Colophons & copyrights: Delight in the details

[Alyson Kuhn] Until recently, I had no idea of the origin of the word colophon. Cathy Miranker, a Felt & Wire friend who works with schoolchildren on bookmaking projects, teaches them about colophons, so they can all include one at the back of their books. When I asked her what she tells them, her explanation was such a delightful surprise that I had to do some research … and find some handsome examples.


Early printed colophon with a printer’s mark: Mammotrectus super Bibliam by Johannes Marchesinus. Printed by Peter Schöffer (ca. 1425–1502) in 1470. Mainz, Germany, was a publishing hub of the late 15th century. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, RIT.

Miranker told me that the Colophonians were fierce fighters in ancient Greece, frequently summoned to provide the decisive strokes in the battles of others. If you needed to finish off your enemy, so to speak, you would call in the Colophonians. Thus when it was time to put the finishing touches on your manuscript, you wrote a colophon. As for Miranker’s students, “They briefly list any special materials used in the book — hand-decorated paper, perhaps; the book’s structure — a flag book or a two-signature sewn pamphlet, for instance; any people who helped in its design or production; and any other notable details.”

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose reassuring tagline is “Facts matter,” was Result #1 when I searched for “Colophon Ancient Greece.” The Britannicans confirm that the Colophonians lived in a city “famous for its cavalry, its luxury, and its production of rosin (colophonium).” Ah, the Colophonian cavalry — that has a great ring to it, and would seem to lend credence to Miranker’s etymology. On Miranker’s site, bookmakingwithkids.com, you might enjoy her post Consider the Colophon.

Early printed colophon from Venice: Noctes Atticae by Aulus Gellius. Printed by Nicolas Jenson (ca. 1420–1480) in 1472. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, RIT.

Steven Galbraith is the curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He has graciously  shared several colophons — and great observations about each. Of Nicholas Jenson’s colophon directly above, Galbraith points out, “I quite like that Jenson writes that he ‘happily’ (feliciter) printed the book. He also identifies himself as a ‘Frenchman’ (Gallicum). Though this is unrelated to colophons, note that an early reader has identified an important part of the text by inscribing a pointing finger, called a manicule.”

Galbraith also provided a link to An essay on Colophons, by the English bibliographer Alfred William Pollard (1859–1944). The essay is a mighty monograph, with a myriad of “specimens and translations,” printed in 1905 by The De Vinne Press for The Caxton Club of Chicago. As I was scrolling, I screeched to a gape at page 27, which showcases a colophon set in Latin in the shape of a chalice in 1515 by Johannes Schöffer. Thanks to the translation, I know that this Schöffer is the grandson of Johannes Fust, the business partner and father-in-law of Peter Schöffer, one of whose early colophons is shown earlier in this article.

Title page: The Alphabet: Fifteen Interpretative Designs Drawn and Arranged with Explanatory Text and Illustrations, by Frederic W Goudy, published by M. Kennerley, New York, 1918. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, RIT.

In the colophon, Frederic Goudy pays tribute to his wife, Bertha Goudy. Typelore has it that Mr. Goudy maintained Mrs. Goudy was the quickest compositor with whom he had ever worked.

In the introduction to An essay on Colophons, Richard Garnett mentions the Colophonians’ battlefield prowess, but he prefers the notion of a colophon’s being the summit of the production of a book — as the city of Colophon was built atop a hill. I favor the Colophonian warrior theory, but the apex notion is the perfect segue to the work of the highest contemporary practitioner of copyright pages, Louise Fili.

Fili’s whisk at the top of this story is from Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours. Some of the books Fili designs have to do with gastronomy and related pleasures of the table; others showcase signage, ephemera and specialized travel guides, usually from a typographic perspective. Next month, Princeton Architectural Press will publish Fili’s monograph Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili, which includes three spreads devoted to copyright pages. We look forward to interviewing Fili about her newest book — and her freshest copyright. (We can confirm it’s quite tasty.)

Louise Fili’s copyright page for The Tea Council’s Guide to the Best Tea Places in England, The Little Bookroom, 2002.

Toward the end of the 1800s or early 1900s, it became common practice to include in the colophon the name and designer of the typeface(s) used. Knopf books, for example, always have A Note About the Type on the last page. The copyright page is always in the front, on page 4.

Louise Fili’s copyright page for BloshBlobBerBosh: Runcible Poems for Edward Lear, text by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrations by Gary Kelley, Creative Editions, 1998.

The colophons of artists’ books and limited editions frequently also specify the paper(s) on which a book is printed.

The clever colophon of John’s Apples: Thirteen Paintings by John Wilde and Twelve Poems by Reeve Lindbergh, published by Perishable Press Limited, 1995. If you read down the left margin, you’ll see why the first letter on each line is uppercase. A capital idea! Cary Graphic Arts Collection, RIT.

The Cary Graphic Arts Press and its co-imprint, RIT Press, serve as RIT’s university press. Many of their publications are written and designed by typographic luminaries. Last year, I purchased two copies of What Is Reading for?, an exquisite little book version of Robert Bringhurst’s talk for a symposium called The Future of Reading, held at RIT in June 2010. (A couple of months ago, I purchased What Our Lettering Needs by Rick Cusick, about Hermann Zapf’s contributions to Hallmark Cards, and interviewed the author here.)

Paragon of typographic rigor: The colophon of What Is Reading for? includes Chinese characters, transliterated Chinese (with a banquet of diacritical marks) and complete attribution of the types used throughout the book (including the archaic Greek on the cover and title page).

The Book Club of California, which celebrates its centennial this year, also publishes books under its own imprimatur. The club has long been a fan of Mohawk Superfine, both for their limited-edition, handsomely produced books on the history of California and the West, and for the club’s Quarterly News-Letter, which was inaugurated in 1933 and “continues uninterrupted to this day.”

Colophon from John De Pol: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Work 1935–1998, compiled and edited by James Howard Fraser and Eleanor Friedl, 2001. Photo: Douglas Sandberg.

Felt & Wire featured Louise Fili’s 2012 Love stamp here, and Scripts: Elegant Lettering From Design’s Golden Age, which Fili wrote with her husband, Steven Heller, here. We featured Cathy Miranker’s bookmaking projects with children here.

Alyson Kuhn wants to mention that What Is Reading for? is as beautifully written as it is designed and printed. It is erudite and thought-provoking, but perfectly accessible. Bringhurst references the talks of others at the Future of Reading symposium, and Alyson says his book is almost the next best thing to having been there (which she was not). She would gladly pay to hear Bringhurst read his own words about reading.

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Comments (18)

  1. Posted by Ilene Strizver on 07.23.12 at 9:06 am

    Nice one, Alyson! Love the images, especially the contoured type.

  2. Posted by Kseniya on 07.23.12 at 10:48 am

    I love this. One of my favorite colophons was from a past issue of McSweeney’s: it started in the back matter as a note about Garamond, but then was continued, mid-sentence, inside the book and grew into a fully-formed story. Neat.

  3. Posted by A Kuhntributor on 07.23.12 at 10:57 am

    O, K — Do you have that ish in your possesh? I would thrill to see progressive pix! Thanks for this timely tip – A.

  4. Posted by David Pankow on 07.23.12 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you very much for the kind words about the Cary Graphic Arts Press publication of Robert Bringhurst’s “What is Reading For?” It is very much worth listening to his original talk, since it adds yet another dimension to one’s appreciation for this beautifully written essay. The talk can be found at , along with other presentations from RIT’s 2010 Future of Reading Conference.

  5. Posted by Cathy on 07.23.12 at 1:24 pm

    A delightful and informative article, Alyson! I’m enchanted by your select examples of colophons and copyrights (and I’m of a mind to challenge bookmaking kids to try their hand at shaped copyrights). I’m also glad to encounter a new word, manicule, and a new typographic artist, Louise Fili.

    I too admire Robert Bringhurst’s sensibilities and graceful writing, and I look forward to hearing him as the featured speaker at the BCC Centennial.

  6. Posted by Jane on 07.23.12 at 2:58 pm

    Many thanks for an inspired article! More! More!

  7. Posted by PamelaArts on 07.23.12 at 4:57 pm

    How interesting! I never knew all this and love reading about it. Thanks.

  8. Posted by Lucy Cohen on 07.23.12 at 7:38 pm

    Absolutely love the idea of the Colophonian Calvery!

  9. Posted by Allan Haley on 07.23.12 at 8:22 pm

    As always, a delightful – and delightfully informative – article.

    Thank you, Alyson!

  10. Posted by David Pankow on 07.24.12 at 3:07 pm

    Forgot the link to the Future of Reading Conference at RIT in my note above. Here it is:

  11. Posted by Janet Wedge on 07.25.12 at 12:43 pm

    I loved this article, and not just because Cathy Miranker is my daughter. Illustrations are great, and the shaped colophons delightful. I, too, delighted in the word “manicule.” gund beensad

  12. Posted by Robert Bolick on 07.29.12 at 10:38 am

    Wonderful piece. I had to draw attention to it at Books On Books at Scoop.It. Also at http://www.books-on-books.com.

  13. Posted by Chris Purcell on 08.9.12 at 3:41 pm

    Reading colophons got me started on memorizing typeface names. Knopf editions almost always had ‘A Note About the Type’ at the back. Penguins didn’t go that far, but they did name the typeface on the reverse of thge title page.
    Excellent article!

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