Dans ce dernier est renfermé 6 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, avec quatre L’An 2440.…Pour la marchandise, il n’y faut plus penser, et quant aux hommes, étant bien en danger d’être condamnés aux galères, parce que l’évêque de Saint-Claude a pris le fait en main. Nous fâchant beaucoup de cet accident, parce que c’est le chef de nos colporteurs. Cependant, nous faisons tous les efforts possibles pour les faire sortir. Nous employons le vert et le sec. Je ne sais si nous y réussirons.

 If the confiscated packs had merely contained pirated books, Guillon explained, he could have intervened to get his two porters released from jail.  Prohibited books were another matter.  Because one pack contained two highly illegal works, Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie  and L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante by Louis-Sébastien Mercier,  the porters stood a good chance of being condemned  to the galleys.  (Punishment for smuggling could involve being branded on the shoulder with the letters GAL for “galérien,” or galley convict, and sent to the galleys in Toulon for nine years.)  Guillon claimed that the STN should have warned him about shipments with prohibited works so that his men could abandon their packs and run for it when they were in danger of being caught by flying squadrons of the border patrol.  Although the bishop of St. Claude had threatened to demand severe punishment, the smugglers  were released ten weeks later, as the STN learned from Robert.  But the incident made it harder for Guillon and Janod to recruit new teams of porters, especially as the leader of the old team had been one of the pair sent to prison.

            The next recruits proved untrustworthy—or at least that was Janod’s explanation of why the seven packs had been abandoned en route to Le Brassus when the snow proved to be too deep.  Offended by the continuous reproaches in the letters he received from the STN—which, meanwhile, had to cope with the complaints from its own customers who had not received their shipments—he wrote that he would leave the resolution of its difficulties up to Guillon.  For his part, Guillon explained in a letter written from Beaucaire on July 20 that he had attempted to reconstruct the route from Le Brassus, using another group of porters.  But they scattered after learning that the guards had planned to trap them during a night-time border crossing.  He also had to give up hope that Janod could take charge of any more operations: “Quel désagrément pour moi d’avoir eu affaire avec un jeune homme comme celui-là.”  And finally he had to settle with the STN for the two packs that had been seized during the arrest of his most reliable smugglers.

            Guillon tried to evade reimbursing the STN for the value of the packs on the grounds that it had not warned him that one of them contained forbidden books.  The STN would have none of that argument.  The whole purpose of the insurance, it objected, was to protect it from loss incurred by confiscation, whatever the nature of the books.  Guillon conceded the point, stressing his integrity in business affairs: “Nous faisons profession d’honnête homme, et nous la remplissons du mieux qu’il nous est possible.”  Moreover, he still hoped to do business with the STN, because as he assured it in October, he had reorganized his smuggling operation, which was working well for other publishers.  The STN replied that it would be ready to resume shipments once it had received compensation for its loss, a matter of 240 livres.  Guillon finally settled the account on October 1, 1774 after several months of disagreement about the exact sum that he owed.  He insisted until the end on his respectability as a businessman: “Il semblait, sans doute, Messieurs, que vous aviez une méfiance terrible sur mon compte….Cela me faisait beaucoup de peine….Je serais fâché de vous faire tort d’un denier.”  But by then the STN had found a better route into France. 

            Smuggling as practiced by Guillon was a highly professional enterprise, aptly called insurance, whose profits and losses were calculated with mathematical precision.  To the insurer, books were the same as any other commodity, such as calicoes.  But to make the system work, the activities of dozens of persons had to be coordinated, and the human material often proved recalcitrant.  After the packs left on wagons from Neuchâtel, middlemen had to be ready to forward them all along the route—from Olive in Ouchy to Nicole et Galliard in Nyon, Rochat in Le Brassus, Janod in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, and shipping agents all the way to the shipment’s final destination in a bookshop in France.  Things could go wrong at any point, especially at the border between Le Brassus and Clairvaux-les-Lacs.  That hazardous leg of the journey required teams of porters who had to summon up a certain degree of daring.  They set out over mountain trails with eighty-pound packs on their backs; carried the loads over high passes, often through deep layers of snow; risked ambushes from flying squadrons of the border patrol; and, if captured, faced the prospect of being branded by the public hangman and condemned to the galleys.  Their employer assumed a different kind of risk.  If the peddlers’ loads were confiscated, he would have to reimburse his customers for the value of the merchandise, but that loss, he calculated, would be offset by substantial profits.  The tone of the insurer’s letters corresponded to the business-like character of his enterprise.  What the porters endured cannot be known.  It left no evidence in the archives.