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Early Baltic German Printers in the Lands of Present-Day Latvia

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(This guest post is by Grant Harris, former Chief of the European Division)

For seven centuries before Latvia declared its independence in 1918, its disparate regions had been dominated by outside powers, including Poland, Russia, and Sweden. More than any other influence, however, the German land-owning class and the Lutheran Church largely determined economic and cultural affairs, even after Russia annexed Latvian regions, one by one, in the 18th century.

1798 map of the Duchies of Livonia and Estonia, showing parts of Couland.
Atlas von Liefland, oder von den beyden Gouvernementern u. Herzogthümern Lief- und Ehstland” (Atlas of Livonia, or of both the governments and Duchies of Livonia and Estonia). Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, 1798. The map shows most of today’s Latvia, i.e., Livonia and Courland). Geography & Map Division.

The Baltic Germans, as they are called, began arriving in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Germans mounted crusades northward to bring Christianity to the pagan peoples of the lands that now comprise Estonia and Latvia. The Baltic Germans were largely responsible for propagating book culture in those lands.

The city of Riga, today’s capital of Latvia, obtained its first printing press in 1588 when the typesetter Nikolaus Mollin (ca. 1550-1625) of Amsterdam was commissioned to install and operate it. Riga’s primary language of printing began as Latin, not Latvian, for Latin was Europe’s first language of printing.

Visual map of Riga, “Civitates orbis terrarum,” 1612-18.
Riga  skyline from the sea from volume 3 of “Civitates orbis terrarum” (Cities of the world), 1612-18. (Map 90 of 260). Geography & Map Division.

However, printing in Latin waned before a century had passed. Thereafter, the German language prevailed in Latvian lands. Some printings, primarily religious texts, appeared in the Latvian language, because the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther had triggered promoted the translation and publication of religious texts in all languages. As early as 1523, Luther had written and published (in Germany) a letter to the Christians of Riga, where Lutheranism would become dominant among the ruling elite by the 1550s, replacing Catholicism. Jelgava, the capital of the Duchy of Courland (in Latvian, Kurzeme), an integral part of today’s Latvia, received its first press nearly 90 years after Riga, in 1666-67, and printed primarily in German from the start. Described below are three early Baltic German printers and their descendants who made publishing a family trade. Their works are well represented at the Library of Congress.

Image of court printer to the Duchy of Courland, Johann Friedrich Steffenhagen (1744-1812).
Johann Friedrich Steffenhagen (1744-1812) court printer to the Duchy of Courland, image from Jelgava city library.

Two of these ethnic Germans arrived separately in Latvian lands in the 1760s and became directors of the largest printing establishments in the Baltic region. The first, Johann Friedrich Steffenhagen (1744-1812), had earned a surgeon’s certificate in Pomerania in 1762 and moved to Jelgava that year, working at first as a barber/surgeon. Four years later at age 22 he made a career change, taking a position in a Jelgava printing house during the very year of death of its owner, Christian Liedtke (1733-66), the official court printer for the Duchy of Courland. Three years later Steffenhagen married Mr. Liedtke’s widow and thus inherited the position of royal court printer.

Steffenhagen printing house 1910s
Steffenhagen printing house, 1910s.

When Russia annexed Courland in 1795, transforming the independent duchy into a Russian province, Steffenhagen stayed on as printer for the new regime, the Courland Governorate (in Latvian, Kurzemes guberna [with n cedilla]; in Russian, Kurliandskaia guberniia). In 1801, he formed the company “J. F. Steffenhagen und Sohn” after adopting his sister’s son, whose name became Johann Martin Peters-Steffenhagen (1766-1838). The enterprise printed works primarily in German and used the German name for the city, Mitau, instead of Jelgava, on the title pages. When they printed in Latvian, they used the spelling Jelgawa. The business kept going for four more generations after father and son, until 1921.

Detail from above map showing both Riga and Mitau. “Atlas von Liefland, oder von den beyden Gouvernementern u. Herzogthümern Lief- und Ehstland”
Detail from “Atlas von Liefland, oder von den beyden Gouvernementern u. Herzogthümern Lief- und Ehstland” showing Riga and Mitau (Jelgava/ Jelgawa). Geography & Map Division.
A map of the Duchy of Courland.
Map of Courland with Mitau circled. From “Jahresverhandlungen der Kurländischen Gesellschaft für Literatur und Kunst.” Kurländische gesellschaft für literatur und kunst. (Annual proceedings of the Courland Society of Literature and Art. Courland Society for Literature and Art.) Mitau: Gedruckt bey J. F. Steffenhagen und sohn, 1819-. 

The Steffenhagens printed several works in Latvian by one of Courland’s Baltic German Lutheran pastors, Gotthard Friedrich Stender (1714-96). Stender had mastered the Latvian language and promoted the cultural ascent of the Latvians, creating their first encyclopedia of the natural world, the first illustrated alphabet book, the first printed poetry, and the first grammar book. The Library of Congress has reproductions of those works, as well as the original first edition of Stender’s German-Latvian dictionary, “Lettisches Lexikon” (1789-91). Stender’s encouragement of the Latvian language and culture was shared by a number of Baltic German pastors, though less so by Baltic German landowners, who had created restrictions and obligations that essentially made serfs of most Latvians.

Title page of Gotthard Friedrich Stender's “Lettisches lexikon” printed by J. F. Steffenhagen, Mitau, 1789-91.
Gotthard Friedrich Stender (1714-96). “Lettisches lexikon” (Latvian dictionary). Mitau: J. F. Steffenhagen, 1789-91.

The second notable printer is Johann Friedrich Hartknoch (1740-89), who arrived in Jelgava in 1763 to work in the book trade, where he must have met Steffenhagen.

Johann Friedrich Hartknoch (1740-89), printer.
Johann Friedrich Hartknoch (1740-89). Image from Kulturstiftung der deutschen Vertriebenen.

In 1767, however, Hartknoch moved further north to Riga and began publishing there. Born in East Prussia, he had studied at the university in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), where he came in contact with budding German philosophers Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Immanuel Kant. Hartknoch, once in Riga, became their first publisher. He printed, for instance, the first two editions of Kant’s seminal “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” (“Critique of Pure Reason”), which brought fame to Kant. The Library holds both the 1781 and 1787 editions. Hartknoch’s son, also named Johann Friedrich Hartknoch (1769-1819), continued the publishing business. Besides books, father and son published music scores (the Library holds from the Hartknoch house one music score each by Johann Sebastian Bach’s two youngest sons, Johann Christoph and Johann Christian) and maps, notably the first complete atlas of Latvia and Estonia: “Atlas von Liefland, oder von den beyden Gouvernementern u. Herzogthümern Lief- und Ehstland, und der Provinz Oesel,” 1798. The Library’s Geography & Map Division has digitized its copies of this atlas.

Title page of an atlas published by Hartknoch in 1798.
Atlas von Liefland, oder von den beyden Gouvernementern u. Herzogthümern Lief- und Ehstland.” Geography & Map Division.

Around 1800, Hartknoch Jr. moved to Leipzig after conflicts with the Russian government over censorship and other matters. His Riga bookstore was bought and sold twice before being purchased in 1841-42 by Nikolai Georg Kymmel (1816-1905), who would keep it in his family until after World War I. It is conceivable that Kymmel was initially aided in the venture by his successful father, Peter Rudolph Kymmel (1788-1852), a Riga brewmaster since 1815, who established in 1850 the city’s first large-scale, modern beer and malt factory (Bierbrauierei und Malz Fabrik C.L. Kymmel), which operated until World War I and is still remembered today.

This mid-19th-century point marks the approximate beginning of the First Latvian National Awakening, a reaction to social, political, and technological upheavals that were happening across Europe. Over several decades, serfdom in Latvian lands had been abolished. Increasing numbers of Latvians left farms and moved to Riga—some to study (a new opportunity) and others to work in the new factories (including the Kymmel beer factory). The city was connected to a rail network in 1861-62, further accelerating growth.

Although Russia had annexed the Latvian territories in the 18th century, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that non-Russian schools were forced to teach in Russian. During this time, Russia’s ruling class and local Baltic German administrators were working more closely, seeing commercial and other advantages in these relations. All of this further squeezed Latvian efforts to promote their culture and language. Many Russians and Baltic Germans viewed Latvian as simply a peasant language to be spoken only at home. Newly urban Latvians, especially students, rebelled against this attitude.

Yudin collection book showing the label of Kymmel booksellers..
Kymmel bookseller’s label in “Andrei Savoiar,” 1831-32. From the Library’s Yudin Collection.

Nikolai Georg Kymmel’s book enterprises in Riga exemplify the closer Russian and Baltic German ties. The Library has over 40 titles printed by him and his son, Nikolai Kymmel (1845-19–?), primarily in German and a few in Russian. They ran a bookstore that included Russian titles from St. Petersburg, as well as Russian-language textbooks for primary and secondary schools. In addition, the Kymmels established a thriving mail-order antiquarian business.

From 1858 to 1910 they prepared 69 specialized catalogs of mostly antiquarian books from other printers, primarily from Russia and from German lands, and with the title of each topical catalog in German and Russian. They sent copies of the catalogs to prospective buyers in the Russian Empire and as far away as the United States. Books offered through their mail-order service can be found at the Library of Congress, but the Library did not purchase them directly from the Kymmels; instead, these books were first bought by Russians and much later resold to the Library. At least 21 such books (18 in Russian, two in German, and one in French) came to the Library of Congress in 1907 as part of the large collection purchased from Gennadii Yudin, a Siberian merchant and book collector. We know this thanks to a rare-book cataloger who noticed the Kymmel bookseller’s label in those volumes and noted it in the catalog records. Nikolai Kymmel, the son, continued the business until the early 1920s, although he moved to Germany in 1919.

From the 1850s onward, however, Latvians made great strides in setting up their own presses. The first Latvian-language newspaper edited by Latvians appeared in 1856, titled “Mājas Viesis” (Houseguest). In the 1860s, Latvians set up publishing houses—Kārlis Štālbergs in Riga, and Heinrihs Alunāns and Johans Frīdrihs Šablovskis in Jelgava. Many Latvian students and intellectuals had moved to St. Petersburg to benefit from its art institutes and progressive circles. There, in 1862, Krišjānis Valdemārs started publishing a Latvian-language newspaper titled “Pēterburgas Avīzes” (St. Petersburg newspaper). It challenged policies that suppressed Latvian culture, which led to the paper’s termination in 1865, but it had made its mark. More generally, Latvians were gaining prominence. By 1900, Riga’s population had become primarily Latvian rather than German. The city was now one of the largest within the Russian Empire and had become an industrial powerhouse. Latvians were establishing a national culture—gaining in literacy and education, creating literary works, starting a tradition of song festivals, collecting their rich folklore, and depicting it in drawings and paintings. Latvian arts and publishing would truly blossom after the First World War.

Read More About It:

Fraser, James H. “Publishing and Book Design in Latvia 1919-1940: A Re-Discovery.” Riga, Latvia: Neputns, [2014]. (The lengthy introductory pages discuss printing prior to 1919.)

Kalnins, Mara. “Latvia: A Short History.” London: Hurst; New York, NY: distributed in the United States, Canada, and Latin America by Oxford University Press, 2015.

O’Connor, Kevin. “The House of Hemp and Butter: A History of Old Riga.” Ithaca: Northern Illinois University Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2019.

Plakans, Andrejs. “The Latvians: A Short History.” Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1995.

Rancans, Tereze. “The History of Early Printing in the Latvian Language (1585-1700).” Masters Thesis. Palmer Graduate Library School, M.S., 1969.

Bogdan Horbal. “N. Kymmel: An Early Supplier of Books from Russia.” New York Public Library.

Nicholas Viksninš, Ph. D. “The Early History of Latvian Books.” Lituanus:  Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Volume 19, No.3 – Fall 1973.

Arthur der Weduwen. “Early Latvian printing, 1525-1650.”


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