Skip to main content
The Collation

Caught Inky Handed: Fingerprints of Practitioners

Thank you for your suggestions regarding these fingerprints. They are, indeed, the marks of two different fingers with different patterns. I tend to think, like Elizabeth, that they are the marks of a middle finger and an index or a ring finger.

The description of the page I wrote last week, which was based only on a photograph taken more than two years ago, turned out not to be entirely correct. These fingerprints are not located in the gutter of the page but on the outer margin of leaf d4verso of a Reformation pamphlet printed in 1543.

Detail of Folger Shakespeare Library copy 218- 342q

Opening of the pamphlet in the Bavarian State Library in Munich (,35) showing the placement of the fingerprints in the Folger copy.

My first thought, like some of you, was that they were the fingerprints of the printer taking the freshly printed sheet off the tympan with their inky fingers.  The dark brown color ink of these marks, however, is different from the dark black one used to print the text.

The color ink of the fingerprints is lighter than the one of the printed text.

Their crisp impression is also striking. They were made by someone who applied, consciously or not, a fair amount of pressure on the paper.  The color of their ink leads me to think that they are the fingerprints of someone either reading with pen and ink (although I do not remember seeing any manuscript notes in the pamphlet) or writing on top of the open book. Their location on leaf d4 verso—that is, at the end of a gathering—makes it less plausible that they are the fingerprints of a bookbinder applying pressure on the paper when sewing, or unsewing. Further examination with the book in hand is clearly needed.

Determining whose fingerprints were left on the pages of early modern books may involve some fun detective work. Several factors to consider include the location of the fingerprints both on the page and in the book, as well as the color of their ink as in the case we have just seen.

In the example below the fingerprints are located on the edge of the lower margin of the title page and are of the same ink color as the text and woodcut.

218- 381q, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Detail of smudgy fingerprints on 218- 381q, Folger Shakespeare Library

In this case, they are most likely the marks of the printer who accidentally, but repeatedly, handled the freshly printed sheet. Another copy of this book in the Munich State Library also shows trace of an inky finger in a similar location on the title page. Clearly it took some time for the printer or their assistant to handle printed sheets with clean hands….1

Printers are not the only practitioners leaving finger traces in books; bookbinders do too. In this copy of Vesalius in the Cambridge University Library, the bookbinder who colored the edges of the book in blue left a significant number of fingerprints on the outer endpaper.

The edges of the paper colored in blue. N*.1.2 (A), Cambridge University Library. Photographed by Heather Wolfe.

Recto of endleaf with fingerprints in blue and trace of the pastedown to which it used to be pasted. N*.1.2 (A), Cambridge University Library. Photographed by Heather Wolfe.

What most likely happened was that the bookbinder held the textblock in place with their fingers while coloring its edges and accidently got some of the paint on their fingers. In their defense, the endpaper used to be pasted to the inner surface of the cover as shown by the traces of pastedown. Their colorful fingerprints were therefore not intended to be visible (although some also got imprinted on the verso of the endleaf and were therefore visible).

N*.1.2 (A), Cambridge University Library. Photographed by Heather Wolfe.


N*.1.2 (A), Cambridge University Library. Photographed by Heather Wolfe.


N*.1.2 (A), Cambridge University Library. Photographed by Heather Wolfe.

By contrast the blue fingerprint on the engraved gameboard below could not be hidden. It is most likely the mark of the bookbinder who by mistake left some trace on this single sheet print while decorating it with a paste paper border.

FAST ACC 271895 (flat), Folger Shakespeare Library


Ironically the blue fingerprint is in the vignette depicting painters, sculptors, and engravers.

In the forensic literature, fingerprints are either ‘patent’ (that is ‘surface visible’) or ‘latent’ (that is ‘surface invisible’). Greasy readers’ fingerprints seem to fall in the middle: they are visible but are not clearly defined to the naked eye. The following artist’s manual shows many greasy fingerprints among many marks suggesting that it was frequently used by its owner/s.

FAST ACC 272157, Folger Shakespeare Library

If you have any images of fingerprints in books you would like to share please send them to me ( and I will do a follow-up post so that they can be shared with everyone.

  1. See also Sarah Werner’s blog post on printers’ fingerprints.