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Return or else: The art of the bookplate

Posted by Delia Cabe  October 17, 2011 09:19 AM

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Loaning a favorite book takes guts. You are trusting someone else with your treasure and all the memories associated with reading it.

The borrower might spill coffee or wine on it, get it wet in the bathtub or leave it on the subway. He or she may offer to replace it, but the replacement won't feel like your book. The pages and covers are new. The pages lack your marginalia. The magic, gone.

For years, readers have staked their ownership on books in their personal library with bookplates. The earliest known bookplate dates back to the 1470s, according to Brandeis Special Collections.

The first bookplate

Usually bookplates merely say, "From the Library of," or "Ex Libris," with a blank for the owner to sign his name. The best feature beautiful graphics and are themselves a work of art. Custom bookplates may reveal personality, political leanings or something more ominous. Some owners skip the niceties and opt for a bookplate that threatens the borrower with hanging or some other peril if the book is not returned (see below). Here is a selection, including a few bookplates of famous authors. (Click on the photo to see a larger version.)

"A Pleader to the Needer when a Reader" printed by Charles Clark (1806-1880)

Carola Zigrosser. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd14_217. New York Public Library

Ex Libris Anita Loos. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd14_210. New York Public Library

[Bookplate for] Jack London. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd14_211. New York Public Library
Ex Libris Margaret Sanger. Digital ID: ps_prn_cd14_213. New York Public Library

Bookplate of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928

Class struggle bookplate

Bookplate of Abraham Emanuel Fröhlich (Froehlich)

bookplate--"key" (poem)

Best bookplate ever

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at!/DeliaCabe, More »

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