What’s sticky and can be found in old books?


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Once upon a time, it was likely that on the inside cover of an old book there would be a pasted-in declaration of ownership. Bookplates date back to 16th century Germany, the book ‘Ex Libris: the Art of Bookplates’ tells us, when books were precious and rare.

Bookplates were first produced in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The inspiration for making them derives from the medieval practice of including portraits or other means of identification at the front of illuminated Books of Hours (prayer books) to indicate their ownership.... Shortly after Gutenberg’s death in 1468 book owners began to commission artists to design and make woodcuts with images of personal significance to announce their ownership.


That tradition carried on, across nations and centuries. The slender paperback ‘Ex Libris’ -- while it’s from Yale University Press, it’s the kind of book that might be found near the register at an independent bookstore -- showcases a sampling of such designs, like the above mermaid from 1894. The bookplates feature scholars and unicorns, angels and animals, dancers and readers.

Because they were often personalized, bookplates also reflect their owners. What did they choose to represent themselves? Which artistic style did they select? How prominent is their name?

The bookplates included often imply bigger stories than can fit on a small square of paper. An art deco bookplate featuring a male form by artist Sidney James Hunt was made for ‘A.W.,’ the book explains, which was likely a pseudonym for Hunt himself, whose homosexuality in 1920s England was illegal.

See an online gallery from ‘Ex Libris: The Art of the Bookplate’ here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg