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The Paper Chase for Literary Ephemera
Part 1: Bookplates

by Michele Behan

#101, 20 August 2007

Ephemera is like Einstein's Theory of Relativity: Everyone has heard of it, but few can describe it.

The word "ephemera" conjures visions of ticket stubs, calendars, advertising, packaging materials and other rudimentary fragments of human life manufactured for short term purposes and meant to be discarded after a brief period of time. Derived from the plural of the Greek word "ephemeron," which translates to a short-lived thing lasting only one day (think of the mayfly, an elegant insect whose adult life begins and ends on the same day), "ephemera" has transcended its literal definition to include objects which in many cases have long outlived their human creators.

Of particular interest to booksellers are the ephemera found in books. Beyond the occasional hidden cash that surfaces from time to time, it is always a thrill to discover an item long buried inside a book that may turn out to be worth more than the book itself. The discovery of a carefully pressed five dollar bill laid in a 1960s paperback of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a testament to the enduring legacy of the book as an effective instrument of safekeeping. Small items of ephemera such as photographs, religious cards, tickets and postcards often owe their very survival to their secondary use as a bookmark.

While every bookseller is familiar with such accidental ephemera, there exist many categories of literary ephemera specifically manufactured for the book market. Bookplates, bookmarks, bookseller's labels, trade cards advertising published books and booksellers' establishments, postcards depicting libraries ... such types of ephemera are avidly collected by bibliophiles and esteemed for their value as literary tie-ins.

Bookplates are the pasted-on labels used to denote ownership of a book. Commonly found affixed to an endpaper and sometimes designed by famous artists, bookplates have been in usage since the 15th century. They originated with the hand painted marks of ownership in early manuscript books. 15th-century designs often contained graphic warnings of the dire fate that lay in wait for book thieves in an effort to deter anyone contemplating such a deed. With the advent of moveable type, Germany was the country of origin of the first printed bookplates.

The term "bookplate" was first used by John Ireland in his 1791 publication, Hogarth Illustrated. Along with William Hogarth, early engravers of bookplates include such eminent artists as Albrecht Dürer (who designed at least six bookplates from 1503 to 1516), Hans Holbein and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Bookplates enjoyed a revival of popularity in the 20th century and well-known illustrators such as Rockwell Kent designed many examples. Notable personalities who had bookplates commissioned for their libraries include Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Samuel Pepys, George Washington and Paul Revere, who designed his very own bookplate.

The words "ex-libris" (Latin, meaning "from the books of") frequently appear on bookplates, and the two terms are often used synonymously.

The bookplate's collectibility derives either from its association with the original owner of the book or, as is often the case with found bookplates, from its attractiveness as a miniature work of art.

These true miniature gems may depict elaborate heraldic devices of owners' coats of arms, still-life interior scenes of libraries, pastoral landscapes, images of owls and other animals, portraits of the owners, occupational themes, or stylistic book-related motifs. The owner's name is often engraved on the bookplate or incorporated into the design.

Victorian bookplates sometimes carried genteel versions of the old medieval book curses. The bookplate of Mrs. Prevost found in an 1851 book warns, "Read slowly - pause frequently - think seriously - keep cleanly - return duly - with the corners of the leaves not turned down."

With the onset of Art Nouveau and the concurrent Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, imagery of the bookplate incorporated scrolls and flourishes alongside the book press depicted in Edward L. Palmer's bookplate, dated 1903.

By the early 1900s, the bookplate was a flourishing art form and numerous mass-produced designs were available for sale, along with privately commissioned examples. This World War I design depicting a Doughboy was found loose with its gum intact - apparently left over from the end of the war in 1918.

Modern bookplates have their own appeal. The stark simplicity of this design succinctly conveys the occupation of the book's owner: Volkmar Wentzel was a long-time photographer for National Geographic.

The graphics on this magician's bookplate are striking and the bookplate even incorporates a photo of the magician.

There are many collectors of bookplates who search for interesting examples to add to their collections. Collecting bookplates began in the late 19th century, when book collectors exchanged their private bookplates with each other. A reference to the history of bookplates was published in 1880 by Lord de Talbey (poet John Byrne Leicester Warren), who had an extensive collection of armorial bookplates.

It became clear even in the 19th century that the value of some historical bookplates outweighed the value of the books into which they had been pasted.

If a book has value on its own or was once part of a famous person's library, the bookplate should stay attached to the book. If, however, you encounter a beautiful bookplate in a damaged or worthless book, it may be worthwhile to salvage it. Attractive and skilfully designed bookplates will sometimes be found in books which, in and of themselves, have little market value.

The following is a step-by-step guide to removing a bookplate from a damaged book.

As are most bookplates, this antiquarian example was glued to the front pastedown where it had been safely nestled for over 120 years.

The first step in salvaging the bookplate is to remove the front cover board. Go ahead - rip it off!

After filling a sink with warm water, allow the cover board to soak thoroughly to loosen the bookplate's glue. The dye in the binding may bleed and leave a stain in the water. As soon as the cover board has softened (about 15 minutes or so), cut the cover board away with scissors leaving an approximate one inch margin around the bookplate. It will be very easy to do this once the board is thoroughly saturated. It's better for the bookplate to soak in clean water rather than absorb the accumulated grime of 120 years and the dye of old leather.

Once the bookplate has thoroughly soaked in the water, the glue will begin to loosen. Depending on the age of the book and the strength of the glue, this process may take hours. This particular bookplate was only beginning to loosen at the edges after more than five hours in the water. If necessary, you may use a fingernail to gently help lift the edges of the bookplate, but be careful not to tear the bookplate. The goal is to get as much air as possible between the bookplate and the board so the glue at the center of the bookplate can be exposed to the water. Once the bookplate is thoroughly soaked, you can slide and lift it gently away from the board.

After the bookplate has detached from the book, pat it dry with white napkins or paper towel sheets before pressing it between a stack of books. To preclude any residual glue on the bookplate from adhering to the book stack, it is preferable to keep the damp bookplate between two white paper towel sheets while it is being pressed. That way, if the bookplate becomes stuck to the paper towels, you can simply re-soak it. Allow 12-24 hours for the bookplate to dry and flatten.

This turkey is free at last!

What prices do individual bookplates bring on eBay? In the month of July 2007, the following prices were realized:

Circa 1904 Elizabeth Corbet Yeats engraved bookplate - $169.50

1898 Emil Orluk designed bookplate of woman with skull - $162.50

1897 Emil Orluk designed bookplate of owl with books - $141.34

Houdini portrait bookplate - $122.50

1900 Francis Marion Crawford bookplate by Henry Brokman - $122.50

1928 Rockwell Kent bookplate - $78.99

These diminutive slips of decorative paper have surpassed their intended purpose as utilitarian objects and can now be more valuable than the book itself. So the next time you're tempted to bypass a ratty-looking volume, take a peek inside to see if a bookplate is there!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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