Glances at Artful Signs of Ages Past

There are very curious-looking designs in the windows in the Sperry Room of Andover Hall. Some of these designs look like the number 4, others like initials, and others seem to be little shields—but there also seems to be a snake in the center of one, and a dolphin-like creature in another.

These designs are "printers' marks," and they are the trademarks for book printers who were working from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries in Germany, England, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Most of the marks in these windows belonged to early printers of Christian writings—in fact, the last window in the northwest corner of the room contains the very first printer's mark to be employed: that of Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, who were associates of Johann Gutenberg. This mark appeared in the Latin Bible of 1462 and in the colophon of the famous Psalter printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1457.

Printers' marks have often been used as decorations in libraries, and when Andover Hall was built in 1911, this room was considered to be part of the library. It was called the Moses Stuart Reading Room, and it was originally equipped with shelving for 6,500 books of reference. Printers' marks can be found in the design of the Boston Public Library, the library of the Rhode Island State House, and in academic libraries throughout the country. Indeed, Harvard's own Widener Library bears a carved stone tablet over its main (north) door which depicts the marks of four famous printers.1 Printers' marks are obvious symbols for books and higher learning, and their association with the printing of early Christian writings must have made them seem an especially appropriate choice for Andover Hall, which was built to accommodate the newly joined Harvard Divinity School and Andover Seminary.2 According to a 1911 article in Harvard Graduate's Magazine, the interior and exterior decoration of Andover Hall

tends to heighten [the] impression that the building is devoted to the use of a school of theological learning. On the four faces of the central tower . . . are carved the symbols of the four Evangelists. . . . The four heads which support the cross-beams of the main entrance hall are those of Dante, Michael Angelo, John Sebastian Bach and John Milton. The leaded decorations of the clerestory windows in the reading room represent the marks of the early German, Venetian and English printers of the Christian Scriptures.3

Andover Hall was designed by the architectural firm of Allen & Collens, which also designed the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum) and the Riverside Church in New York. Unfortunately, there seems to be no surviving record indicating whom Allen & Collens contracted to design the windows. The only known document that mentions the windows directly is a letter from Allen & Collens to Albert Parker Fitch, who was President of the faculty of Andover Seminary from 1909 to 1917. This letter, dated October 10, 1910, says: 

I am enclosing herewith some printers marks, which I wish you would turn over to Dr. Gates, and between yourself and Dr. Gates pick out twenty-four printers marks for the Library windows. I have arranged with the leaded glass contractor to simplify the glazing in the Library windows and in place of the simplification to install a printers mark(s) in the middle of each window. As soon as you have decided on the printers marks, we will bring the matter up before Mr. Whittemore and get the approval of the Building Committee for the mark selected.4

The "Dr. Gates" of the letter was Owen Gates, a former librarian at Andover and the first librarian of the combined library. William Whittemore was the treasurer of Andover Seminary and evidently a member of the building committee for Andover Hall. It is a pity that the leaded glass contractor for the windows is not mentioned by name, but it is perhaps in keeping with the fact that the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists who designed printers' marks rarely signed their work, making them very difficult to trace.

During the Middle Ages, when trademarks came into general use, craftspeople of every trade used these marks as a guarantee of their workmanship. The mark of a merchant was legally recognized by his guild or by the town government, and many inns, shops, and public places were designated by house signs. Printers used marks as a means of identification, and as protection—it was more difficult to counterfeit the mark of a printer than to steal his name. By the end of the fifteenth century, the printer's mark had assumed considerable importance, and as early as 1539 a law was passed by which these marks were protected.5

The marks evolved from small monograms, generally in white on a black background, to elaborate pictures occupying from a quarter to a whole page. Usually they appeared in the colophon or title page of a book. The marks used in the windows in the Sperry Room show the printers' marks in their simplest forms. Many of them are part of much more elaborate designs which include mottoes, angels, animals, and trees.

Some of the designs in the printers' marks are quite unusual, and a few general comments about them might be helpful. The orb, cross, and number 4 often appeared in early printers' marks. The sign of the joined orb and cross was considered to be a sign of royalty as well as an obvious symbol for the globe and Christianity. This sign was also commonly used by artists in their marks, and most likely printers adopted it from them. The number 4 was early associated with the marks of merchants. It has been speculated that the number 4 is connected with Mercury, considered by many to be the patron of merchants. The fourth day of the week is named after Mercury (Mercredi) and he is said to have been born in the fourth month. At any rate, the orb, cross, and number 4 are ancient symbols, and printers adopted them as they configured their own personal trademarks.6

Another common motif found in many of the designs is a pair of shields. Toward the latter part of the Middle Ages, wealthy merchants imitated the upper class by employing marks that resembled the heraldic devices of knights and nobles.7 This influence can be seen in the first printer's mark, that of Fust and Schoeffer, which is in the form of two shields hanging on a tree limb. This motif became very common and was employed by several printers after them. Some marks bear the sign of a printer's shop, such as that of the English printer Rowland Hall, whose shop was called "The Half Eagle and Key." This design appears on the east wall of the room, and is, as is aptly named, half an eagle and a key. Several marks consist of puns on the printer's name—for instance, Richard Grafton (whose symbol appears just as his initials on the east wall of the room) had a symbol which consisted of a tun (a large cask) with a tree grafted on it (graft-tun).

It is not surprising to find that many printers employed marks that had symbolic meaning. Other symbols will be discussed in the descriptions of the marks which follow. In these descriptions, the windows are numbered 1 to 24, and they start with the mark located on the west wall of the Sperry Room in the southwest corner and then circle around the room to the east wall, ending in the southeast corner of the room. Each description includes the name of the printer, the country in which he worked, his working period, and other comments.

1. Simon Vostre. France. Working period: 1486(?)-1520. Vostre printed and published in Paris at the sign of St. John the Evangelist on the rue Neuve Notre Dame, which served as the center of the commercial book trade. He is especially noted for producing many beautifully decorated versions of the Book of Hours, which grew out of the Church's cycle of prayer that divided the day into eight segments, or "hours." His mark consists of his intertwined initials, S and V.

2. Antoine Verard. France. Working period: 1504-1529. Verard is perhaps one of the most prolific printers: he issued books continuously for about 45 years. He was also a calligrapher, an illuminator, and a bookseller, and is especially known for the Book of Hours he printed in 1506. His mark consists of his intertwined initials, A and V.

3. Luca Antonio Giunta. Italy. Working period: 1482-1536. A member of a mercantile family in Florence, Giunta was a bookseller in Venice until 1509, when he acquired a press and worked as a printer and publisher until his death in 1537 or 1538. He was a successful businessman, and specialized in religious works in the vernacular, which had particular appeal to the middle-class merchants of Venice. His mark consists of a conventional lily—taken, no doubt, from the arms of the city of Florence—between his initials.

4. Juan Rosembach de Haydellerich. Spain. Working period: 1492-1530. Rosembach was German, but he is one of the most noteworthy names in the early annals of Spanish printing. He printed books in Barcelona, 1493-1498, and again at the beginning of the sixteenth century; in Perpignan, 1500; in Tarragona, 1490, and in Montserrat. In 1499, he printed a famous missal at Tarragona known as the "Missal de aquel Arzobispado." His sign consists of his initials. 

5. Sixtus Riessinger. Italy. Working period: 1460-1477. Riessinger was a priest and a native of Strasburg. He published the letters of St. Jerome, c. 1466-1467, and brought the printing press to Naples, where he produced "Bartholi de Saxoferrato Lectura sopra Codice" in 1471. He was one of the first printers in Italy to use a mark, which appears to include an arrow. Little is known of the significance of this mark.

6. Theodore Martins (Martens). Belgium. Working period: 1474-1528. He worked in Alos, Antwerp, and Louvain. He was a distinguished scholar and friend of Barland and Erasmus. Martens printed a Sarum breviary, and the only known copy of it is in the Musee Plantin, Antwerp. His mark is an anchor, which Erasmus referred to as "l'ancre sacrée" in an epitaph he wrote in honor of Martins.

7. Johann Veldener. Belgium. Working period: 1473-1484. In 1474 he printed Jacobus de Theramo's Consolation Peccatorum, probably the first book printed in Louvain. He printed twelve books in that city, which were editions of the classics and works on theology, law, and grammar. His mark consists of two shields hanging from a branch. One shield bears his merchant's mark—within three stars, a triangle divided by a cross, the vertical line of which forms part of a cross crosslet. The triangle is, of course, a common symbol of the Holy Trinity. The other shield bears the arms of Louvain. Between the shields is the printer's name, which is the earliest known use of a printer's name appearing as part of his mark.

8. Jacob Pfortzheim. Switzerland. Working period: 1488-1518. Pfortzheim was one of the first Basel printers to adopt a mark. His original mark was an angel carrying two shields, one of which depicted the arms of the city of Basle. The other shield bore the mark shown in this window, which is two crosses topped with the number four. This mark is emblematic of the Swiss warrior.

9. Thomas Anshelm. Germany. Working period: 1488-1522. Anshelm is perhaps the most eminent of the early Hagenau printers. He established himself as a printer in Basle in 1485 but subsequently worked as a printer in Strasbourg (1488), Pforzheim (1500-1511), Tübingen (1511-1516), and Hagenau (1516-1522). In 1516 he produced "Doctrina Vita et Passio Jesu Christi." He also issued many books, including works of Pliny, Erasmus, and Cicero. His mark consists of the initials TAB, which stand for Thomas Anshelm Badensis.

10. Berthold Rembolt. France. Working period: 1494-1537. A native of Strasburg, he moved to Paris and worked with Ulrich Gering, the patriarch of Paris printing. Rembolt used several marks; the one depicted here consists of his initials at the bottom of an orb and cross design which incorporates the number 4. 

11. William Caxton. England. Working period: 1471-1491. The first English printer, Caxton owned a printing press in Westminster. In 1477 he made the first printing of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and was also responsible for the first printing of l'Morte D'Arthur in 1485. His mark, which incorporates his initials, first appeared in the Sarum missal of 1487. It was also used by his successor, Wynkyn de Worde. There has been some speculation that the design in the middle of the mark represents the number 74, the significance of which has been debated.

12. Fust & Schoeffer. Germany. Working period: 1457-1502. This mark bears the distinction of being the first known printer's mark. Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer were associates of Johann Gutenberg, known as the father of printing. Fust and Schoeffer's mark appeared in the Latin Bible of 1462 and in the colophon of the famous Psalter printed in 1457 in Mainz, Germany. The Mainz Psalter was the third book ever printed, and the first printed book to give the date and place of printing, and the printers' names. It has been suggested that the designs in the shields of this mark represent the tools of a typesetter, but this is not certain. 

13. Richard Pynson. England. Working period: 1492-1530. He was the royal printer to Henry VIII. His first dated book was the Doctrinale of Alexander Grammaticus, printed in 1492, but he printed several books before that date. In all, he printed more than 370 books. He used about eight different printers' marks; the one pictured here includes his initials.

14. Aldus Manutius. Italy. Working period: 1494-1512. The Aldine family is the most well known of the Venetian printers. Aldus adopted the well-known anchor and dolphin as his mark, which first appeared around 1499 and was in use until 1546. The dolphin represents quickness, and the anchor stands for solidity and firmness. Evidently this symbol was copied from an old Roman coin bearing the motto "Festina lente," or "Make haste slowly." Aldus was succeeded in his business by his heirs, and this mark was subsequently used by several different printers. 

15. Jean Belot. Switzerland. Working period:1495-1535. Belot worked in Geneva, and was responsible for the first book printed in Lausanne, which was a missal commissioned by the local bishop in 1493. His mark consists of his initials.

16. Julian Notary. England. Working period: 1496-1518. He worked in London and Westminster and was responsible for printing about 40 books. The earliest of these, The Gospel of Nicodemus, was printed in 1507 and was very frequently reprinted. His design incorporates the familiar elements of a cross, orb, and number 4, along with his initials. 

17. Robert Copland. England. Working period: 1515-1548. Copland was a London printer and a pupil of Wynkyn de Worde. He had a shop at the sign of the Rose Garland on Fleet Street where he printed mainly ephemeral material and only a few books. He was also known to be a translator, stationer, and poet. His mark consists of his intertwined initials topped with an inverted number four.

18. Elzevir. Holland. The long line of the Elzevirs as printers began with Louis in 1583 and ended with Abraham in 1712. Elzevir is one of the most distinguished names in the annals of Dutch and Flemish printing. The family used several marks, and the one depicted here, which is the sphere, occurs for the first time on Sphaera Johannis de Sacro-Bosco in 1626.

19. Johann Froben. Switzerland. Working period: 1491-1527. Froben was the scholar-printer of Basel, who printed the New Testament of Erasmus, as well as a number of his other works. Due to his exceptionally fine work, he made Basel the center of humanistic printing north of the Alps, and kept four to seven presses busy. His mark, designed by the artist Hans Holbein, consists of two hands holding a caduceus with a bird. Erasmus said that the Froben caduceus was a symbol of the biblical text, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16).

20. Melchior Lotter. Germany. Working period: 1491-1536. Lotter was one of the early printers of Leipzig, where printing was introduced in 1480. The word "Lotter" is equivalent to "vagabond" in English, and in addition to the initials, which are represented here, Lotter's mark included the figure of a beggar. Melchior Lotter Junior was printing at Wittenberg from 1520-1524, where he anonymously printed the first edition of Luther's Bible. 

21. Robert Estienne. France. Working period: 1525-1559. The Estienne family is probably the most important of the sixteenth- century printers of Paris. Robert was born in 1503, and is probably more generally known as a Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scholar than as a printer. He published a beautiful Latin Bible in 1532 and in 1552 he printed the New Testament in French. His mark is a serpent on a rod intertwined with an olive branch, which has allusions to the rods of Moses and Aaron mentioned in the Book of Exodus. 

22. Richard Grafton. England. Working period: 1534-1573. A very eminent printer, Grafton undertook the printing of Bibles in 1538, and was appointed as king's printer for Edward VI in 1547. His mark consists of his initials, which was actually part of a more elaborate design consisting of a tree grafted on a tun, which symbolized his name. This design also included a biblical inscription, quoted from James 1:21, "Receive the engrafted word."

23. Christopher Plantin. Belgium. Working period: 1555-1582. Plantin worked in Antwerp, and his name is one of the most distinguished in the annals of Dutch and Flemish printing. His mark consists of a hand guiding a compass. In the preface to his polyglot Bible, Plantin explained the significance of this mark, stating that the outer point of the pair of compasses represents work, and the stationary point represents constancy. 

24. Rowland Hall. England. Working period: c. 1530-1575. Hall printed the Geneva Bible in 1560, which played a significant role in spreading knowledge of the Bible among the rank and file of the English people. Hall used the Geneva arms, which bore the image of half an eagle and a key, as his mark. He called his shop in Gutter Lane "at the Sign of the Half-eagle and key."


  1. Mason Hammond, "A Carved Tablet Showing Early Printers' Marks on the Widener Library," Harvard Library Bulletin, vol. xxxvi, no. 4 (Fall 1988).
  2. For a discussion of the affiliation of Andover Seminary and Harvard Divinity School, see George Huntston Williams, ed., The Harvard Divinity School: Its Place in Harvard University and in American Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1954), pp. 185-210.
  3. "The New Buildings of Andover Seminary," Harvard Graduate's Magazine, vol. xx, no. lxxviii (December 1911): 284-285.
  4. Records of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, 1840-1981, Harvard University. Records of Owen Hamilton Gates, 1911-1936. Letter to Albert Parker Fitch, October 10, 1910. Allen & Collens, UAV328.150.7, box 1, Harvard University Archives.
  5. W. Roberts, Printers' Marks: A Chapter in the History of Typography (London and New York: George Bell & Sons, 1893), p. 42.
  6. Hugh William Davies, Devices of the Early Printers, 1457-1560: Their History and Development (London: Grafton & Company, 1935). There is an extensive discussion of this topic in chapter 4, pp. 44-58.
  7. James Moran, Heraldic Influence on Early Printers' Devices (Leeds: Elmete Press, 1978).


  • Records of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, 1840-1981, Harvard University. Records of Owen Hamilton Gates, 1911-1936. Harvard University Archives.
  • _________. Untitled article. The American Architect, vol. XCVIII, no. 1808 (August 17, 1910).
  • _________. "The Andover Theological Seminary Buildings." The American Architect, vol. C, no. 1878 (December 20, 1911): 265-266.
  • _________. "The New Buildings of Andover Seminary." The Harvard Graduate Magazine, vol. XX, no. lxxviii (December, 1911).
  • Berjeau, J. P. Early Dutch, German and English Printers' Marks. London: E. Rascol, 1866-[69].
  • Davies, Hugh William. Devices of the Early Printers, 1457-1560: Their History and Development. London: Grafton & Co., 1935.
  • Hammond, Mason. "A Carved Tablet Showing Early Printers' Marks on the Widener Library." Harvard Library Bulletin, vol. xxxvi, no. 4 (Fall, 1988).
  • The Library Quarterly, vols. 1-74, 1931-2004. [Chicago]: University of Chicago Press. The cover of every copy of this journal has been illustrated with a printer's mark, and each journal includes a short article on the printer's mark it features. 
  • McKerrow, Ronald B. Printers' & Publishers' Devices in England & Scotland, 1485-1640. London: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Chiswick Press, 1913.
  • Moran, James. Heraldic Influence on Early Printers' Devices. Leeds, Elmete Press, 1978.
  • Roberts, W. Printers' Marks: A Chapter in the History of Typography. London and New York: George Bell & Sons, 1893.
  • Williams, George Huntston, ed. The Harvard Divinity School: Its Place in Harvard University and in American Culture. Boston. The Beacon Press, 1954.
  • Willoughby, Edwin Eliott. Fifty Printers' Marks. Berkeley: Book Arts Club, University of California, 1947.
  • Winger, Howard W. Printers' Marks and Devices. Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1976.