The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A book’s fingerprints

Last week’s crocodile mystery may have been a bit too mysterious, but I hope that today’s post will inspire you to look for similar mysteries on your own. Here’s a close-up detail of what I was asking about:

Folger STC 17436, sig. H2r

As with nearly all photographs shared on this blog, if you click the image, a larger version will open in a new window. What might have looked like a smudge if you hadn’t enlarged the image, is now clearly a smudge worth paying attention to!  More specifically, it’s a smudge made up of individual lines and whorls, a smudge made by an inky printer’s fingers. 

One of the reasons that I didn’t share only this detail in last week’s post is that I wanted the whole context for the fingerprint to be visible. The assistants in a print shop have long been known as printer’s devils, a name assumed to stem from their dark, ink-covered appearance. In his 1683 Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-Works. Applied to the Art of Printing, Joseph Moxon provides the following definition for “devil”:

The Press-man sometimes has a Week-Boy to Take Sheets, as they are printed off the Tympan: These Boys do in a Printing-House, commonly black and Dawb themselves; whence the Workmen do Jocosely call them Devils; and sometimes Spirits, and sometimes Flies. 1

And the lovely coincidence here is that the text itself is concerned with the appearance and influence of devils. It’s from a 1631 printing of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, near the end of the play in a moment of dialogue between the Good Angel and the Bad Angel. 2

sig. H2r, with handprint in the gutter

In other words, that the mark appears on this particular play in this particular section lets us joke that not only do devils exist—they leave fingerprints!

Usually when we talk about a book’s fingerprint, we refer to a series of words or characters that identify the edition or setting of a book. (This post provides more details about the various methods of such bibliographical fingerprints.) But fingerprints can also be a literal part of a book’s history, a wonderful trace of the bodies that make books.

One last note: The reason that I’m assuming that this is a fingerprint left by someone in the print shop, as opposed to a later user of the book, is the location of the print. Given that it disappears into the gutter, I’m assuming that it was left when this leaf was still in sheet form: take the paper off the tympan, hang it up to dry, and it seems entirely possible that the mark will end up in the middle of the sheet. Someone reading this book, however, would be more likely to leave their smudgy mark on the margins. These prints, for example, could have been made in the print shop or in a reader’s hands. (Click on the image to open it in a new window, and click it again to enlarge further and to see the lines and whorls.)

fingerprints from printer or reader?

Marks left by a reader are not unexciting, but the thrill of a printer’s fingerprints is greater, I think. If you’ve come across such prints in books you’ve worked with, let us know in the comments. And if you have photos of Folger items with such prints, don’t forget that you can add them to our Flickr group, “Folger Collection, by Folger Readers.”

  1. Moxon, vol 2, page 373
  2. The text of Faustus exists in two different versions: the A-text, which is shorter, and the B-text, which contains additions from other writers. This printing of the play is of the B-text, and this scene is one of those additions.


  • Quick question. Since I can’t tell from the image, is any portion of the print found on the conjugate leaf? I ask since this fingerprint appears to run into the gutter and therefore might appear on the other leaf.
    Talking of fingers, do not forget Thumbs Hendleman (my christening), the fellow whose thumbs and fingers appear at the edges of image after image in the STC microfilm and in some of the images in EEBO. However, that is another matter entirely!

  • I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter a printer’s fingerprints, but I did come across a fingerprint in an Islamic manuscript that we were preparing for digitization here at the University of Michigan a few years ago (unfortunately it was one of hundreds, and I’d never be able to find it again). At the time I felt it belonged to a copyist or illuminator, rather than a reader, but can’t remember now if I had good reason to think that (color of the print, maybe?) or if I just liked the idea.

    There is something really special about it! I think it’s the tension having what we think of as absolute, specific, unique evidence of a an individual, and yet knowing at the same time that we’ll never (??) have anything to match it against that will let us identify the person.

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