Scanning Around With Gene: Give Me Back My Book!

While I’ve always had a pretty big library of books, I’ve never taken the time to design or buy a bookplate — that small label that establishes ownership and helps your friends remember from whom they borrowed that certain book.
Recently, while going through a clip-art catalog from 1947, I found a series of stock bookplate art, and that got me doing some additional research. Bookplates, it seems, have been around as long as there have been books, and having a personal design was once as common as, well, having personal stationery and writing actual letters. Click on any image for a larger version.

As usual, when it comes to anything culturally significant, we have the Egyptians to thank first. The earliest known marks identifying book ownership date from the reign of Amenophis III in Egypt (1391-1353). But it was the Germans who first popularized the printed bookplate, perhaps because they also were the ones who popularized printing.

Many bookplates contain the words “EX Libris,” Latin for “from the library” or “from the books of.” When books were rare commodities, a bookplate often contained a coat of arms, family motto or other trappings of the rich and royal. Here are several terrific examples from a large collection of the Pratt Institute Libraries, available on flickr. The first is from 1843, the second by artist (and type designer) George Auriol (1863-1938), and the third is unsigned and date unknown.

It is a bit unusual to find bookplates with an image of the owner, but here’s another one from the Pratt collection by artist Samuel Hollyer (1826-1919) done for Walter Romeyn Benjamin in 1897. It’s followed by an unattributed Italian design, and then another one with the owner’s image, this time from President Woodrow Wilson (from the Library of Congress Collection).

Artists often designed their own bookplates, and many famous type designers were commissioned to make custom bookplates (Eric Gill did several). Here is the bookplate of artist Edward Penfield (circa 1900), followed by a 1904 bookplate of Charles P. Searle, and a late 1800s design for Anita Herriman Vedder of Rome.

Lending libraries and businesses often had their own bookplates, too. Here is an example from 1915 of a bookplate for the architectural firm of Sproatt and Rolph, followed by an example from the City of Asheville North Carolina, and then one from 1925 designed by Sidney Hunt.

As much as I like the custom-designed versions, I’m still a sucker for the clip-art variety or the kind you can still buy at most bookstores. I especially like the idea of children having their own bookplates, which implies that children once had their own libraries.

I was glad to discover that there are electronic bookplates now available for the Amazon Kindle e-Book reader. But none of them are as unique as this one, designed for author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I’ve lost a lot of books to well-meaning friends who never returned them, and I’m sure I have a few of theirs. So maybe, as old-fashioned as it seems, there’s still time to design and print up a few bookplates of my own.

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on
  • Anonymous says:

    the third Prat Institute library sample is actually by Vojtech Preissig, famous Czech typographer, who also taught at US art schools

  • Anonymous says:

    Bravo, we have over 20 K books, rereading all the time. We could likely design something on computer, your designs you collect are amazing. There are also historical museuns and stores that sell marbled paper like used to be seen in binding insides of books. The past enchants if we give it a chance!

  • JaydaU says:

    A bookplate, also known as ex-librīs, is usually a small print or decorative label pasted into a book, often on the inside front cover, to indicate its owner. Simple typographical bookplates are termed ‘booklabels’.
    Bookplates typically bear a name, motto, device, coat-of-arms, crest, badge, or any motif that relates to the owner of the book, or is requested by him from the artist or designer. The name of the owner usually follows an inscription such as “from the books of . . . ” or “from the library of . . . “, or in Latin, ex libris.
    In the United States, bookplates replaced book rhymes after the 19th century without using any money now.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi there, I love this style of bookplate and I would love to know what the name of the catalog is so I can search for it for my own library. Would you email me with the info when you have time? listreplies at gmail dot com

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