Printer's mark of Johannes Fust & Peter Schoeffer, from their 1462 Bible
The penguin. The borzoi. When we peruse our bookshelves, we see spines decorated with the symbols of publishing houses. But this tradition is not modern: starting with the second book ever printed—Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer’s Mainz Psalter, after Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible—members of the trade were making their presence known through what we now call a printer's device or mark. These marks were words and illustrations carved into wood and included at the beginning or end of a book to indicate the printer responsible. In NYPL’s Rare Book Division, we have a treasure trove of printers’ marks to explore.
The subject matter, artistry, and size of printers’ marks varied greatly: some were as simple as the printer's initials, while others were elaborate vignettes. Many included illustrated mottoes, such as Marcus Antonius Zalterius’ nil durum indigestum, meaning “nothing is too hard to be digested.” Unable to resist a good pun—or a bad one, for that matter—many printers chose imagery that played on the wording of their names. A personal favorite is Mathias Apiarius (Latin for "beekeeper"), whose mark shows a playful bear about to find out that the pursuit of honey can come with a sting.
Printer's mark of William Caxton (the first printer of books in English), from Image Du Monde, 1490
Printer's mark of J. Mathiæ Hovii, from Techo’s Historia Provinciæ Paraquariæ Societatis Jesv, 1673
Printer’s mark of Marcus Antonius Zalterius, from Ovid’s Le Metamorfosi, 1598
Printer's mark of Mathias Apiarius, from Herberstein’s Rervm Moscouiticarum Commentarij Sigismundi, 1551
The first appearance of Aldus Manutius' printer's mark, from Poetae Christiani Veteres, Vol. II, 1501
One of the most well-known printers’ marks belonged to Aldus Manutius, whose tremendous output and innovative ideas in early sixteenth century Venice made him the envy of his printing peers. Aldus found out the hard way that success breeds imitators, when rivals capitalized on his meticulously-composed texts with sloppy pirated copies. As a deterrent, Aldus began adding his own printer's mark, a dolphin entwined around an anchor. This image, along with his motto festina lente, meaning “make haste slowly,” symbolized the twin goals of speed and thoroughness that characterized Aldus’ work. Sadly, this proved yet one more thing for others to copy, prompting Aldus himself to denounce these fake marks as “impudent frauds” in the preface to his 1518 edition of Livy’s Decades.
A complete list of printers’ marks would fill many books of their own. But for the bibliophile, one printer deserves special mention: Jodocus Badius. This is because his mark, first used in 1507, includes an early image of a printing shop in action. The press takes center stage, surrounded by the three members of the printing team. In front we see the pressman, pulling the “devil’s tail” to press each sheet of paper against the inked type. To the right, the compositor selects the individual pieces of moveable type from a case and lines them all up on his composing stick, while checking his accuracy against the manuscript copy propped up nearby. And in the back, the beater holds two leather balls covered in ink, ready to stamp onto the type for the next sheet.
Printer's mark of Jodocus Badius, from Baptista’s Prima Pars Operum, 1507
As you can see, printers’ marks can contain beautiful and entertaining designs. They also offer us a window into the past—teaching us how people lived, what they made, and the principles they valued. That’s a lot to get out of one block of wood!
If you would like to learn more about printers’ marks, try William Roberts' Printers' Marks: A Chapter in the History of Typography, Hugh William Davies’ Devices of the Early Printers, 1457-1560: Their History and Development, or Bella C. Landauer’s Printers' Mottoes. You can also browse the University of Barcelona's database of printers' marks or try making your own!
Image Credits: Rare Book Division. New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.