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in: Books, Featured, Travel & Leisure

April 28, 2014 Last updated: April 29, 2020

Ex Libris: The Bookplates of 31 Famous Men

theodore teddy Roosevelt Bookplate ex libris

There’s an antique bookstore in Montpelier, VT that I always visit whenever we make a trip out to the Green Mountain State. I’ve found a few books there that have provided some great fodder for the blog. Every now and then I’ve come across books that have ornate, decorative labels plastered on the inside cover that are emblazoned with “Ex Libris” and then some person’s name. Curious, I got online and searched “Ex Libris” and discovered those little labels are called bookplates and they were a big thing not too long ago.

Bookplates were used primarily by well-to-do folks who had the money to afford large personal libraries. Before the age of cheaply produced paperbacks and electronic devices, books were valuable possessions. The bookplate was simply a way for book owners to identify their books and perhaps encourage their return when they were lent out to friends and family. The first bookplates were used in Germany in the 16th century by Christian monks, and the practice spread among European gentry. The custom came to America in the 1600s, and many of America’s Founding Fathers used bookplates in their personal collections, including George Washington and Paul Revere. Bookplates were widely used throughout the 19th century by both Europeans and Americans, but the practice began to fade by the 1950s.

While the designs on bookplates were highly personalized in order to clearly identify a book’s owner, common motifs were used, including family crests and badges as well as Latin or Greek mottoes that were of personal significance to the tomes’ owner. In what is perhaps a reflection of society’s growing individualism, in the early part of the 20th century you begin to see more personalized bookplate designs that move beyond family heraldry.

Bookplate collecting is a surprisingly robust hobby filled with passionate enthusiasts. Consequently, you can find thousands of bookplate examples online. To give you a taste of the rich variety of designs, we’ve highlighted bookplates from famous and notable men from history. Maybe they’ll even inspire you to create your own.

I know they did for me; in fact, after originally publishing this post, I had my own bookplate made by the incredible folks at Eidolon House:

Brett McKay Ex Libris bookplate

The Bookplates of 31 Famous Men

george washington Bookplate ex libris ends justify means

Latin inscription on George Washington’s bookplate: “The ends justify the means.”

paul revere Bookplate ex libris

Latin inscription on Revere’s bookplate: “I fight for the Fatherland.”

eli whitney Bookplate ex libris

Eli Whitney — inventor of the cotton gin.

john quincy adams Bookplate ex libris retain liberty friendship faith

Sixth president John Quincy Adams’ bookplate, featuring his family crest. Motto: “You will retain liberty, friendship, and faith.”

lord byron Bookplate ex libris

Writer and playboy Lord Byron’s bookplate.

charles dickens Bookplate ex libris

lewis carroll Bookplate ex libris

Author Lewis Carroll’s bookplate.

h.g. wells Bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells.

rudyard kipling Bookplate ex libris

sir arthur conan doyle Bookplate ex libris

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s bookplate.

john d rockefeller Bookplate ex libris

I haven’t been able to ascertain if this was really oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller’s bookplate, or more likely, a bit of satire created by a contemporary critic!

theodore teddy Roosevelt Bookplate ex libris

Theodore Roosevelt’s bookplate features his family crest and motto. Translation: “He who plants preserves.” Rumor has it that TR had his family crest tattooed on his chest.

andrew carnegie Bookplate ex libris

Steel and railroad tycoon Andrew Carnegie’s bookplate.

King Gillette Bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of King Gillette — the man who invented the safety razor. The Latin inscription at the top says: “A great deal in a small space.”

sigmund freud Bookplate ex libris

Of course Freud’s bookplate would be filled with symbolism. It depicts the riddle of the Sphinx along with a quote in Greek from Oedipus the King that says, “He who understood that famous enigma and was a strong man.” I guess the implication is that Freud was able to solve the riddle of the human psyche? Or maybe a bookplate is sometimes just a bookplate.

jack london wolf Bookplate ex libris

Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and White Fang, was nicknamed the “Wolf,” so it’s only appropriate that his bookplate features this fierce canine.

wb yeats bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Latin motto: “All things are good to the good.”

edgar rice burroughs bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.

calvin coolidge bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of U.S. president Calvin Coolidge featuring his childhood home in Plymouth, VT. They still have a big birthday bash there for Silent Cal every 4th of July.

cecil b demille bookplate ex libris

Movie director Cecil B. DeMille’s bookplate.

charles charlie chaplin bookplate ex libris

Silent movie star Charlie Chaplin’s bookplate.

jack dempsey boxer bookplate ex libris

Champion boxer Jack Dempsey.

papa ernest hemingway bookplate ex libris

Papa’s bookplate.

f scott fitzgerald  bookplate ex libris

F. Scott Fitzgerald never used bookplates for his personal library, but an illustrator at The New Yorker created a “suggested” bookplate for Fitzgerald based on the theme of dying young that appears in Fitzgerald’s novels. Fitzgerald liked the illustration so much, he clipped and pasted it on the inside cover of his scrapbook. For more about this bookplate see here.

adolf hitler bookplate ex libris

Bookplate of Adolf Hitler.

charles degaulle bookplate ex libris

The bookplate of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during WWII. His bookplate features the Cross of Lorraine — the symbol of the Free French Forces — crushing the Nazi swastika.

benito mussolini bookplate ex libris

I guess you can’t be a fascist dictator without a proper bookplate. Here’s Benito Mussolini’s.

albert einstein  bookplate ex libris

Albert Einstein’s bookplate.

robert frost bookplate ex libris

The poet Robert Frost’s bookplate.

walt disney bookplate ex libris

Walt Disney’s bookplate.

ian fleming james bond bookplate ex libris let the deed shaw

Ian Fleming — the creator of James Bond. “Let the deed shaw” is the Fleming clan’s Scottish motto, originating from the 1300s. Learn about the fascinating story behind the motto on this page, and scroll about halfway down.

Do you use bookplates in your personal books? Let us know in the comments!

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