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On Bookplates

Sep 24, 2009 3:42 PM | 1 comment

A question from one of our longtime patrons got me thinking about bookplates. Brooklyn Public Library has used many bookplates through the course of its 110-year history. Mostly they celebrate the donor of a book, or of the funds that  provided the book, but in the early years of the library bookplates were used simply to announce ownership. As any collector of bookplates will know, wonderful things can happen in the space of that little scrap of paper, usually no more than 3" x 4" and often smaller. 

As it happens, although the mission of the Brooklyn Collection is to collect and make available to the public material on the history of Brooklyn in all media,  we have one collection among our holdings that is completely out of scope--the Bookplate Collection.  Consisting of about 800 bookplates from Europe and America, this collection showcases  the graphic artist's genius writ small.  All kinds of symbolism, heraldry, drawing, printing, etching and typography have been marshalled to claim ownership of books. Libraries, colleges, individuals--the libraries of the mighty and the humble are all represented. The Bookplate Collection was started in 1906 with a gift by Wilbur Macey Stone on behalf of Jay Chambers.

It is a beautiful thing to see how a tiny rectangle can contain a design that encapsulates the spirit and ambition of a book's owner.

As I am unable to do proper justice to that collection here, (but don't despair, I could do a bookplate a week!)  let me concentrate on a few plates produced by Brooklyn Public Library over the years.  The most elaborate of the plates (above) features a torch with the motto Litterae, Lux, Scientiae, surrounded by laurels and curlicues. This design was progressively simplified until few further reductions were possible (see left below). I imagine these design changes were intended to show that the library was moving with the times. Like the pared-down design for the Central Library building, the torch bookplate shed all unnecessary decoration until it was reduced to its most essential and functional elements, beaux arts excess giving way to art deco austerity. Finally the ultimate simplification took place and bookplates disappeared from BPL's incoming books. A complicating factor might have been Queens Borough Public Library's use of a similar torch logo.

There are numerous touching examples throughout the library's collections of bookplates used as memorials.  You see many of them over the course of a career here, but when you actually want to find one in a book, can you? Of course not.

The bookplate that started all this arrived a few days ago with a research request. Our patron had bought a small etching bearing the legend "Gift of the Friends of Brooklyn Public Library" and wanted to know what it was.  We recognized it immediately as a bookplate but knew nothing of its history.  We soon discovered that in 1939 the Friends of Brooklyn Public Library announced a competition for the design of a bookplate. Entries were to be in black and white only, and a prize of $100 was set aside for the winner. Prints submitted were to be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in November of 1939.

Bookplate by Ernest D. Roth

We still do not know for sure, but it seems likely that this plate by New York artist Ernest D. Roth was the winner. The view is a glamorized version of Manhattan seen through the window of the then new Central Library's Trustees Room. The plate could have been produced to celebrate the opening of the new building, which took place after years of delays, in 1941. Roth was born in Germany in 1883 but moved to New York City as a child. The son of a baker, by the 1930s he was living on East 71st Street and enjoying some success as a painter and print maker. 

Perhaps it was to be expected that Manhattanite Roth's design would more or less obliterate Brooklyn. Aside from the magnificent Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument and the owls that guard the Library's Trustees Room, Brooklyn is as compressed as the rest of the world in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover. But as with so many of the bookplates in our collection, or indeed with any miniature format, one can't help being slightly amazed that so large a vision can be poured into so small a vessel.



9/28/2009 8:43:52 PM #

Brooklyn may well be obliterated in Roth's bookplate, but it seems we're better off than New Jersey, which appears to be under nuclear attack.