“The Noble Art and Mystery of Printing”: John Brampton’s Book Label and Print Shop Keepsake

While rummaging around the Grolier Club Library’s Spencer Van B. Nichols Bookplate Collection, I noticed a rather imposing book label. Printed for John Brampton on 29 December 1745, the label is surrounded by a running quote relating to the invention of printing: “The Noble Art and Mystery of Printing was first invented and practiced by John Faust, in the city of Mentz, in High Germany, about the Year of our Lord 1451, and brought into England by William Caxton, a Mercer and Citizen of London, who by the Encouragement of the Great, and particularly of the Abbot of Westminster, first set up a Printing Press in that Abby, and began the printing of Books there about the Year of our Lord 1471.”

John Brampton book label
Book label of John Brampton, 29 Dec. 1745. Spencer Van B. Nichols Bookplate Collection. The Grolier Club Library, New York, New York.

Brampton’s book label belongs to a group of similar labels known from the eighteenth century, each printed with the name of the owner, the date of printing, and some variation of the “Noble Art and Mystery of Printing” quote. According to Brian North Lee and others, these were keepsakes obtained by visitors to printing shops, who were encouraged to pay a small fee in return. (Such visits were memorialized in a poem by the English poet Alicia d’Anvers, entitled “Academia, or The Humours of the University of Oxford,” 1691). The regular inclusion of the words “His (or Her) Book” in the text block indicates that many of the keepsakes were used as book labels. Brampton’s label, although it lacks the ex-libris statement, clearly served this purpose as it is still adhered to the detached cover of a contemporary Cambridge-panel style binding.

About 30 examples of these keepsakes, dating from 1706 to 1760, are described by Lee, and several others are listed on ESTC. From these two sources, I have been able to identify 45 examples, and there must be more out there. They seem to have been especially popular in the 1730s and 1740s and were printed for both men and women. (Women make up about one third of the owners in my sample.) They are large when considered in relation to average book labels: the smallest in Lee’s census measures 52 x 114 mm, the largest 140 x 191 mm. Most were printed in Oxford (Clarendon Printing House or the Theatre) or Cambridge, but other examples are known from London, Bath, Nottingham, and Leicester. Many of the London examples were printed to commemorate the freezing of the Thames River, which occurred several times in the eighteenth century and inspired “frost fairs,” replete with games, shows, and booths of all kinds. John Bagford’s keepsake printed to memorialize the 1716 freezing of the river includes, in addition to the “Noble Art and Mystery” quote, the verse: “All you that walk upon the Thames. Step in this booth and print your names; and lay it by that ages yet to come, may see what things upon the ice were done.” An image of the frost fair of 1683 shows a printing booth marked as letter H.

The Frost Fair of 1683 with printing booth labeled ‘H’.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these keepsakes is the variation in the text of the “Noble Art and Mystery of Printing” quote. Brampton’s label attributes the invention of printing to Johannes Fust in ca. 1451 and credits William Caxton for bringing printing to England in ca. 1471. Another version, as shown on the label of Judith Hackam (Oxford 1731) credits Johann Gutenberg (“John Guttemberg”)

Book label of Judith Hackam, 23 Sept. 1731 (Reproduction). Spencer Van B. Nichols Bookplate Collection. The Grolier Club Library, New York, New York.

with the invention of printing in 1440, and states that John Islip brought printing to England in 1471. Frances Francis’s label (s.l. 1732) also credits Gutenberg with the invention, but asserts that Frederick Corsellis taught printing to the English in 1459. (Illustrated in “An Excursion into Printed Keepsakes,” p. 57).

At the time these keepsakes were produced, historians were embroiled in a “vast controversy over the cultural, social, and economic historiography of printing,” which had been raging since the seventeenth century. (Johns 344). Various theories had been put forth in support of Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust, or Laurens Coster of Haarlem as the originator of the art; and William Caxton and Frederick Corsellis competed for the credit of introducing printing to England. In the 1720s-1740s, around the time of the third centenary of the invention of printing, a number of important works on the topic were published by practitioners and historians alike, including Michael Mattaire’s Annales typographici (1719-1725); Samuel Palmer’s General History of Printing (1732); Conyers Middleton’s Dissertation Concerning the Origin of Printing in England (1735); Prosper Marchand’s Histoire de l’Origine et des Premiers Progrès de l’Imprimerie (1740); and Joseph Ames’s Typographical Antiquities (1749). The portion of Brampton’s book label that concerns William Caxton, in fact, closely echoes the opening paragraph of Middleton’s Dissertation, “It was a constant opinion delivered down by our historians, that the art of printing was introduced and first practiced in England by William Caxton, a mercer and citizen of London; who, by his travels abroad … and by the encouragement of the Great, and particularly of the Abbot of Westminster, first set up a press in that Abby, and began to print books soon after the year 1471.” The debates continued until well into the 19th century, when Antoine-Augustin Renouard dispelled the Coster myth in his tract “Note sur Laurent Coster” (published in his Annales de l’Imprimerie des Estienne, 1837) and William Blades offered conclusive evidence in favor of William Caxton in his Life and Typography of William Caxton (1861-1863).

So where do these keepsakes, produced for the general population and offering competing narratives on the invention of printing, fit into the historiographical debate? Unfortunately, Lee does not transcribe in full the “Noble Art and Mystery of Printing” quote in his census, so more data is needed to address the question. It would be interesting to see if certain versions of the quote can be aligned with specific printing houses or locations. I also wonder whether the “Noble Art and Mystery” quotes were selected by the printing house or whether visitors had multiple versions from which to choose. It may be noteworthy that all of the examples from the Clarendon Printing-House in Oxford for which I could find the quote in full (4 out of 12) attributes the invention of printing to Johann Gutenberg and gives John Islip credit for bringing it to England. Certainly, a detailed bibliographical study would reveal more interesting facts about these keepsakes and their relationship to the controversies of the time.

By Meghan Constantinou


“An Excursion into Printed Keepsakes: I: ‘Having One’s Name Printed.” http://www.bsanz.org/download/bulletin-/bulletin_vol._11_no._2_(1987)/B_1987_Vol11_No2_02.pdf

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, esp. ch. 5 (p. 324-379).

Lee, Brian North. Early Printed Book Labels: A Catalogue of Dated Personal Labels and Gift Labels printed in Britain to the year 1760. Middlesex, England: Private Libraries Association, 1976. (With references to earlier literature)

Tuer, Andrew W. “Book-plate of Martha Bartlett.” The Book-Plate Collector’s Miscellany, being a Supplement to the ‘Western Antiquary’ (1890-1891), p. 29. Suppl. to Western Antiquary, vol. 10 (July 1890-July 1891).

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