Ex Libris: A History of Bookplates

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When I first began collecting books at the mature age of 13, I remember not just the feeling of excitement that came with diving into a new and exciting world but also the thought of possessing something as amazing as a book. Because I was as territorial as a terrier with my personal library, I decided to proudly write my name in every book I bought.

Even then, I knew there was social clout in possessing certain books, whether it was the latest Hunger Games to look like I was part of the zeitgeist or a classic that made me seem unbearably clever, and writing my name in those books seemed to solidify my pedantic ways.

I didn’t know then, but there was a bookish accessory that would have been perfect for the burgeoning book collector I was becoming: ex libris, which translates to “from the library of.” Commonly referred to as bookplates, their modern iterations are illustrated stickers that readers can affix inside their books. Since graduating from handwriting my ex libris, I now have a collection of bookplates illustrated by young artists that always give me a spark of joy whenever I open a book in my personal library. However, the practice of using bookplates has had a long and storied history that goes beyond my bookish whims.

What Are Bookplates?

It was common for affluent bibliophiles who maintained personal libraries to commission personalized bookplates. Atlas Obscura interviewed Laura Aydelotte, the director of the Provenance Online Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, which tracks provenance marks (e.g. “bookplates, marginalia, bindings, or even more obscure details, such as the particular way an owner once dog-eared the pages”). According to Aydelotte, “[Provenance marks] help you understand how these books were used and who was reading them.” This rings especially true for bookplates, because each was historically custom designed for its owners, who almost always wanted their bookplates to reflect their interests, aspirations, or social standings.

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In other words, bookplates are works of art that reflect the personal style, preference, and/or philosophy of the owner. According to Collector’s Weekly, “Beyond Europe’s ubiquitous crests and coats of arms, other popular themes included ancient castles, ships sailing on the ocean, magnificent trees and landscapes, classical nudes, animals (especially cats), starry night skies, and, unsurprisingly, books.” These common themes were actually helpful because many personalized bookplates employed period-specific styles and/or trends, which can sometimes help in dating them and thus making connections to historical figures.

Although this personalization seems a tad much to our modern sensibilities, consider that it was more expensive to make books 500 years ago, so it makes sense for owners to go the extra mile and claim ownership. It all began with the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century CE, which revolutionized the book-making process. Before then, all books were painstakingly crafted by hand and contained stunning calligraphy and illustrations. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, books were expensive and rare. Therefore, it made sense for book owners to mark their books to prevent theft and ensure that the books were returned if borrowed, a trend that gained traction as the Gutenberg press allowed book collectors to grow their libraries.

A Brief History Of Bookplates

One of the earliest known bookplates is from 1480 and was owned by a Carthusian monk named Hilprand Brandenburg, the second son of a wealthy patrician family from Biberach, Germany. In 1506, Brandenburg donated more than 450 volumes to the Carthusian Charterhouse in Buxheim, Bavaria, and each book bore one of his armorial woodcut bookplates. The bookplates were colored by hand, and Brandenburg wrote his signature above each bookplate (there was also an inscription kindly requesting that borrowed books be returned).

It’s not surprising that the earliest known bookplate belonged to a monk because monasteries were where the public could access libraries. In an interview with Collector’s Weekly, Lew Jaffe, a veteran bookplate collector said, “In monasteries that had libraries, they attached chains to the books so they wouldn’t be taken.” An additional layer of protection was bookplates.

In fact, it was common for barons and other nobles through the 18th century to have their bookplates illustrated with symbols that clearly relayed their pedigrees, such as a coats of arms. As Mr. Jaffe notes for Collector’s Weekly, “But they also created hand-illustrated plates to paste into these books that essentially said ‘this belongs to such-and-such monastery or such-and-such rich person,’ and would include their coat of arms. It was like a warning: ‘I’m a rich person, this is my property, and you’d better not take it.’” The same article noted that bookplates were status symbols that expressed “the individuality of a book’s owner as much as preventing theft. The European nobility who could afford their own private libraries adopted bookplates as one of many tools in their arsenal to remind others of their standing.”

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Hilprand Brandenburg even had his coat of arms illustrated on his bookplates. More than a pedigree, a bookplate could also relay the achievements of its owner, and the visual nature of the illustration meant that those who could not read immediately knew whose book they were holding. Consider that Charles Dickens had a picture of a lion directly under his name for his bookplate.

Diving Deeper Into The History Of Bookplates

*The following quotes have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

I spoke with Mr. Jaffe over the phone to discuss the finer points of the history of bookplates and his experience as a collector. An avid collector of bookplates, a passion that he shares on his website, Mr. Jaffe says that collecting bookplates is “almost like archaeology,” which is an apt comparison because later in our conversation, he mentioned that he finds bookplates “pasted one after another” and that he’ll “sometimes remove a bookplate and then there’s another bookplate.”

We discussed the general timeline of bookplates and their rise in popularity. According to Mr. Jaffe, bookplates surged in popularity at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. During this time, the middle class began to grow. Many in the new class wanted to emulate the manners of old money families. Coupled with a shift to more affordable engraving techniques, bookplates surged in popularity, not only as collector’s items but also for personal libraries. Mr. Jaffe’s sense is that it was “like a tulip craze.” This is because “Americans had lots and lots of money, and the people in the UK had been hard pressed for cash for a variety of reasons, so Americans would come over and buy the contents of a castle, such as the books. And they would start emulating the English.” He notes that he has collected many bookplates from silent era movie stars who hopped onto the trend.

According to Bookplates for Beginners by Alfred Fowle, the earliest English bookplate is dated 1520 while the earliest American bookplate is dated 1642. Many esteemed Englishmen and Americans used bookplates for their personal libraries. For example, Sir Nicholas Bacon, the father of Sir Francis Bacon, was an early adopter of bookplates. George Washington also employed a personalized bookplate for his personal library with an illustration of his family seal, which was a bird above the motto “Exitus acta probat,” which translates as “the end shows the deed.” Another revolutionary, Paul Revere, was a respected bookplate designer.

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Up to the 1920s, bookplates were collected and used amongst book lovers. Earlier in the 20th century is when bookplates became more personalized beyond family seals. However, bookplates began to fall in popularity around the 1950s. James Goode, who in 2010 displayed his bookplate collection in an exhibit titled Three Centuries of American Bookplates, told The University of Virginia Magazine that “The advent of television, a more informal lifestyle in the U.S. after World War II and the proliferation of paperbacks cut into both the popularity of bookplates and the number of collectors…”

Mr. Jaffe believes that the Depression also played a role in the decline of bookplates because “people by and large who used bookplates were well-to-do people, [and] it was the Wall Street crash and Depression, so people were not spending money as much, even rich people. And the bookplate artists are people who made a full-time living with bookplates and their livelihood dried up, such as restaurant owners right now during the pandemic.” But despite their decline, Mr. Jaffe points out that “when I was younger, they had the television became popular, and people were saying…the radio is gonna disappear, which never happened. And it’s the same with bookplates—there’s fewer people reading hardbound books, but there are still people who love bookplates.”

Collecting Bookplates And Collecting History

Bookplate collecting became popular roughly at the same time as bookplates themselves in the 19th century, and meant that bookplates could be classified. According to the King’s College Archive Centre, “…most collections were built through the exchange of duplicate pieces. Often, collectors would have several personal designs just for the purpose of trading with others.”

Bookplates designed during specific time periods generally reflect the popular trends, such as ornate family crests during the Jacobean period. Bookplates created in Europe and North America between 1500 and 1800 are classified as: English, Jacobean, Chippendale, or Ribbon & Wreath. The King’s College Archive Centre notes that “From the Jacobean period (1567–1625) to the Edwardian era these printed bookplates evolved into elegant engravings…The ex-libris often incorporate a name, motto and coat-of-arms which relate to the book’s owner. Famous artists such as William Hogarth and members of the Bloomsbury group all designed bookplates for themselves and others.”

Because bookplates were collected by key historic figures, Mr. Jaffe has been able to discover fascinating connections, such as familial relationships. When asked if there was a particular type of bookplate he enjoyed hunting down, he answered, “I focus mostly on the United States and Great Britain, but I have so many different categories. My albums are set up by designer or artist [and] also set up by subject.” Mr. Jaffe went on to discuss how he would discover a bookplate with an interesting theme, such as polo players, and slowly begin to accumulate similar bookplates along that same theme. He mentions having bookplates of polar explorers, actors, and actresses as well as those designed by artists such as Rockwell Kent. “I’m sitting in a room with maybe thirty albums.”

When asked how the pandemic has affected his ability to collect, he says that while it has been difficult to focus, he has still been able to buy from a lot of collections. Enough that he added, “I won’t live long enough to sort through all these collections.”

Wanting to know more about the bookplates he’s accumulated, I asked Mr. Jaffe if there were any interesting ones he’s come across over the years. He said, “I’ve gotten bookplates that I’ve never expected to get. Years ago, I would write to famous people and send them a typed letter telling them I’m a collector and would appreciate it if you would send me a copy [of a bookplate]. Back then, people responded to the mail, so I would get bookplates from J. Edgar Hoover, Vice Presidents, and Presidents. I’ve gotten letters back not from a PR firm but from the person.” This was news to me, because it is tricky these days to even get an automated email response.

When asked how he got written responses, Mr. Jaffe said he would “tell them that I’m a collector and if you use a bookplate, I’d really appreciate…to add [it] to my collection, but if you don’t, I’m enclosing a book that you’d find interesting.”

One fascinating incident was when Mr. Jaffe wrote to John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, simply to send Updike his bookplate. Not expecting a response, Mr. Jaffe said, “John Updike didn’t send a letter; he sent back my bookplate and then signed it. [Updike’s scribble] said, “I don’t collect bookplates,” and then [Updike] signed it.”

Yet another great exchange was when Mr. Jaffe was attempting to write to Harper Lee, the famed author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee was notoriously reclusive, and her address wasn’t publicly available. However, Mr. Jaffe discovered that Lee lived next door to her sister. He said, “[I] wrote to her sister and asked [her] to pass a note. Harper Lee wrote back and said, “I don’t use bookplates but good luck with the collection.”’ Although Mr. Jaffe didn’t get a bookplate to add to his collection, a signed letter from Harper Lee is still a prized possession of his.

The Future Of Bookplates

When I asked Mr. Jaffe where he thought modern bookplates and design are headed, he doubted books were going to become obsolete. He notes that “there’s still lots of people around who collect [bookplates] but a lot of them are older. These things come in cycles, something that was trendy will come in fashion again.”

After speaking with Mr. Jaffe, I began thinking about his earlier analogy of bookplate collecting being like archaeology. Their storied history means that a collector can discover backdoors and connections to history beyond the textbooks.

Thinking back to my own collection of contemporary art, I wonder if they’ll eventually find their way into the album of a collector.

Have questions or any bookplate-related inquires? Feel free to contact Lew Jaffe at bookplatemaven[AT]hotmail[DOT]com.