Colporteur – Wildest Word of the Day

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(Credit: Flickr photo by Dominique Chappard)

I stumbled across this wild word today on a random search down an internet rabbit hole.

A colporteur is someone who goes from place to place peddling printed material like books, brochures and newspapers. It was mainly used for people who distributed religious tracts and bibles. The act of doing this is known as colportage.

I’m fascinated with the idea that there were (and still are?) colporteurs who go door-to-door selling bibles. Ever since I met Albert Maysles and watched his moving documentary, Salesman, I’ve wondered what their lives must’ve been like off-camera and if there are still some lonely souls out there trying to eke out a living doing this.

According to the website World Wide Words, the work of the colporteur could also be dangerous, especially if one was doing it in Wallachia. The site shows a decree from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia, in what is now Romania, which stated:

“We order you to tear those writings that are against our Holy Religion. Whoever will seize and deliver up the publishers of those writings, shall receive 300 crowns…The Colporteur, on the contrary, shall be impaled alive upon the very place where he was seized.”

Morning Post (London), 26 Apr. 1788.

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(Credit: Flickr photo from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Impaled, alive, on the very place he was seized. Ouch! I mean, the impaling thing makes sense, though. After all, the Prince of Wallachia was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Christian Bible has sold over 6 billion copies (according to website Statistic Brain). That’s enough to make anyone’s Amazon.com sales figures look measly by comparison. The colporteurs of the past helped those numbers climb with their endless knocking on endless doors and selling millions of copies of the book in the process.

My questions of the day:

  • Did you know anyone who was a colporteur?
  • In our digital age, are there still colporteurs out there?

Besides the occasional Jehovah’s Witness who tries to drop off a copy of The Watchtower (the most widely circulated magazine in the world), I think the only colporteurs we might still have are those young men (and some women) who pretend to be of college age and knock on your door at the worst possible moments, trying to sell you shady subscriptions to magazines that you already don’t read. They usually carry a wrinkled up cardboard I.D. and give you a sad story about how they are trying to either pay for college or complete an assignment by selling more subscriptions than their classmates. According to Con$umerMan at NBCnews.com we should all “just say no” to these modern day colporteurs. 

If one of them does show up, perhaps you should show them the announcement from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia.

The threat of impalement may keep those pesky colporteurs from ever coming back again!

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(Credit: Flickr photo from Bibliotheque des Champs Libres)

BONUS: A different kind of “colporteur” – the one who wrote all those great tunes from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s (and beyond). Enjoy the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter.

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