About Us

Online Reference Collection

Guides to Using the Library

Site Map

Ask a Librarian

General Library Help

LEARN to Use the Library


Printers' Marks as Library Window Decorations

Printers' Marks as Library Window Decorations

by Amanda M. Flattery, University of Illinois Library
Library Journal, November 1927, p.1015-1017

One of the most novel and interesting features of the new Library of the University of Illinois is the display of printers' devices worked out in color on panels of tinted glass inserted in the center of windows of the main reading room.

In the early days of book-making, the privilege of printing was obtained from kings, princes, or popes. To secure the privilege meant the expenditure on much time and money on the part of the printer; naturally he wished to protect himself against piracy. A pirated book was rarely correct in text or typography and cast serious reflection of the printer whose name appeared in the book. Even if the text and typography seemed to indicate that the book was genuine, a forged printer's mark could be detected without much difficulty. So the early book-maker adopted the plan of printing on the last leaf, or in later times on the title-page, a device which guaranteed the book as his own work.

Such devices were used freely by the printers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Early in the seventeenth century, copper-plate engravings and vignettes usurped the place of the printer's mark on the title-page and few marks are found in books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the nineteenth century the mark was revived. At present various French and English printers and some American publishing houses still use a mark on the title-page, but by most printers it is considered superfluous.

From the hundreds of facsimiles of printers' devices available, a selection for the University of Illinois Library was made on the basis of the importance of the printer in relation to the history of printing, or because of originality or artistic merit in the device. The small designs in the corners of the panels are water-marks of early manufacturers of paper. Twenty-seven marks are displayed on the windows, representing printers of Italy, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, France, England and Scotland. Each of the windows is eight by sixteen feet in size, and the panels are about two and a half by four feet. Among printers whose marks appear are Ratdolt, Scotto, del Gesù, Hamman de Landoia, Giunta, Aldus, Fust and Schöffer Anshelm, Birckman, Froben, Henriepetri, Froschover, Elzevir, Plantin, Bade, Estienne, Gryphe, De Tournes, Frellon, Vostre, Verard, Wéchel, Berthelet, Caxton, Day, Hester, Wolfe and Davidson.

The earliest printers' marks were very simple. Fust and Schöffer, the successors of Johann Gutenberg, used a mark on the famous Psalter of 1457, the third book printed with movable type and the first to bear the place and date of printing. The mark consists of coupled shields, with printers' rules upon them, suspended from a broken twig. When it was first suggested to the architect, he objected on the ground that it bore a striking resemblance to a pair of kidneys! But its importance as the earliest known printer's mark won a place for it. The artist, Mr. J. Scott Williams, of New York City, who prepared the designs conceived the idea of grouping the portraits of Gutenberg, Fust and Schöffer, the three pioneer printers, introducing the mark below as part of the border.

Long after metal type had superseded the monk's quill and brush, the association of books and the church remained; circles or rings, spheres, crosses and other churchly symbols were used by designers of printers' marks. A good illustration of this type of mark is the one adopted by Ottaviano Scotto, a combination of rings and crosses in white on a red background, with the initials of his name and birthplace. Other good examples of the initial type of mark are those of Andrew Hester, Johannes Hamann de Landoia and Thomas Anshelm. Initials are prominent in the device of William Caxton, England's first printer. The hieroglyphs between his initials have been a subject of speculation among bibliophiles. They are commonly supposed to represent the figures 74, possibly marking a notable event in Caxton's life, tho some students of Caxton interpret the hieroglyphs as his mercer's mark.

The earliest books were printed without title-pages, the printer's mark being placed at the end of a book with the colophon or register. At first it was only a trade mark, but after title-pages came into use, about the middle of the sixteenth century, printers felt that an original or striking design on the title-page was of real ornamental value. Some of the best artists of Europe were employed to design marks for printers. They became very elaborate and ornate; some were beautiful, others grotesque and even ludicrous. The device of Reyner or Reginald Wolfe is considered one of the most artistic in use among printers of the sixteenth century. One of the beautiful Italian marks of the early period is that of Luca Antonio Giunta, a fleur-de-lis in red. The Giunta or Junta family who successively carried on a printing house from 1480 to 1598 at Florence, all embodied the Florentine emblem in their devices. The Giunta press, next to the Aldine, was the most celebrated in Italy. Who is not familiar with the anchor and dolphin of the Aldine family? The Aldine press had various marks during the century of its existence, from 1494 to 1598, but they were all variations of the anchor and dolphin, the anchor representing stability and the dolphin, grace in execution. No Italian printers ever approached the Aldines in beauty of typography. The mark selected for our display is that of the founder of the printing shop. His baptismal name was Teobaldo Manuzio; on his books his name appeared as Aldus Manutius Romanus. Tho born in a small village near Rome, he took great delight in calling himself a Roman, and in using the initials M.R. on his mark.

The members of the Estienne family stand at the head of sixteenth century printers of Paris. More than twenty marks were used by this illustrious family, an olive branch being the characteristic feature. In the history of Dutch and Flemish printing, the two great names are Elzevir and Plantin. The Elzevir family of Leyden employed various marks, the best known being the sphere and the Sage, Hermit, or Solitaire. The latter represents a solitary individual standing underneath an elm around the trunk of which is twined a grape vine. On a scroll are the words, "Non solus"; the scholar prefers solitude but is never alone when he has the companionship of books. In the preface of the famous Polyglot Bible printed by Christopher Plantin at Antwerp, he explains the meaning of the compass which always appears in his marks. The point of the compass turning around signifies work, while the stationary point means constancy, ideas further emphasized by the figure of Hercules personifying steadfastness. It is supposed that Hans Holbein designed the graceful caduceus which characterizes the mark of Johann Froben, whose printing shop at Basel was a center of light and learning in the early sixteenth century. Erasmus remarked that his learned friend really did unite the wisdom of the serpent with the simplicity of the dove.

As printers' marks multiplied, great variety appeared in the designs. Mythological subjects were freely used. A good illustration of this type is the mark of André Wéchel displaying the winged staff of mercury entwined with serpents and surmounted by Pegasus, the fabled steed of the Muses. Hercules appears in a variety of designs. Symbolism came in for its full share of treatment, Justice with sword and balance, the cornucopia as a symbol of plenty, Father Time, peace and war were all favorite subjects. The olive branch, palm branch and swarm of bees all indicated prosperity. Some printers were inclined to favor animal life and quite an extensive menagerie may be found in their marks; the lion, bear, cat with mouse in its mouth, lamb, swan, stork, pelican, owl, eagle, magpie, serpent, tortoise and dolphin. Some printers manifested a predilection for fabulous members of the animal kingdom, the dragon, phoenix, unicorn and griffin. Sebastien Gryphe, who printed during the second quarter of the sixteenth century, had eight or nine marks, on of which the griffin appeared. Punning devices were quite popular. Christopher Froschover, the most eminent of the early Swiss printers, made a frog the central figure of his mark. The mark of John Kay who was King's printer in England represents a sleeper being awakened. On the device are the words, "Arise for it is day," being a pun on the printer's name and an allusion to the dawn of the Reformation. Apiarius used the design of a bear discovering a bee's nest in the hollow trunk of a tree.

Subjects of the street signs over printing shops were often used. Berthelet adopted for his mark his street sign, the beautiful Lecretia Romana. Landscapes, architecture, interiors and sixteenth century implements were freely portrayed, giving us many an attractive glimpse of the domestic and industrial life of the period. A most interesting mark of this type is that of Badius Ascensius or Josse Bade. It is the earliest picture of a printing press that has ever been discovered.

A vast collection of mottoes can be gathered from printers' marks. many of them are in Latin, some in Greek or Hebrew. On some of the Aldine marks we find the motto, "Festina lente," which means, according to Sir Thomas Browne, "Celerity contempered with cunctation." A few of the early Parisian printers embodied in their marks snatches of French verse. The mottoes were drawn from various sources, sometimes emanating from the fertile brains of the printers themselves.

Few things in this world reveal their full significance to the casual observer, but unfold themselves gradually to him who makes them a subject of study. An investigation of printers' marks reveals a wealth of information concerning the history of printing and the ideals of the early printers, together with side-lights on the manners and customs, the domestic and business life of the days when books were first given to the world.