The Printer’s Fist
When letterpress printing was the norm, one used to see manicules, or what we’d refer to as the Printer’s Fist (why ‘fist’ not finger?) punctuation mark used occasionally. But really it’s heyday as a symbol was in 19th century advertising. Since the advent of the typewriter, which didn’t accommodate such a wide character, it fell out of favour. It would then be used most often ironically, or to evoke a historical period and it has almost become a symbol for letterpress printing itself.
But the pointing finger goes back further than 19th century printing. It was a common in medieval manuscripts to ‘point up’ texts or words of note with a hand-drawn hand annotation. (The first recorded examples being in the Doomsday Book of 1086.) It was the most ubiquitous of all the symbols used in written manuscripts. And therefore, as with other signs, it was formalized into hot metal when printing took off in the 15th century and was then equally common in print. And as writing notes in the margins of printed books was also commonplace, so the fist continued to be used as before. One can often place the period in history from the style of hand and the drawing of sleeve or cuff. Think of those lace-rimmed cuffs or the suit and shirtsleeve.
Outside of books, on the street, we associate the sign with the Victorian period. The use of the pointing finger on the sign of the ’Cheers’ bar in the US TV series told us the supposed age of the establishment.
But is the manicule (from the Latin ‘maniculum’ meaning ‘little hand’), as depicted as a pointing finger making a comeback on the street. I’ve been photographing them as I see them. By no means all are used in a pastiche form to echo the Victorian era. Many are just used for what they are – a simple, universal symbol for giving direction.
Written by Pete Lawrence