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The Collation

Deciphering signature marks

So, as those of you who have spent any time working with early modern printed books probably recognized, this month’s crocodile mystery focuses on signature marks. Below is the photo I posted last week, now with the signature mark circled in red:

signature mark

Signature marks are those letters, numbers, and sometimes symbols at the bottom of the first portion of gatherings to help binders assemble the sheets of a book into the right order. For those of you who’ve been reading along with our various earlier posts on impositions, you’ll remember that books in the handpress era were printed not as single leaves, but as sheets with varying numbers of pages per side. (It’s certainly much less labor- and material-intensive than printing one page at a time.) What this means is that one sheet of paper might contain, once properly folded, 2 leaves (a folio), 4 leaves (a quarto), 8 leaves (an octavo), 12 leaves (a duodecimo or twelvemo), etc. 1 The key thing is to keep track of folding your sheets in the right direction so that the leaves end up in the right order and to keep track of the order of your sheets so that when the multiple gatherings are bound together, the text proceeds in the correct order. 

  1. A leaf, of course, is the piece of paper that you hold in your hand when you’re turning it over to read a new page; a page is one side of a leaf.
  2. If I were to do these over again, I would actually depict the outer form (the one showing the first page) on the right and the inner form on the left so that you would imagine the left side folding under the right side, which is generally the way in which you would fold your sheets of paper: fold in half perpendicular to the long side of the sheet, bringing the left side behind the right side; turn your paper so that the long side is along the top again, and repeat until you get to the proper format.
  3. Title pages typically aren’t signed, so that’s not surprising; I would have anticipated A2 to be, but I’m guessing that the layout of the dedication prevented that.
  4. Since pagination and foliation were not common in the earliest books and were not necessarily reliable even in later early modern books, the general rule of thumb for early books is to cite text by signature mark.
  5. Sometimes people get confused and want to refer to the page facing A4r as A4v but that’s wrong. Just remember the long-hand of these signs: the number refers to the leaf and the r/v refers to whether the page is on the front or back of that leaf.
  6. R. A. Sayce, “Compositorial Practices and the Localization of Printed Books 1530-1800” The Library, Fifth Series, 21 (March 1966), 1-45. Reprinted, with corrections and additions, by the Oxford Bibliographical Society, Oxford, 1977.


Great post, Sarah! This should be a great resource for those trying to get to grips with Bowers and I will certainly use it this year for our students. Many thanks!

Daryl Green — August 7, 2012

Very useful post, thank you. Wish I could have read it when I was doing historical bibliography at library school, would have made it much easier to get my head around what was going on!

Katie Flanagan — August 9, 2012

[…] remember, and a big part of it was all the ways that broad sheets of paper could be made into smaller pages of various sizes. This is where the fancy terminology you’ve heard comes from: folio (folded once), quarto (folded […]

Join the fold « Snarkmarket — August 12, 2012

Hi! I’m studying the Romanian books printed by a German (Petrus Barth) in Sibiu/Hermannstadt (RO) in the end of XVIIIth century. I’m interested in founding in which moment he printed the signature marks. I would like to know this thing because the signature would tell me in which moment the Forword was printed, for example. If I found the mentioned book (R. A. Sayce,….) I would be very happy. Where could I find it? Thanks.
I would be glad to read more posts about technics of printing in the last centuries.

Cornel Maria — July 3, 2013

The full citation for the Sayce book is in the 6th footnote of the post. I’m not sure Sayce will fully answer your questions—most of his examples are from earlier centuries—but you never know. Good luck with your research!

Sarah Werner — July 3, 2013

[…] ways to demonstrate this to my students and even to my blog readers (see here and, most recently, here). Because it’s that time of year when I get my syllabus in order and because, thanks to my […]

my syllabus is a quarto | Wynken de Worde — August 4, 2013

“The poem itself begins on A4r.” In a citation, would you say “p. A4r,” “fol. A4r,” or “sig. A4r”?

John — December 22, 2017

That’s a great question! These conventions do shift over time, but the current practice is to say “leaf A4r”, which refers to the physical page. Bibliographers and catalogers are starting to use “signature” more specifically, to refer to the actual signature marking, rather than a page as a whole. But a lot of people still use “sig. A4r” and it’s perfectly well understood.

Abbie Weinberg — December 27, 2017

Thanks Abbie, the article and the answer.

I can see the benefits of reserving “signature” for the mark, but for citing the side of a leaf, wouldn’t “page” be most accurate? Doesn’t a leaf have two pages, the r-side page and the v-side page?

Separately, but related, I need to cite a book that has signature marks at the bottom and leaf numbers at the top. The leaf numbers look just like page numbers and would be mistaken for such if you did not flip through a few leafs. It seems to me logical to cite the verso side of leaf 78 as “p. 78v.” If the printer had put 78a and 78b on each side of the leaf, wouldn’t we cite the sides as “p. 78a” and “p. 78b”? Wouldn’t we do that today if someone printed a book that way? And in newspapers where page numbers begin anew with each section (as signature number do with each gathering), we cite a page as “p. A2” not as “sect. A2.”

It seems to me “p.” works well for all cases. No?

John — December 27, 2017

How common is it for signature marks to switch to a different format in mid-gathering? I’ve only consciously noticed this once (in the first gathering of the first quarto of Sidney’s ‘Astrophel and Stella’, which for no obvious reason goes from Aii to A3), and it struck me as very unusual at the time and made me wonder whether this meant that there was some sort of interruption during the printing process – or just that the typesetter responsible for that page happened to be having a bad day. Or does that sort of thing happen more frequently and I just failed to notice it because I haven’t been paying enough attention?

Elisabeth Chaghafi — August 20, 2019