An inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript and giving details of its publication, e.g., the name of the printer and the date of printing. Colophons are sometimes found in manuscripts and books made from the 6th century ad on. In medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, a colophon was occasionally added by the scribe and provided facts such as his name and the date and place of his completion of the work, sometimes accompanied by an expression of pious thanks for the end of his task.
With the invention of printing in the 15th century, printers gradually added a blank piece of paper at the front of a book to protect the first page from soiling, and they also added an identifying monogram, emblem, or a brief sentence at the rear of the book. At first, the latter inscription simply recorded that the printer had printed the work at hand in a given place. The first such printed colophon occurs in the Mainz Psalter produced by Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer in 1457, and is translated as follows:
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters and sufficiently picked out with rubrics, has thus been fashioned by an ingenious method of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently completed by Johannes Fust, citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheym, in the year of the Lord 1457 on the Vigil of the Assumption [i.e., August 14].
Such colophons are important sources of information for the origin of early printed books. In some printed books the scribe’s colophon was carried over and printed instead of, or with, the printer’s colophon. When they stood alone, they were distinguished from colophons and called explicits. When the two were combined, the term colophon was retained.
Printed colophons soon became more elaborate, however, evolving into a means whereby the printer might praise the book at length and even insert a short essay upon its merits. Ultimately, by about 1480, part of the contents of the colophon was transferred to the blank cover page at the front of the book, thereby initiating the title page as it is now known today.
In most countries, the colophon now appears on the page opposite the title page and consists of a one-sentence statement that the book was printed by a given printer at a given location. Colophons stating the typeface, paper, and other production details of fine editions are sometimes still placed on the last page, however.
A less frequent use of the term is for a printer's mark or logotype. This originated in Renaissance printing shops, where a title page would feature the printer's mark (colophon) near the bottom of the page, usually above the printer's name and city.
Many colophons used in the 15th century are clearly derivative of alchemical symbols relating to the alloys used by printers to make lead type, primarily the symbols for antimony and tin.