University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Title Pages, A Footnote to the History of Printing

Volume III · Autumn 1947 · Number 1
Title Pages : A Footnote to the History of Printing

Ed. Note: – This paper was originally prepared as an illustrated lecture; with Mrs. Gilchrist’s permission, it has been revised for publication as an example of Mr. Gilchrist’s interest in fine printing and book-making. Mr. Gilchrist was Librarian of the University of Rochester from 1919 until his death in 1939.

Form as well as substance has values, and discrimination and taste are matters of moment.

Lewis Mumford, in an essay on American taste, develops a defense of the modern as divorced entirely from the historical developments in architecture, and expresses rather better than most a rapidly spreading sentiment that clutching for “safety first” should be abandoned, and we should launch out untrammeled by our past successes and failures towards the creation of a coherent, aesthetic, and a significant art.

“When American taste recognizes,” says Mr. Mumford, in his concluding paragraph, “that there is more aesthetic promise in a McAn shoe store front, or in a Blue Kitchen sandwich palace than there is in the most sumptuous showroom of antiques,” (the American wing in the Metropolitan Museum), “when it recognizes that such humble efforts are akin to good modern design like Goodhue’s Los Angeles Public Library or like Mr. Harmon’s Shelton, we shall, perhaps, have the opportunity to create form throughout our civilization. Clean, devoid of archaic ornament, polished, efficient, carefully adapted to every human need, humane, friendly, a new sort of architecture. . .” Here I shall end the quotation; for the criteria of taste set up are of rather broader application than here used, and I should like to have you bear them in mind as we consider some products of the press from its beginnings in the middle of the fifteenth century to the present day. These criteria are as pertinent to printing as to architecture, and are scarcely as young as Mr. Mumford would have us think.

Daniel B. Updike, for many years designer for the Riverside Press at Cambridge, whose work is highly valued and whose studies on the history of printing are even more highly respected, published a little essay in 1924 entitled, The Seven Champions of Typography, in which he emphasizes particularly the means of making type efficient for reading purposes. Theodore De Vinne in 1890, William Pickering in 1830 in London, were stressing simplicity and efficiency – so was Aldus in 1498.

But we must get on to title pages. Why should we choose them for study – what is their function?

The body of any book is very properly quite uniform in character, whether it is well done or otherwise. Not more than two or at most three styles of type – capitals, lower case, and possibly italics – are used on the running page. But printers have always enjoyed the opportunity of design and display which the title page offers, and consequently it often tells us much more about the book-makers than the text of the book itself.

“The title page,” says Dwiggins, “is overture. This is the place to marshal all the scenic effects you can afford. Here is the one chance the usual commercial book gets to make a little melodious noise; to play a few bars of incidental music while the curtain rises; to get the audience in a sympathetic state of mind.” (W. A. Dwiggins “Notes on the Structure of a Book,” in American Institute of Graphic Arts, Fifty Books Exhibited by the Institute, 1926. New York, 1927.)

But title pages did not begin with any such coherent objective. The first printed books had no title pages. As with the manuscripts of the Middle Ages which the first printers sought to imitate as closely as possible, and with which their books had to compete for a market, the reader launched at once into the text, with no more than a curt phrase at the head of the first column which read: “Incipit”: “Here beginneth” – followed by the subject – the epistles of Paul, for example.

Following the practice of the illuminators and scribes, the first printers put at the end of their books a statement which we call the colophon. This is a word whose etymology suggests a “crowning touch,” or “finishing stroke.” And it was as the finishing stroke and the crowning touch that the scribe penned the words: “Finished, thank God, by me –  in the year of our Lord, 1450, on the day after the feast of the Ascension.” The name colophon was probably not applied to this concluding statement before the eighteenth century.

The Mainz Psalter, printed by Fust and Schoeffer in 1457, had the first printed colophon, and in it the printers advertised themselves as the makers of books by a new process, and to it they affixed also their twin-shield device, as the illuminators were accustomed to indicate their share in the production of a manuscript by a device or signature, like the hallmark on silver, or the signature in a corner of a painting. Translated, it says:

The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim in the year of the Lord 1457 on the vigil of the feast of the Assumption.

So the first colophon was a printer’s advertisement, and this practice rapidly spread until by 1500 it was quite general.

It was not long until, by accident, the final page had no space left for a colophon. It had to go over onto another page. Printers’ devices were widely used – perhaps for advertising purposes, and we find numerous full pages at the ends of books, using display types, printers’ device (if the shop had one), and other characteristics of a title page.

The printers of France seem to have been the most active in changing the position of the devices from the last to the first page, but the first title page was done by Schoeffer himself in 1463, though it carried no date, and like most books until well into the sixteenth century, this one carried the conventional colophon at the end as well.

Arnold ther Hoernen, of Cologne, in 1470 printed the first dated title; and it was not a display, but a little block which might just as well have appeared as part of the last page. The type face used is the same as that in the body of the book, and the column width is identical.

Another colophon, printed by Michael Wenssler in 1481, shows the colophon on a verso after the final recto, with the register of signatures taking up most of the sheet. It is quite safe to state that there was no uniform practice in the matter of colophons – even within any given printer’s shop. Little emphasis was placed on form of arrangement; economy then as now had pertinence, and taste and artistic sense were as scarce among printers.


The idea of the printer’s device, however, spread rapidly and “took.” At first these devices were simple, like those of Fust and Schoeffer, the anchor of Aldus, and the device of the Guild of Master Printers of Venice – a basic design of which there was a great number of variants. These tended to become more elaborate, and to be further embellished with decorative borders, particularly in France, where they were most rapidly and widely transferred to the front of the book. Sometimes the device was recut to fill a larger space, but more often the page was filled out by adding borders.

The best of the printers as we judge them today – Aldus, Stephens, Froben, Plantin, and others – never allowed their devices on the title page to belittle the name of the book, but many monopolized the space for advertising their own part in the enterprise. In the seventeenth century there was a distinct drop in the popularity of the printer’s device, but the need of a “spot” in the title page resulted in the introduction of old woodcuts, and stock decorations frequently having no relation to the contents of the book whatever. Direct descendants from this practice are the little basket of flowers, the open book with scroll, and the Greek lamp so frequently seen on title pages from small shops today.

The printer’s mark was revived in England by Pickering in the middle of the nineteenth century, and since then has been used by many printers and publishers, but particularly by the private presses, which are legion.


A decorative border for the title has, from the beginning, had many friends. The first was used by Ratdolt in Venice in 1476, and is worth noting because the printer or designer apparently sensed the propriety of a value in the line, which would give to the type a reasonable degree of emphasis. It is laborious to cut away all the woodblock except this thin line, and most woodblock cutters did the easier thing – they cut away the line, leaving a heavy black border; but the effect achieved in this first title page border of lightness, clear definition, and delicacy, has had many followers ever since. This is pure decoration without device, and without any of the elements suggesting the contents of the book.

Studies by Alfred F. Johnson, R. B. McKerrow, and F. S. Ferguson show the tremendous popularity of the woodcut border in Germany and England during the first half of the sixteenth century. Between 1510 and 1535 there were many hundreds cut in Germany; ninety-four different designs were used in books of Martin Luther in seven years.

Over three hundred English woodcut borders belonging to the first century of printing in England have been catalogued. Some forty of these were also used on the continent, and many of them appear in a dozen or more books. Inferior to the best of the German work, we shall have to pass them by with no more than this remark. Nor can we take time to consider engraved title pages, which were so popular from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Though they have their interests, they are not really typography, but rather illustration.

The woodcut border, or its modern equivalent in zinc etching, is occasionally found effectively used, particularly in the country of its origin – Germany. The delicate line border of which Geofroy Tory in Paris was the chief proponent in the sixteenth century, has been widely imitated. One of his borders was used at least fourteen times in England between 1532 and 1562.


One of the first steps in the debasement of the title page was the use of flowers and other printers’ spots as a substitute for the engraved title border. Economy, again, or lack of taste. The Italians and French had shown how well engraved borders in pure outline could blend with type, but the efforts to get a similar effect with pieces of type bearing details borrowed from the bookbinder’s gilding tools were not so successful.

This practice, however, abandoned except by the poorest printers from about 1600 to 1800, has been revived of late, and with much more success due to the improvements in type cutting, printing processes, and the relations of design to type faces with which it is combined.

Line borders were even easier, for lines were on the composing table of every printer. Both the flowers and the lines are hard to print clearly; they choke and smudge or bend easily, and any defects mar the appearance of the page.

The line and flower designs are now frequently combined, and with pleasing, if not striking effect. Mr. Updike liked them, and even Bruce Rogers, the purist among the preaching printers of the present, has experimented with them.


If you should inquire of ordinary readers in a library what a title page is, most of them would answer, after betraying their astonishment at such a question, that “It’s the page in front with the name of the book,” and that’s correct. And the vast majority of title pages have just that, and not much more; in type – and little else but type. After all, the principal and generally acknowledged purpose of the title page is to give information. It has always been so. Early attempts at decoration are but one part of the story; the development of simple, direct, display title pages paralleled the other experiments.

Colophons were occasionally printed in capitals, and large types were used frequently for first lines in separate paragraphs. Types began to be made in sizes uselessly large for anything but display; their use spread rapidly between 1500 and 1560.

Stephens of Paris was one of the few sixteenth-century printers who emphasized the need for clear, simple display on the title page, and refused to allow typographical sleight-of-hand performances, which were widely displayed in the taste for compressing the title-page matter into conventional designs.

We have said little of Aldus, whose italics, and Greek types, and octavo translations of the Greek and Latin classics brought him lasting fame and distinction. From the beginning of his work in Venice, 1494, he revived an interest in work of care and distinction, which had rapidly declined, once competition with the scribes had been successfully overcome by the printers.

The first Aldus, Aldus Manutius, was always the advocate of simplicity and economy, but never at any sacrifice of quality. His taste for simple designing was inherited by his son and grandson, along with the business, which maintained a leading position in Italy for over one hundred years.

It should be remembered, however, that the simple display title pages were not considered of particular charm or value by the generations of the sixteenth century for which they were produced. Embellishments were much preferred, and embellishments were used in great profusion and in great variety. In Germany a fondness developed for flourishes and rubrications reminiscent of the mediaeval manuscripts. Title pages were heavy and black, sometimes requiring careful deciphering. Titles in full capitals were never considered possible with the Gothic types.

The display title page, however, has survived in England and America as the most common and the best handled form. In the seventeenth century most titles were crowded, containing frequently a résumé of the book.

One of the first to pull back toward the utmost simplicity in title page design was William Pickering, the publisher, who was a great admirer of Aldine titles, and very much disapproved of condensed capitals which were quite the vogue in France and England, and of the varieties of decorative devices popularly considered to make for elegance. Lower case letters seldom appeared in Pickering’s titles. The style was widely copied in America, and is still in vogue. “Its marked simplicity has been condemned as studied affectation, but the real objection,” as De Vinne states, “is seldom put forward: a title in the Pickering style is not so easily composed as the ordinary displayed title.”


The first title pages were sometimes a section transferred from the last column, and had a square form. Ever since, there have been some designers who insist that the title should have the monotonous uniformity of a printed page. The suppression of indistinct lines in display titles is not enough for them. Why spread all over the title page? Why use a lot of different types? The principal difficulty encountered is uneven spacing, but the results are seldom distinguished.


De Vinne, in his treatise on title pages, rather more ingeniously than accurately lays the blame on the early chapbooks for continued interest in crude drawings, worn or irregular types, staggering type lines, dingy paper, and muddy press work. To be sure, the chap books have been imitated, but the revival of woodblock cutting, the growth of the poster, and the interest in primitive, uneducated, unrefined expression in all the arts has in recent years let loose, and particularly since De Vinne’s time, a flood of experiments in title page display which would give any of the old masters of typography, and do give modern masters, a headache of proportions!

It is scarcely to be wondered at, but it is not always remembered, that only the best work of any period tends to survive. We study the best work of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the title pages or furniture, art and literature which appeal to us as good, forgetting sometimes the run of the mill – the great bulk of which scarcely attracts our attention.

In reviewing printing art, we should remember that most of the printing of even the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was poor, judged by our standards today, and that in the last fifty years the presses here and abroad have been turning out smarter, simpler, more beautiful, and more efficient books than any previous generation has enjoyed.

There are, and always will be, experiments in design, novelties –  and bad artists – if you please, and there will also always be those who will, I hope, subscribe to D. B. Updike’s conclusion that “Most experiments wise and otherwise have already been tried, and the sure way – which is not very original now – is on the whole the best way unless it can be so much improved that its utility can be recognized at once.” (D. B. Updike, “On the Planning of Printing,” In the Day’s Work. Cambridge, 1924.)