As reference librarians, we work hard to connect researchers with the materials they need, or might not even know they need. However, every now and then we pause to contemplate the first printers and publishers, without whom our jobs possibly would not exist. Such contemplation is particularly easy to do in the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building, where the second floor corridors are decorated with the names and marks of many early printers.
In a previous post, we discussed Christophe Plantin and his printer’s mark, or device, which shows a compass and the motto “Labore et Constantia” (Work and constancy). This was Plantin’s most famous device, although he used others as well. Similarly, another famous family of publishers from the Low Countries, the Elzevirs, used several marks over time. The one decorating the Jefferson building is perhaps the best known. An elm tree encircled by a grapevine, with a lone man standing on the side, plus the Latin expression, “Non Solus” (Not alone), is thought to refer to the relationship between publishers and scholars who cannot exist without each other. The man is variously known as the Hermit, the Sage, or the Solitaire, perhaps referring to the solitary pursuits of a scholar seeking wisdom.
The Elzevir family was in the book business from the late 16th to the early 18th century. Established in Leiden around 1580 by Louis Elzevir (1540s-1617), the business prospered and expanded under his sons and grandsons. Louis was born to a printer family in Leuven (Louvain), so he was already familiar with the book trade. This stood him in good stead while looking for work during turbulent times in the Low Countries, with Catholics and Protestants clashing over religious and political supremacy.
Trying to find stability and a religious haven, the growing Elzevir family moved from the Catholic to the Protestant Low Countries. Louis engaged in book binding and selling, even working for a while for the already successful Plantin publishing family in Antwerp. In fact, these two best-remembered publishing houses from this area kept in sporadic contact with each other. Eventually, the Protestant-friendly city of Leiden, with its university and profitable book trade, became home to Louis and his family of five surviving sons and two daughters. Louis published about 150 books and primarily used a printer’s mark in which an eagle is accompanied by the motto “Concordia res parvae crescent” (In harmony small things grow). This likely refers to Louis’s initial struggle to become established. One can also imagine a busy father of many children exhorting the family to act in harmony.
Louis’s son Bonaventure Elzevir (1583-1652), and his grandsons Abraham (1592-1652) and Isaac Elzevir (1596-1651), were perhaps the best known family members, although all of Louis’s sons and several of his grandsons also made the Elzevir name much respected in the printing and publishing business. The Elzevirs worked mainly with scholarly material including religion, philosophy, law, the classics, history, geography, medicine, and the natural sciences. The family expanded its operations to Amsterdam and Utrecht, as well. A later mark used by the Elzevir family shows Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, by an olive tree. The banderole, or banner, reads “Ne extra oleas” (Nothing beyond the olive tree). This is taken to mean that one should stay within the bounds of wisdom.
With the Low Countries in the grip of religious and political controversy, publishing contentious material could result in severe punishment by those in power. Thus printers frequently resorted to anonymity, leaving out their names or using a mark that differed from their usual ones. The Elzevirs sometimes used a sphere as a device when discretion was advisable.
Because spelling was not standardized at the time, Elzevir books are found in the Library of Congress online catalog, e.g., under Elsevir, Elzevier, Elsevier, or Elzevirium. Those with the patience to hunt for Elzevir books in the Library of Congress will discover many treasures, including fascinating illustrations. It should be noted that the publishing company currently operating under the name Elsevier has no connection to the original Elzevirs, but chose the name because of its respected history.