- Digital Discovery and Fake ImprintsUnmasking Turn-of-the-Century Pornographers in Paris
By the end of the nineteenth century there was a flourishing cross-border trade in pornographic books in Western Europe. The production center was Paris, where the law of 29 July 1881 guaranteed considerable freedom of the press and where the book, in particular, benefitted from special cultural protections under the country's obscenity law of 2 August 1882. Producers of pornographic books, however, could still be criminally prosecuted in the country's highest court on the grounds of immorality. As a consequence they carefully concealed their identities and publishing activities. One of the most visible of these publishers was Charles Carrington (1867–1921), an Englishman who in 1895 relocated to Paris, where he ran a bookshop and published roughly 300 different titles in English and French.1 He published some of his books under an open imprint bearing his name (in fact his pseudonym, for he was born Paul Ferdinando), while others he published clandestinely, outside legal deposit. We know much about Carrington's Anglo-French operations, even from his own pen, but there is little known about other producers active at the same time in overlapping roles as publishers, printers, and booksellers. Bibliographers specializing in clandestine pornography have done the most to reconstruct the lives, careers, and book lists of these other pornographers, but as Peter Mendes admits, "terms like 'probable', 'possible', 'likely', 'conjecture', and 'surmise'" [have] figure[d] extensively."2 Most of those responsible for putting pornographic writing in circulation in the period have thus remained obscure, limiting our understanding of the types of individuals and social networks that made up this subculture.
The difficulty in unmasking clandestine publishers who were operating out of Paris between the 1880s and 1920s has been threefold. First of all, traditional publishers' archives do not exist. Secondly, the names of publishers that have been passed down in bibliographic sources are often incomplete. [End Page 249] Digging through French physical archives for a surname (which also might be a pseudonym or some corruption of the original) necessitates much labor, time, and patience, as indexing is minimal and access is limited. Finally, even if such sources were abundant, physical archives are typically bound by geographical borders, so that the paper trail ends when publishers moved (which they did for job opportunities and to flee the authorities). As one bibliographer once colorfully described the situation, "Often important discoveries are made quite by accident in dusty corners of old bookshops or hidden away in their cellars."3
This century's digital turn, however, has turned many of these old book-shops, dank cellars, and intractable archives into online platforms and databases, which (as observed by Sarah Bull) have transformed research on the history of pornography.4 The mass digitization of public records and historical newspapers as well as their aggregation into databases equipped with search algorithms and faceted navigation has immensely facilitated the process of tracking down the period's clandestine pornographers across multiple regional and national borders. Digital discovery can now lay bare the secret lives of a number of these individuals for the first time.
That said, there is currently no "one-stop shop" database for cross-searching and cross-browsing European government records or newspapers. Rather, there is a diverse set of digital resources that need to be cross-referenced. The most useful digital resources have been the Ancestry website (an international commercial database of public records), French open-access regional and municipal archives (often simply digital scans), Gallica (the French national library's full-text digital library), and BelgicaPress (the Belgian national library's collection of digitized newspapers). A typical search begins with a boolean query in Gallica or BelgicaPress (entering a last name plus a keyword like "obscenité" or "pornographie") to unearth names, dates, and addresses (usually furnished from police and crime reports). This information then guides further research of vital records collected in Ancestry and regional archives. The discovery process then frequently leads back to site-based searching in physical archives, in particular non-digitized Parisian and Belgian judicial and prison records, which provide fascinating details about outlaw careers in print. Digital discoveries...