A Short History of Bookplates

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one of the first bookplates from Germany

One of the first bookplates, wood-cut, hand-painted from 1480. These were pasted in the books of the Carthusian monastery of Buxheim by Brother Hildebrand Brandenburg.

The History of the Bookplate

Bookplates as we know them came into being in 15th century Germany.

Previously, books were rare and very costly. Before moveable type, books were hand-copied in calligraphy, mostly by monks, and many included illuminations, those beautiful gilded and painted pages that took hours, days and even months to prepare. It’s said that in some monastery libraries, books were chained so they wouldn’t fall victim to a medieval ‘five-finger discount.’ 

The First Bookplates…

Once the printing press was invented, books were more accessible, though it was still primarily the wealthy collecting them as there was more literacy in the upper echelons, and price remained a factor. But with more books, a place to store them was needed, and aristocrats created fabulous homes with great libraries. Inside their books, they placed their newly commissioned bookplates.
The first bookplates were printed via woodblock and usually included a crest, or coat of arms.The great German Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer designed bookplates for his equally well-known contemporaries, Hans Holbein, the younger, who was Henry VIII’s favorite portraitist, and Lucas Cranach the Elder.
In the early 16th century copperplate plate engraving came into fashion. This, and other methods of steel-plate etching and engraving are called intaglio printing, and it allows for exacting detail compared to xylography (wood-cut), which is not as precise but has its own look and charm.

It’s interesting to note that the use of bookplates began at different times in different places. For example, in France, they weren’t used until the 17th century. Previous to that, French books were most often stamped in gold or blind-embossed with their personal emblem or monogram on the front cover. This is called supralibros.

Queen Victoria's Bookplate for Windsor Castle Library

Queen Victoria’s bookplate for the Windsor Castle Library

Although most European bookplates began with armorial design, in the US the art of the bookplate expanded because most Americans didn’t have a coat of arms or heraldic devices from which to have plates made.

Expanded Bookplate Designs

Without this fallback, designers instead came up with a motif that fell in line with their client’s hobbies or interests – a quill, dogs, painting palette, religious themes, or romantic classic icons such as castles, landmark trees, and the ubiquitous cat (still popular today). Aside from just a name and decoration, bookplates often had the bearer’s city or favorite saying or motto on it. Or they had a crest made for them to echo the regal European plates.

Paul Revere Bookplates showing two Chippendale Frames

Paul Revere plates courtesy of The American Antiquarian Society

Some silversmiths were also in the bookplate business because of the materials they worked with, and one of the more famous bookplate makers was Paul Revere.

Paul Rever, Bookplate Designer

Just like the monks who illuminated pages using pattern books for quick drawing reference, Paul Revere had a number of bookplate frames which he would use for his base, and then he would change out the personal details – crest, mottos, names etc.

Revere’s bookplates were done in the ‘Chippendale’ style with intricate flourishes, scrolling and framework. Sometimes just the name and a motto appeared without the traditional Ex Libris we’re more familiar with today. Incidentally, Paul Revere’s shop also printed business cards, cartoons and trade bills….and as if that wasn’t enough, he sidelined as a dentist.  

Back to bookplates.

Towards the end of the 19th century, designs began reflecting the art of the times. There’s a myriad of Art Nouveau examples, and this reflects the heightened interest in bookplates, and the collections that were started by newly formed art societies.

Bookplates of Sigmund Freud and Hemmingway - History of the Bookplate

In the beginning of the 20th century, when middle-class Americans began to expand their personal libraries, the idea of a bookplate was appealing, but the cost of having one made was prohibitive. Hence the universal bookplate originated, with its blank spot to fill-in one’s name. These can still be found in stationery shops.

The Decline of Bookplates

The demand for bookplates declined with the increasing popularity of mass-market paperbacks. These books were cheap, and if one was lent to a friend and forgotten, it wasn’t the end of the world. Bookplates were no longer needed as a reminder to return.

To put this into perspective, according to Mental Floss magazine, in 1939, when the US had an unemployment rate of 20 percent, a gallon of gas would set you back 10 cents. A movie ticket, 20 cents. By comparison, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, was $2.75.  That’s expensive.

Then along came the paperback…for a mere 25 cents. By the 1950s, the sale of bookplates diminished by 90 percent.

Today, when I mention bookplates, only about 10 percent of folks know what they are. I guess this follows with the 90 percent drop in sales from almost 70 years ago. And if I mention a bookplate to someone under thirty, the understanding of the word drops to about 2 percent.

That’s unfortunate, but like anything that has artistic and/or historical merit, there are collectors and appreciators, and even if far and few between, when you include the whole world, there’s more than enough to keep the art of the bookplate in circulation.

Like this post? You may be interested in Why A Bookplate?