The University of Manchester - The University of Manchester Library
First Impressions

Features of early printed books

Early printers sought to imitate the form of manuscript books by printing on vellum or parchment and by using typefaces that imitated local scribal handwriting. Early printed books show a high level of craftsmanship as they were meant to look like high-quality manuscripts. Not all the familiar elements of manuscripts could be achieved by the early printers, so books were sent to specialists, particularly illuminators and rubricators, to be 'finished'.

Illuminators often added elaborate initial letters and illustrations to printed books, just as they embellished manuscripts. Early printers left a space where they expected the illuminator to insert an initial. Sometimes they printed a small guide-letter in the space, also known as a director, telling the illuminator which letter to insert. Often these spaces remain blank, with the guide letter remaining visible.

Rubricators added by hand any text in red, which had traditionally been used to emphasise important text, such as feast days in calendars (hence the term 'red-letter day'), or instructions to the priest in service books. Later printers perfected the art of printing in two colours.

Features we are familiar with, such as the title page, frontispiece, page numbers, table of contents, list of illustrations, etc., did not feature in early printed books. Books began with the first page of text and finished in the same way as manuscripts, with a colophon: a brief description at the end of a book providing the name the printer, the date and any additional information that the printer wanted to include. It was common for early printed books to be traded in an unbound state, which made the front and back pages vulnerable to damage. In order to protect their unbound books printers started to add a cover sheet, which in time also included the printed title of the book. During the early years of printing the amount of information in the colophon outgrew the amount of space available at the end of a book, and the text gradually moved to the front. Title pages, which had begun as simple covers, became elaborate and embellished with decorative borders and illustrations.