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When Book Lovers Guarded Their Prized Possessions With Tiny Artworks

Before the days of lending libraries, cheap paperbacks, and ebooks, building one’s own personal library was an expensive but fulfilling accomplishment. Those precious books were treated well, and to mark one’s ownership, there were bookplates, ex libris. The first bookplates displayed coats-of-arms of European nobility. Bookplate collector Lew Jaffe, who blogs at Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, tells us how they became more varied, and even became examples of modern art.  

“Americans, for the most part, didn’t have coats of arms, so they would hire an engraver, and the engraver would ask, ‘What design do you want?’ and they’d say, “Well, I have a pretty dog,’ or ‘I like to go fishing,’ or whatever. That’s how the more creative end of bookplate design really started. It was an affectation.” While most artists weren’t known specifically for their bookplates, Jaffe says that a few, like Edwin Davis French, did establish a reputation for their stunning ex libris engravings.

Like a carefully curated home library, the imagery of a custom bookplate spoke to a person’s favorite subjects, hobbies, or values. For creative types, bookplate designs might be executed by beloved illustrators or feature symbols of their chosen art forms, while labels for people of faith could incorporate religious symbols and those for sports fanatics could display their games of choice. 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.

You didn’t have to have a custom design, as “universal bookplates” were (and still are) sold with popular designs that a book lover could just add their name to. However, custom designed bookplates, particularly those of famous people, are particularly coveted among collectors. Read more about bookplates and see a gallery of beautiful, strange, and funny examples at Collectors Weekly.  

(Image: courtesy Lew Jaffe)

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Both my parents had "ex libris" stickers in some of their books. They were exceptionally cagey about why I could not get the same sort of thing.
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