November 20, 2014
Ex Libris is Latin for “hands off!” A history of the bookplate
by Sal Robinson
Remember the bookplate? If you were even a vaguely bookish child, you were probably given a personalized bookplate by an aunt at some point. Perhaps it had a cat on it, or a child sitting in a window, a large book on its lap.
Even when I was little, I knew that bookplates were a particularly passive-aggressive way to indicate that you owned something: a beautiful piece of art veiled a rigid demarcation between what was mine and what was yours. I preferred to go the directly aggressive route, with a book embosser that I stamped firmly onto the title pages of about twenty-five books in my childhood library before getting distracted.
Still, throughout the ages, more genteel and focused readers have come up with many fine variations on the bookplate, which was recently highlighted by archivists at the Library of Congress who put together a Flickr slideshow of 25 of the bookplates in the Ruthven Deane collection. Among them are bookplates from Charlie Chaplin, Frederic Remington, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jack London, as well as figures lost to time like Buddy Lankes and Mrs. G. Linneaus Banks. The range of styles is broad—from the ornate, acanthus-wreathed bookplate of Newman Erb to Jack London’s simple wolf’s head to abstract designs like Bella Landauer’s Cubist cityscape with an embedded message.
According to an article by Allison Meier on Hyperallergic, bookplates developed from earlier, more magicky forms of protecting one’s books:
Before that was the book rhyme, which was a pithy poem that warned how hurtful stealing the book would be, which followed things like medieval book curses which did the same thing in a more ominous, antagonistic way.
(Still, there’s nothing like just chaining your book to a desk, as was done in medieval libraries.)
The Library of Congress and other collections have digitized many of their bookplates, which sometimes confirm and sometimes subvert one’s ideas about their owners. Adolf Hitler, for instance, has a bookplate that is exactly as bombastic as expected, with an eagle and a swastika and a wreath and his name in a sort of unholy cross between Gothic script and Art Deco. But H.P. Lovecraft’s bookplate is mild and distinctly unweird: the door of a house opening out to a starry night.
Since in many cases, the owners aren’t familiar names, their bookplates also invite speculation. The Library of Congress archivists followed one of these trails, tracking down Helen Louise Taylor, who later became Dr. Helen Louise Dexter, and whose plate, shown above, may be connected to a trip to Japan in the ’20s with her aunt. But a million more are unexplored: who, for example, was grisly George Goury, whose bookplate depicts a man hanging from a gallows and the motto “Terrible love brings trouble and sadness into everything”? Or, more optimistically, Francis W. Walker, who has a chimpanzee with calipers and a human skull siting on a stack of books by Darwin on his, with the words “You will be as a god”? That’s a guy I’d like to spend some time with.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.