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Imagine a bookseller in fifteenth century Europe, sitting in a cramped shop surrounded by piles of unbound pages roughly bundled together for sale. How would anyone know which pile was which book?
This was the time, soon after the introduction of printing, when the title page became one of the most important design elements of a book.
It hadn’t been a feature of the manuscript books that came before the invention of the printing press. Produced in smaller numbers, manuscripts were often commissioned by individuals or religious institutions, collated and bound to order.
In the early years of printing, a book would be sold unbound. The buyer would then choose their preferred binding: either a simple calf or vellum cover, or an ornate bespoke design that reflected the collector’s wealth. Printed pages often waited for some time before they were bound.
Initially, a blank page was added to the front of the book to protect the pages that followed. Then, in about the 1460s a short ‘phrase’, like a label, was added to identify the content. This label was expanded over the next 200 years, becoming a form of advertisement as well as identification.
A title-page has been aptly said to resemble the entrance of a building, the fashion and workmanship of which are the indexes to the style of the interior.
— Anonymous, The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Volume 1, 1821
The design of the title page developed alongside the skill of the printer and the ambition of the publisher. The earliest examples had a simple border and woodcut illustration. They often showed a scholar or teacher at their desk, either alone or surrounded by students.
Borders became more and more intricate, embellished with figures, flowers, animals, urns and cherubs. Designs would be copied because not every printer had their own skilled engravers.
Elements of Renaissance architecture often appeared on title pages — the text surrounded by an ornate framework of columns, arches, plinths and headpieces. The design functioned as a doorway or entrance into the text.
As the title page was a perfect place for promotion, many printers incorporated their ‘device’ or mark into the design. The dolphin wrapped around an anchor of the Aldine Press appeared on title pages from as early as 1501, reflecting the press’s motto festine lente (hasten slowly).
The well-known device of the Plantin Press featured a pair of compasses with the Latin motto labore et constantia (labour and tenacity).
Copper engraving led to more complex illustrations on the title page, making it an attractive introduction to the text that reflected its characters, events, subject or location.
Some of the most elaborate title pages appeared in sixteenth-century Bibles like the Great Bible of 1539 championed by Thomas Cromwell and authorised by King Henry VIII. The original title page shows the king handing over the word of God to the Bishops, represented by Thomas Cranmer, and the state, represented by Thomas Cromwell. After Cromwell was executed in 1540 the title page of the next year’s edition featured a blank circle instead of his coat of arms.
From the seventeenth century, publishers would hand-colour the title pages of extravagant large-format atlases and natural history publications.
But not all title pages were illustrated. Many featured an arrangement of type and text to grab the reader’s attention. A longer title for the book often became almost a synopsis. Important words in the title or publication details would be printed in bright red ink following the tradition of rubricated letters in older manuscripts.
An important source of information for book collectors, the title page became the favoured location for the owner’s signature, the library stamp, or the handwritten note with details of provenance, ownership and reading history.
The tradition of elaborate title pages became less dominant in the nineteenth century, although there are always exceptions. Today’s title page is usually predictable — showing the title, author’s name and publication details. Now it’s the intriguing, bold cover design that attracts our attention to a book and tempts us to pick it up and enter the world of the author.
Maggie Patton, rare books & maps expert
This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.