CÔTÉ, AUGUSTIN, journalist, printer, publisher, bookseller, and newspaper owner; b. 13 March 1818 at Quebec, son of Augustin Côté, a miner, and Louise Letarte; m. there 30 April 1845 Émilie-Caroline Lemieux in the parish of Saint-Roch, and they had 13 children; d. 30 Sept. 1904 at Quebec and was buried 3 October in the Saint-Charles cemetery.
Augustin Côté came from a family of modest means and it is thought that he did not go to school beyond the elementary level. In 1834, after four years as a printer’s apprentice, he apparently worked in Montreal with John Lovell*. He is believed to have taken private lessons, beginning in 1837, and he managed to acquire sufficient education to become assistant editor of the Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec five years later. When the French edition of this paper ceased publication in October 1842, Côté opened a small printing-shop and on 1 December, in partnership with Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*, began publishing Le Journal de Québec. From then on, his destiny was linked to these two enterprises.
Unlike many publishers and newspaper owners of the time, Côté tended to stay in the background and was not much involved in the social and political life of his day. The only official functions he performed outside his professional sphere were those of stipendiary magistrate and militia captain. In 1858 and 1859 he was secretary and archivist of the Société Typographique de Québec, of which he was made an honorary member the following year. In 1861 he was asked, but declined, to stand for election to the legislature, and in 1867 he refused an offer to become manager of the Quebec post office.
Augustin Côté’s name is associated primarily with the printing trade. He would be in it for more than half a century without a break, from 1842 to 1898. He started out in a very modest way on Rue de la Montagne (Côte de la Montagne): his only printing-press was the one that had been used by William Brown* in 1764 to launch the Quebec Gazette, and then by Samuel Neilson* until about 1834. Over the years the Imprimerie Côté et Compagnie was modernized and became a flourishing, if not large business. In 1855 R. G. Dun and Company evaluated its net assets at $2,000. The official patronage that the enterprise enjoyed as a result of Côté’s connections with Cauchon, and the support of the clergy, were its main advantages. It did so well that in the early 1870s it was ranked among firms with net assets of $25,000 to $35,000. The company’s advertisement in the Quebec directory for the years 1874 to 1877 claimed it was “one of the largest of its kind in this province.” In 1869 Côté moved his offices and workshops to the Union Hotel, which he had just bought, on Rue Sainte-Anne. Sometime later he bought a Marinoni press, and then a Gordon press. In the second half of the 1870s the situation deteriorated, and on 3 Jan. 1878 Côté was declared bankrupt. However, by arguing that this bankruptcy “stems . . . solely from the hard times for business in general and for newspaper owners and publishers in particular,” he avoided being put into liquidation. In August 1882 the Imprimerie Générale A. Côté et Compagnie, which had undergone “renovations and expansion,” was moved to Rue du Fort in a final but unsuccessful attempt to put the company back on its feet. Its credit rating was at its lowest point and in the early 1880s the net value of its assets was only $500. In October 1889 Côté stopped publishing Le Journal de Québec and was unable to find a buyer. When he retired in 1898, no one took over his business. His inventory was sold and scattered to the four corners of the province. By 1900 the site of his former workshops was occupied by a restaurant.
The history of this printing-shop is a typical one, illustrative of the various traditional sectors of the profession. Côté was even at one time a bookseller, operating under the name of Librairie Catholique A. Côté et Compagnie. Apart from job work, he published newspapers and printed books. Côté left a catalogue of his publications, a rare, if not unique, phenomenon in his profession. Although incomplete and sometimes inaccurate, this Catalogue de livres, brochures, journaux, etc. sortis de l’Imprimerie générale . . . depuis sa fondation, le 1er décembre 1842 (Québec, 1896) gives a fairly exact idea of his work. In addition to a few periodicals, 277 titles are listed. Most of them are in French, but there are 16 in English, and 3 in Amerindian languages. A wide variety of almanacs, calendars, and directories constitute the largest category (21 per cent), followed by historical works (17 per cent), institutional publications (15 per cent), and school texts (10 per cent); more strictly literary works form the smallest part. The most important customer seems to have been the church: catechisms, devotional books, works on doctrine, Le Calendrier du diocèse de Québec . . . , various booklets, and small volumes make up 36 per cent of the items catalogued. It is more difficult to estimate the percentage of government publications because the catalogue omitted provincial statutes, the journals of the Legislative Assembly, and reports of various departments. The printing-shop’s output fluctuated: until 1870, it produced on average two or three titles per year, but a peak was reached in 1874 with 14 titles, and again in 1877 with 19. The 1878 bankruptcy brought an abrupt drop the next year, followed by an uneven recovery.
Côté did more than simply carry out orders as a printer, however. In some respects, he acted as a publisher, although it is not always possible to distinguish clearly between the two functions. He is given credit in particular for two major publications. The first was Abrégé de l’histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu’à 1840 . . . , which he asked François-Xavier Garneau* to write, taking as a model a work by the American John Dawson Gilmary Shea. Côté brought it out “to provide the public with school-books written by Canadians, from a Canadian point of view, published and printed by Canadians,” and “to make the books less expensive.” It appeared in 1856 and enjoyed considerable success. The second was Relations des jésuites, which he reissued in three volumes in 1858 thanks to a grant he obtained through George-Étienne Cartier*. Côté has to his credit as well works by Arthur Buies, Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé, Napoléon Legendre, Eudore Evanturel, and Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain, among others.
Côté was also the architect of Le Journal de Québec, which he owned and printed from 1842 to 1889. His other ventures into the newspaper field in Quebec were brief and few. From May to October 1848 he printed the Quebec Spectator, and Commercial Advertiser, of which he was a shareholder; during the first five months of 1870 La Gazette des familles acadiennes (et canadiennes) . . . ; from 1888 La Semaine religieuse de Québec and, according to his catalogue, from 1866 to 1878 the Quebec Official Gazette.
However, Le Journal de Québec was Côté’s main, and almost his only, newspaper venture. It was launched in a period when the French-language press was rebuilding after the drastic reduction that followed the turmoil of 1837–38. Its aim on the political level was to take the place, “among the defenders of constitutional liberties,” of L’Aurore des Canadas, a Montreal paper that had supported Denis-Benjamin Viger* and had begun fighting for the abolition of the union of Upper and Lower Canada. Le Journal de Québec began as a four-page biweekly of modest dimensions (approximately 9 by 14 inches), with a subscription rate of $4 a year. From 2 May 1843 it was published three times a week, and in July 1847 it adopted permanently “the format of the large European publications” (about 18 by 24 inches). Daily publication throughout the year began on 3 May 1864, after a trial period in the legislative session of 1862. For several years the paper was the only French-language daily in the capital, and it was the first in the province to be successful. However, it could not withstand the competition as new mastheads appeared on the Quebec market. At the outset the newspaper inherited the list of French-speaking subscribers to La Gazette de Québec, estimated at several hundred names. Circulation reached 1,200 in 1849, 1,000 in 1856, and 1,350 in 1870. From 1872 it declined steadily and by 1877 it had fallen to 600, a level sustained until late 1889. During its final 15 years, Le Journal de Québec had the smallest circulation of any daily in the city or province. Those running the paper never took a chance, it is true, on even minor innovations. For 47 years its appearance remained virtually the same, and even the content changed little.
Le Journal de Québec continued to be a mid-19th-century paper, dedicated first and foremost to politics, and of interest mainly for its political content. But in this connection it is usually represented as Cauchon’s newspaper, and Côté’s role is somewhat obscured. Yet they had founded it together, they were its joint owners for a time, and Côté took it over after Cauchon withdrew, probably in 1855. They also seem to have shared the functions of editor and publisher until 1847, when Côté became manager and Cauchon (his brother-in-law from 1844) editor-in-chief. Until 1875 it was really Cauchon who guided the destinies of Le Journal de Québec, which was devoted to supporting his political career and defending his personal choices. Thus in 1873, following the Pacific Scandal [see Sir Hugh Allan*; Sir John A. Macdonald*], the newspaper, a long-time ally of the Liberal-Conservatives, had gone over to the Liberal camp. This change of direction marked the beginning of the drop in circulation, which accelerated after Cauchon’s final departure. His successors, who included Narcisse-Henri-Édouard Faucher* de Saint-Maurice, inherited difficulties. By the end of the 1870s Le Journal de Québec had become Conservative once more, and its opponents were in a position to accuse Côté of putting his newspaper at the service of his son-in-law, Edmund James Flynn*. But it was too late to make a comeback. The paper could not switch to the new style of journalism and was one of the first victims of the wholesale elimination of old Conservative newspapers at the turn of the century.
It is still difficult to define precisely the role played by Augustin Côté in book publishing and in the history of Le Journal de Québec. He appears to have been above all a professional, and in any account of printing in Quebec he would certainly be one of the outstanding figures, because of the length of his career and the diversity of his activities.
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