Have you looked at books of the hand-press period (circa 1450-1800) and wondered what the letters and numbers are at the foot of the page? Well, wonder no more…
To decipher these marks, we must first understand how the page was created. Whilst we might now think of books as collections of single sheets, early printed books began life as large sheets of handmade paper; printed on both sides with multiple pages, before being folded into sections that could then be sewn together.
This folding of the paper determined the format of the finished book. For instance, a folio (also referred to as 2° or fol.) is a book where each piece of paper has been folded just once to make two leaves or four pages; a quarto (4° or 4to) is where the paper has been folded twice to make four leaves or eight pages; and an octavo (8° or 8vo) is where the paper has been folded three times to make 8 leaves or 16 pages.
Thus, as the number of folds increases, so too does the number of leaves and pages created; whilst the format of the section, and so the book, becomes smaller. Indeed, the numbers involved can become dizzying; for example, this Book of Common Prayer (below) is an incredible 128mo (or 128°) . However, it must be noted that, for larger numbers such as this, it became necessary to cut the sheet of paper so that it could be folded the requisite number of times.
At this point, it’s worth noting that one should not confuse format with size; the variety of handmade paper sizes available produced a variety of different format sizes. Thus, a folio made from sheets of Imperial (approximately 490mm x 740mm) would be considerably larger than one made of Chancery (approximately 320mm x 450mm). In addition, the bookbinder might then cut books to a different size.
With all this in mind, we can now return to the printed page. In order for the bookbinder to fold the sheets of paper in the correct order and orientation, and to sew each section in the correct order within the book, the printer included small marks at the foot of the page on what is known as the directional line.
The first of these are the catchwords that appear on the right-hand side of the page and indicate what the first word on the following page will be. Thus, in the images below, we see gratias at the bottom of page 51 and then again in the text at the top of page 52 . This practice, which continued from the manuscript tradition, again allowed the bookbinder to ensure that leaves were sewn in the correct order.
The next markings to consider are signatures; marks on the sheet of paper, used to place each folded section in order. Commonly, the printer used in turn the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet (excluding I or J and U, V or W). The placement of signatures varies and often only the first half of the section are marked, as the leaves in the second half are conjugate with the former. So, looking at our example again (see right), we can see the D of the first leaf of the fourth section which is then followed by D2 on the next leaf. By identifying the signatures of an early printed book, we can thus establish how many leaves to a section and identify its format!
Finally, you may well spot press figures on printed books of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see left for the press figure 2) . Usually, these markings are either symbols or letters and it’s thought they had at least two purposes. In the first instance, they were perhaps used by printers themselves to check their work and thus their wages; secondly, evidenced later in the period, it may have been the master of the printing house who assigned them in order to oversee the work of his printers .
So now, when you look at books of the hand-press period, you’ll no longer wonder about those letters and numbers at the foot of the page.
 In this blog, I use the term section, however gathering is often used with reference to printed sections and quire often used to describe a group of manuscript leaves. In the US, signature is also used but this should not be confused with the signatures discussed here.
 The Book of Common Prayer…(London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, ); see
 R. P. Jacobi Platelij e Societate Jesu…Synopsis totius cursus theologici…([Cologne, Germany]: Sebastianum Ketteler, 1694).
 Gaskell, P. (1974), pp. 133-134.
Gaskell, P. (1974). A New Introduction to Bibliography (Reprinted, with corrections). Winchester; New Castle, DE: St Paul’s Bibliographies; Oak Knoll Press.
Emily Green, May 2022.