Stationery is an old-fashioned word. Or maybe I just think it’s old-fashioned because I learned it a long time ago and I don’t see it used much any more, given our electronic culture. But no, my fave dictionary lists it as having appeared in 1688—which is old enough, but its etymology is stationer, which we’re told by the same dictionary dates from the fourteenth century. So there you have it: old.
Stationery, a definition: 1) materials (as paper, pens, and ink) for writing or typing; and 2) letter paper usually accompanied with matching envelopes. And it follows, then, that a stationer is one who sells stationery, but the original meaning of stationer—the one that dates from the fourteenth century—is a) a bookseller and b) a publisher.
Back in the day, stationery was considered a ladylike gift for a young girl, and I had plenty of it, having already gained a reputation—by age ten!—for being quite the letter-writer. My first job in high school was at a stationery store. My mother kept stationery (Crane’s) and to this day, I do too. Nothing else will do.
So I was intrigued and later quite delighted when a friend of mine* noted (on Facebook) she was having dinner here. She attached that very link and there followed some discussion about whether her party (a professional organization) would be allowed to tour the building, particularly the library and archives:
The Company’s historic records from 1554 to the present day, housed in its Muniment Room, are remarkably complete and have withstood the ravages of time, fire and war. They form the single most important archival source for the history of the English book trade and have been used by scholars since the mid-eighteenth century.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What, er, Company? Answer: The Stationers’ Company is the City of London Livery Company for the communications and content industries.
We’ll need some more definitions. For example, the City of London is not to be confused with … well, London. (I’m not kidding. Read. We’re moving on. Keep up.) The City of London is only about a square mile, but it contains—besides a whole bunch of banks and other global financial institutions—precisely 108 livery companies. That is, trade associations. Or, if you remember your history lessons, guilds.
Guild, a definition: an association of merchants or craftsmen in a particular trade. The earliest types of guilds were fraternities of workers; Wikipedia says they were something between a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. But I’m talking about the guilds that emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages—tenth to twelfth centuries, say. Masons, blacksmiths, apothecaries, and such. These particular guilds have all been approved, at one point or another, by the British Crown.
When you think of livery—although you probably don’t, because it, too, is an old word—you may think of a uniform: 2a) the distinctive clothing or badge formerly worn by the retainers of a person of rank; 2b) a servant’s uniform; 2c) distinctive dress, garb; 2d) chiefly British, an identifying design (as on a vehicle) that designates ownership. Or you may think of “the feeding, stabling, and care of horses for pay,” as the words livery stable regularly appear briefly onscreen in Westerns and other period films set before the automobile replaced the horse and carriage as our primary means of transportation. But in this context—the 108 livery companies—we’re talking about a guild.
The Livery Companies of the City of London, then, started as guilds in the Middle Ages. Wikipedia says, “Some livery companies continue to have a professional role today. Other Livery Companies have become purely charitable foundations. Most Companies, particularly those formed in more recent times, are primarily social and charitable organisations. The active Companies play an important part in social life and networking in the City and have a long history of cultural patronage, and control of the City of London Corporation (which still functions as a local authority with extensive local government powers).”
Which brings us ’round to the Stationers Company. It was founded as a guild in 1403 and at that time stationers were text writers, illuminators, bookbinders, or booksellers (of hand-copied books; it would be 1440 before Gutenberg’s famous press arrived on the scene). Stationers worked at fixed, assigned positions (stations! a-ha again!) around the outside walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral. By the time the guild received its royal charter in 1557, though, machine printing had displaced manuscript production, so it was effectively a printers’ guild. In 1559 it became the forty-seventh Livery Company. Its official name is Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, which dates from 1937, when the Stationers’ Company and the Newspaper Makers Company were amalgamated by Royal Charter.
Are you still with me? The word company as it’s used in this context kept throwing me off, because I think of a company as something intended to make a profit. But, hey, a quick trip to the dictionary helps us make the distinction: 3a) a chartered commercial organization or medieval trade guild; and 3b) an association of persons for carrying on a commercial or industrial enterprise.
The Stationers’ Company has a beautiful, sophisticated, deep website, which is where this whole post started. (It was intended to be a Short Saturday post, but clearly I’ve failed.) I suspect you’ll get a kick out of it, as I did, not least because it’s our industry. I particularly delight in the way this six hundred-year-old organization with all that history presents such a modern face:
The Company’s mission is to be recognised as the most effective independent forum in the UK Communications and Content industries, actively contributing to the strategic development, success and education of these industries. The majority of our members work in or supply the paper, print, publishing, packaging, office products, newspaper, broadcasting and online media industries.
Oh, this has been so much fun!
*You didn’t know I’d get a blog post out of this, Roz, but thank you!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”