Longtime Bas Bleu readers have noticed that our catalog offerings over the years occasionally include sets of bookplates and other book-personalizing items (see our From the Library of… Stamp). Decorative paper labels, also known as ex libris, are a stylish way to brand books from your personal library as your own, dramatically increasing the odds of having them returned to your shelves after being lent out to friends. Affixed inside the front cover, contemporary bookplates usually include a pre-printed image, perhaps the words “from the library of” or “ex libris,” and a blank space in which to write the owner’s name.
Recently, this all-star collection compiled by the list-makers over at Buzzfeed got us to thinking: where, exactly, did bookplates originate? We did a little digging, and here’s what we found:
Since books have existed, humans have been writing their names in them. And it’s little wonder: Even after Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing in 1450, books were pretty expensive. As such, they were considered to be symbols of wealth and prestige; if someone was prosperous enough to own his own books, he sure as heck wanted the world to know it.
Originally, bookplates were custom-printed, decorative labels bearing the owner’s name, coat of arms, or other personal device for identification. The first-known use of printed bookplates is credited to fifteenth-century Germany, specifically a small woodcut representing a shield of arms held by an angel, the hallmark of a collection of books given in 1480 to the Carthusian monastery of Buxheim by Brother Hildebrand Brandenburg. The Germans went on to popularize the creation and use of bookplates, and sixteenth-century bookplate designers included acclaimed printmakers Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein.
By 1529, the bookplate made its way to France, where the addition of the words “ex libris”—from the Latin for “out of the books [of]” or “from the books [of]”—first came into popular use. England’s first bookplate dates to 1574, when Sir Nicholas Bacon gifted a folio once belonging to Henry VIII to the university in Cambridge. Across the Pond, we Americans joined the club in 1679, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Over the centuries, bookplate designs have been created with woodcuts, metal engravings, silk screens, etchings, or pen and ink. Some are intricate and ornate; others plain and simple. Since the late nineteenth century, bookplates have been considered collectibles, and it’s no wonder. These literary nametags are miniature works of art, created by the likes of Paul Revere, Mark Chagall, M. C. Escher, Kate Greenaway, and Barry Moser.