Today, a library wall heralds a new age of
communication. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
I heard an odd rumor during
preparations for the Summit meeting here in
Houston. Strange symbols are painted on the walls
of the Reference room in the Rice University
Library. The rumor was that government men wanted
to paint over them. It wasn't true, but someone did
ask if those symbols had arcane meanings. Could
they offend delegates sitting in the room?
The question had come up before. When those
hand-painted marks first appeared on the walls,
people asked if they were signs of a Satanic cult.
They're nothing of the kind, of course. They're old
printer's marks. Actually, they look a lot like
cattle brands. Early printers used them to identify
A Printer's mark was a shorthand version of a more
complete trademark called a printer's device. The
device was a block print picture. The printer's
mark was a simple little line drawing that reminds
us of the device.
For example, one mark looks like a script letter
"A" with three stars around it. The printers who
used it were Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. Their
device was a pair of
shields. The mark appeared on one of the
shields in the device.
Fust was the wealthy goldsmith who bankrolled
Gutenberg. When Gutenberg went bankrupt, Fust
claimed the business for himself. So this mark
takes us all the way back to 1457, and practically
back to the birth of modern printing.
Here's another mark on the Library wall. It
belonged to Charlotte Guillard. She took over her
husband's print shop when he died in 1519. Then she
taught printing to her second husband. when he
died, she kept right on printing for 15 more years.
Guillard's mark is a fancy circle with her initials
in it. If it were a cattle brand, it'd be the
Circle-CG. The first woman to run a print shop was
Anna Rugerin. Like Guillard, she continued the
trade when her husband died. That was only 30 years
after Gutenberg. Even before that, Dominican
sisters did typesetting.
The words on devices are more often written in
local languages than in Latin. That's a surprise,
because the language of books was Latin. Printers
were literate, but few had studied the classics.
They liked to print books in the language of the
people who bought them. Right from the start,
printers began taking knowledge out of the ivory
tower and giving it to the public.
So these symbols on the wall aren't arcane at all.
The first chapter in the history of the information
age is written in these marks. What they really
represent is the beginning of printing -- the
beginning of the demystification of knowledge.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Masiak, C., On Our Marks: Symbols of Early Printers
Adorn Fondren Reference Room. The
Flyleaf. (published by The Friends of the
Fondren Library, Rice University) Vol. 40, Issue 1,
Fall 1989, pp. 2-7.
I am grateful to Kathleen Gunning, UH Library, for
calling my attention to the foofaraw about the
printer's marks at the Rice Library, for showing
them to me, and for leading me to source material
for this episode. I am gratful to Pat Bozeman, Head
of Special Collections, UH Library, for her cogent
discussions of the various printer's
The click-on image of Fust and Schoeffer's
printer's device above is from Juan de
Torquemada's, Exposito Psalteri, 1476, and
provided by Special Collections, UH Library
clipart images. Click on the thumbnail above to see a
A comparison of a set of Printer's devices (on
the left) with cattle brands (center), and with
hobo signs from the American Depression years
The printers represented in the left-hand image
are, from top center and moving clockwise:
Englehard Shultis (Lyon, 1491), Manutius Aldus
(Venezia, 1494), Thomas Anshelm (Pforzheim, 1506),
Galliot du Prè (Paris, 1510), martin Flachs
(Strassburg, 1501), Erhardt Rastold (Augsburg,
1494), and in the center, Bernardinus Stagninus
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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