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HE bookplate is an institution not as well known as might be supposed, and therefore it may be necessary to explain its function. It is merely a printed label, which is pasted - when not serving as a unit in a collection - on the inside front cover of a book to denote ownership. It offers the simplest and cheapest route to immortality. The best libraries are always anxious to add new plates to their collections, and they are sure to be preserved indefinitely.
As in the case of the oldest dated woodcut there is a difference of opinion regarding the oldest bookplate. Some authorities give that credit to Hans Igler's plate by dating it 1450, but generally the oldest known printed or mountable book ownership label is conceded to be that of Hildebrand Brandenburg, a monk of a Carthusian monastery at Buxheim, Wurttemberg, where the St. Christopher woodcut of the vintage of 1423 was also found. The date of the Brandenburg plate is no later than 1480 - set by the recorded gift of the book in which it was attached. Bookplates were used in Germany in great numbers before the fashion spread elsewhere. The greatest artists tried their hands at designing them - Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein and Cranach among others. England's oldest plate dates from between 1515 to 1534. The oldest found in France, where the expression 'ex libris' comes from, is of the year 1529. The oldest American plate dating to 1674 is that of John Cotton, a print-shop label - good enough for a Puritan.
The Brandenburg bookplate was naturally cut on a woodblock. The design represents an angel holding a shield on which is depicted an ox - symbols respectively of Heavenliness and Earthliness - indicating a true and humble but ambitious Christian's character. The owner's name is legibly added - all very simply and graciously done - fulfilling perfectly the purpose which called it into being. It is, as some writer on bookplates has defined as the requirements of a plate, "a pictorial summary of the owner's pursuits." The Brandenburg plate may well be taken as a pattern of all that a bookplate should be.
As the bookplate is primarily a mark of ownership, it is essential that it bear the owner's name legibly. It may after that picture the owner's station in life, or his ambition, his hobby (one is enough), occupation, interest or an accomplishment. If he is not o'erweeningly proud of his own, he may fall back on that of an ancestor.
As in other expressions, simplicity is desirable. The prospective owner is generally sold on the idea that his interest in books should be featured. Love of books is implied in the ownership of a bookplate. There is no necessity to emphasize that point. No one not caring for books would want a bookplate.
In the bookplate all the sins have been committed, induced almost always, I should say from experience, by the commissioner of the job. If he is a collector of vases he may want his entire collection indicated in the two by four design. He may be, in common with the rest of bookish humanity, an admirer of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and other great lights of literature, so he may want these names on his plate too to shine in the reflected glory of his own. Fishing may be his hobby, so a fish-pole and a landing-net will have to be incorporated in the design. This will give the artist something to damn for a long time. On the other hand, the commissioner may give him carte blanche to do as he pleases, and so he will have no one to pass the buck to, in case the design turns out to be a flop.
The commonest bookplate properties are piles of books, ink-pots and quills, and ships bearing the slogan, 'There is no frigate like a book to bear us lands away.' The earlier bookplates were much given over to heraldry. It is the easiest motif, but most Americans seem to have an aversion to the use of a family crest for such a purpose, perhaps as smacking too much of an honor or an accomplishment they have had no hand in winning. I once tried to induce a prospective bookplate owner to allow the use of his family crest as the simplest way out of an impasse - he is a hard man to fit a bookplate to - but he would not hear of it for a moment. The commission is now five years old, and no more satisfactory idea for the bookplate has presented itself to date.
It is difficult to imagine an art more personal than that of the bookplate, and consequently it is extremely difficult at times to indicate in a plate the owner's taste and character, short of an actual portrait. The bookplate should identify the owner in some manner. It is a little unfortunate that there are so many people in the world with similar tastes, habits and looks, and it is still more unfortunate that there is such a powerful tendency toward making them still more alike. When we are all Model T's it is going to be impossible to design a good intimate bookplate.
In size the bookplate is generally about two and one-half inches wide by four high. I would say to start out with the name first of all, when laying out the design, and if the customer has signified a motto - a hang-over of the heraldic designs - fit that in. The expression 'Ex libris' is commonly incorporated but it is not essential. There may be a possibility of playing on the name of the owner, like the linked letters in the little 'Bobby's Book.' There is no objection if levity be indulged in - provided the owner is willing - but in institutional bookplates dignity is the word in subject and execution.
In the end, the best bookplate is that made for oneself by oneself, just as one's signature is more intimate if it is an autograph. Lacking the ability to cut a design, the prospective owner of a plate might design it and turn the job over to the woodcutter - as the owner of 'Betty's Book' did.