in: Featured, Living, Reading

• Last updated: June 4, 2021

Ex Libris: The Bookplates of 31 Famous Men

A bookplate by Theodore Teddy.

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:

A bookplate by Brett McKay.

The Bookplates of 31 Famous Men

A bookplate by George Washington.

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

A bookplate by Paul Revere.

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

A bookplate by Eli Whitney.

Eli Whitney — inventor of the cotton gin.

A bookplate by John Quincy Adams.

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

A bookplate by Lord Byron.

Writer and playboy Lord Byron’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Charles Dickens.

A bookplate by Lewis Carroll.

Author Lewis Carroll’s bookplate.

A bookplate by H G Wells.

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

A bookplate by Rudyard Kipling.

A bookplate by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s bookplate.

A bookplate by John D Rockefeller.

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!

A bookplate by Theodore Teddy Roosevelt.

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.

A bookplate by Andrew Carnegie.

Steel and railroad tycoon Andrew Carnegie’s bookplate.

A bookplate by King Gillette.

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.”

A bookplate by Sigmund Freud.

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.

A bookplate by Jack London.

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.

A bookplate by Wb Yeats.

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

A bookplate by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Bookplate of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A bookplate by Calvin Coolidge.

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.

A bookplate by Cecil B Demille.

Movie director Cecil B. DeMille’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Charles Chaplin.

Silent movie star Charlie Chaplin’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Jack Dempsey boxer.

Champion boxer Jack Dempsey.

A bookplate by Ernest Hemingway.

Papa’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Scott Fitzgerald.

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.

A bookplate by Adolf Hitler.

Bookplate of Adolf Hitler.

A bookplate by Charles Degaulle.

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.

A bookplate by Benito Mussolini.

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

A bookplate by Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Robert Frost.

The poet Robert Frost’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Walt Disney.

Walt Disney’s bookplate.

A bookplate by Ian Lancaster Fleming.

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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