Monday, May 6, 2013

Pass the Bookplate

For my birthday my mom bought me a collection of six Jules Verne novels with the original illustrations. I already owned three of the books (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and From Earth to the Moon), but actually my translation of Journey was the inferior version so I was looking to replace that. Unfortunately when I got home, excited to replace my three thin volumes with a honking thick one, I found that there was one thing that I would be sore pressed to get rid of in those books: I had book-plated them.

Bookplates are the more sophisticated version of those stickers that say “this book belongs to” that you can write your name on and slap onto the flyleaf of your favorite books. They are more sophisticated in that bookplates used to be commissioned by a reader to put in the volumes of their library.  

Not only was the image usually individualized according to the reader (including favorite places, symbols, even family crests), it would have the owner’s name printed (rather than hand-written) and sometimes even incorporated into the artwork, usually after the Latin words Ex Libris, which means “from the books [or library] of…”. These were pieces of paper that were pasted into the book (rather than pre-adhesive stickers). 

The first bookplate known to history is called the Igler bookplate, and was commissioned in Germany by a Johannes Knabensber in the mid-fifteenth century. The word “Igler” means “hedgehog,” and so you can probably guess what image was portrayed on this particular plate.

Aww, it’s an itty bitty pokey hedgehog!  
Isn’t it cute?

Because the images on the plates varied according to their owner, the range of art varies as well. Some are incredibly ornate to the point that you can hardly focus on whose name is on the plate. Others are minimalist. Bookplates soared to their peak of popularity with the advent of Art Nouveau, when some serious artists were simultaneously bookplate designers. 

Bookplates went out of fashion during World War II when such extravagances were uneconomical (not to mention possibly unpatriotic). Even with the renewed affluence of the post-war 1950’s, bookplates were not considered a priority. 

Nowadays you can buy pre-made bookplates, or even go the old-fashioned route of designing and printing your own. Which brings us back to my dilemma of reluctantly peeling off my bookplates from these volumes. 

Fortunately, the plates I’d used were not the bookplates I bought as a last souvenir of Borders before it liquidated. Rather, these were a set of plain white plates with gold lettering which I’d found in one of the Readers’ Digest books I’d bought at a used book-sale. Therefore I’m not weeping over their untimely demise.*

It has, however, reminded me that I would like to design my own bookplate some time. One that incorporates some of my favorite things, that communicates something of who I am to anyone who might peek inside the covers of a beloved book. 

What about you? What images or inscriptions would you choose to place inside your most treasured tomes? 

Bookplates are fascinating, particularly reading up on the various historical celebrities who had them. For those interested in learning more about the history of bookplates, I recommend James P. Keenan’s The Art of the Bookplate. You might also visit, which is the website for The American Society for Bookplate Collectors and Designers, or Ex Libris Art's website.
*Although technically they did not demise. They weren’t alive to begin with. No bookplates were harmed in the writing of this blog entry. Nor were any hedgehogs.

No comments:

Post a Comment