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Book History 5 (2002) 39-66

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Internationalizing Book Distribution in the Early Nineteenth Century:
The Origins of Finnish Bookstores

Jyrki Hakapää


The ability to overcome limits on communication, to transmit and receive enormous amounts of information across the globe, may be the most distinctive mark of the contemporary globalized world. Manuel Castells, one of the most important theorists of globalization, has named our era the Information Age. 1 However, this phenomenon cannot be studied apart from the rest of human history. A research group led by David Held has explored the development of globalization over time, for in their opinion, "simply seeking to describe the 'shape' of contemporary globalization necessarily relies (implicitly or explicitly) on some kind of historical narrative." 2

The roots of globalization have not always been global. World-system and civilizational studies show the early and complex development of different global patterns within more restricted areas. One crucial moment in this process took place in early nineteenth-century Europe. 3 Prior to the consolidation of national cultures in the nineteenth century, cultural communications were conducted mainly among elites across many different [End Page 39] societies (transnational identities) or at very local and restricted levels. But the European nation-states created new possibilities for communication by increasing levels of literacy across class lines and facilitating the development of newspapers, railways, steamboats, and the telegraph. In the early nineteenth century these new technologies were used mostly within national borders, but later—putting this very simply—the various national communications networks (often including also colonized areas around the world) were linked together, enabling cultural exchange over greater distances. 4

This theoretical model finds a practical illustration in the activities of Gustaf Otto Wasenius (1789-1852), a pioneering Helsinki bookseller. This article covers the period from 1823 (the opening of the store) to 1836 (the first regular steamboat connection between Finland and Sweden), thus stopping short of the introduction of railroads and the telegraph, and reveals Wasenius as a transitional figure. When he began his business, books were still circulated through the old communications system that served an international elite. But Wasenius participated in inventing a new kind of cultural institution, built up new communications networks, and developed new ways of doing business in a local context. His career illustrates the possibilities that Finnish booksellers and Finnish readers enjoyed for delivering, acquiring, and reading books in a society that was just beginning to modernize.

Finland in the Early Nineteenth Century

At the end of the eighteenth century, many Swedish writers complained about how difficult and frustrating it was to develop a literary life in the country. Books were expensive, and therefore people did not buy many of them. The few booksellers who existed were accused of being so poorly stocked that "at få en bok blir snart en lycka"—"to get a book will soon be a matter of luck." 5 These words were written by the Swedish poet Olof Bergklint, who remarked that there were certainly readers in Sweden (which at the time included Finland), but they could find nothing affordable other than "a daily newspaper and a thin collection of sermons." 6 Under these conditions, how could the intellectual resources of Sweden ever reach the level available in London or Paris, as Bergklint dreamed?

Contemporaries registered similar complaints about the lack of books in Finland during the first half of the nineteenth century. But these protests obscure the fact that, at this time, the book business, communications facilities, and transportation networks were all changing. Earlier, books had been distributed through a solitary bookseller attached to the University of [End Page 40] Turku, some bookbinders in other towns, or individuals who traded in books as a sideline to their main occupation. The first professional and commercial Finnish booksellers appeared at the turn of the century, and one of them was Gustaf Wasenius.

Wasenius was born at Hämeenlinna, a small town about a hundred kilometers from the Gulf of Finland. His father was a merchant, but the son surpassed the limits of his hometown and made a...


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