This is a quick survey of some recurring themes in women’s bookplates of the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries. (And it’s kind of click-baity, but I did save the best for last.)
The gendered history of book ownership and private libraries is too complex to detail in a blog. Suffice it to say that only in the later twentieth century was it common for women to be wealthy, educated, and independent enough to form a good personal library. Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” may as well have been a “library of one’s own.”
Nevertheless, women have always been bitten by the reading–and collecting–bug just as much as men, even if their opportunities to read and to collect were fewer.
If you’re familiar with bookplates from this era, you will notice a few types of images that are largely lacking in these bookplates: family crests (patriarchal), skulls or other images of death, erotic images, hobbies, outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, and sailing and ships. This last is particularly of note because sailing ships were generally metaphorical–did women not use reading as escapism (or exploration) as much as men?
Images of Women
A definite Post-Raphaelite flavor to this image. These first two bookplates are among the most professionally executed of the blog post, and it’s interesting that they both are portraits. If portraits of the owners, does it indicate a desire for only the best artists to engrave their likeness? Compare these with the portrait of Elizabeth Peirce in the gardening section below.
Lillian F. Fergerson
Names: Family or otherwise
A regular theme with bookplates is a visual wordplay on the owner’s name. With a name like this, you can’t go wrong! The central image is a woman, perhaps a portrait of herself. Images of women feature frequently on women’s bookplates, much more so than men do on men’s bookplates.
Perhaps the oldest bookplate in this blog post, Fay’s shows a very traditional set-up. However, the rose-laden garland, and the strangely breasted cherub mark this as more feminine than it appears at first glace. Her bold signature shows an independent 19th-century woman not to be messed with. I like this one a lot!
Trees & Gardens
Rosalie N. Walter
I’m not sure if this is a custom image for Walter or a studio/generic one. Nevertheless, you see the image of a woman, along with a tree, which is another common theme for women’s bookplates. Although trees certainly appear on men’s bookplates, as well, an image of a single tree seems to have had a special appeal to women.
Perhaps my favorite image in the bookplates on this blog post. The pastoral scene is common for both men and women. This again has a single tree as the center of attention, but the beauty of this engraving is what most stands out.
Solo tree. This one, with the grand landscape, family crest, and simple frame could certainly be a man’s bookplate. The artist here is male, and although I’d assume that quite of few of the unsigned ex-libris images on this page are by men, I would venture to guess that the gender of the artist informs the image of the bookplate as much as the gender of the owner.
Alice S. Acland
Another relatively gender-neutral image. Perhaps I mostly think so because this is the single bookplate with a sailing ship (very small). Acland was the founder & first president of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, and I admit to being a little disappointed she doesn’t have a radical bookplate!
Frances Ropes Williams
A garden scene is a regular image for bookplates. This one is notable for its short flagstone path, leading to the walled or fenced border. Frances Ropes Williams is remembered in gardening circles today for hostas (and one of the most popular is named after her.) Also: bunnies as corners, I like it.
A controlled garden scene, with a woman reading. The only element of chaos in this garden seems to be the book on the floor–a curious element, was it thrown there in disgust, was it laid there as a reference? The woman also poses some questions: is the face hidden by the hat from modesty, or the practical purpose of the artist not knowing what Peirce looked like?
Children & Motherhood
Marion Burgess Wittenhoefer
At last, a child. The role of mother is of course central to many women’s lives, just as father is to men. During the period we’re looking at here, however, much more of the child rearing was done by the mother. Motherhood & children are recurring themes in women’s bookplates. (This one might be a child’s bookplate, but if so it is not quite so obvious as the next.)
Caroline Mae DuVal
Possibly a bookplate made for a girl. DuVal was born in 1892, and this certainly has the look of a bookplate designed in the first decade of the 20th century, than, say in the 1920s-1940s when she would have been a woman. The “pro patria” crest at the bottom is one of the few family crests to appear on the bookplates in this blog, and that might make more sense if this were commissioned by a proud father. I find it interesting that a fainting couch is the forefront of this image. The books are hidden away behind curtains, which in turn are behind the couch. A girl’s role must have been hard to break.
Louise Ward Watkins
Watkins was a noted book collector and women’s rights advocate. There’s a lot going on in this bookplate designed by Anthony Euwer, but the central image is that of a young girl, placing the feminine at the center of learning & wisdom.
Hobbies and Special Interests
The old-fashioned frame (which looks of an older age than the young lady’s dress), and the precisely centered piano, candles, and mirror, all point to a strictly ordered universe. Surely, Ms. Dreifus was an accomplished pianist and singer, but her slightly off-center placement and slightly slouchy posture give me hope that perhaps in reading she found a respite from an otherwise rigid and proper life….
I have very limited knowledge on the subject, but I believe these are perfume bottles. They are well drawn, but the design of the bookplate is definitely amateur. Many male bookplates have several hobbies included in the central image, or running along the frame or border, but none of the examples on this page have more than one hobby illustrated (although we can assume reading is a hobby!) Perhaps women were simply too busy to have the leisure time that men did?
Irene Viancourt Herr
Herr was married to a successful engineer and inventor. Her bookplate with its lively celebration of theater is probably due to her appreciation of it rather than her participation in it. The artwork is by D.W. Stockbridge, who perhaps loses sight of the owner being a woman.
Domestic & Miscellaneous
Mary Rich Lyon
The library scene is of course quite common for bookplates of both men and women. What’s so intriguing about this one is that despite its seeming to be as ordinary as possible, complete with relatively unimaginative architectural framing is the library itself. Men’s bookplates showing libraries usually show them as one of two types: a place of study or a place of display. This library, however is neither: there is not a desk, but a couch with enormous pillows just right for reading; and the books themselves are a little haphazard with slanting spines and stacks of books. This does not appear in any way to be a showy room, or an area of deep research and reflection: this is a comfortable reading room, and as such is quite a break from the otherwise traditional image.
Vintage photographic bookplates are fairly uncommon, and this is the only one I own that is of a single woman. The image is of a two-story log cabin in the Pacific Northwest woods. Bookplates featuring the family home are not nearly as common as one might suppose. Although the house is large and appears well-made it is clear that Parker is at least equally pleased by the forested landscape, with a large stone outcrop in the middle (making me think this might be near the Columbia Gorge), and possibly a stream unseen in the foreground; note the walkway and railing that looks like a pier.
Elizabeth Kent Sears
This is the only bookplate in this collection that is creatively typographic. Although press work was probably dominated by men, I’m not aware that it was so any more than other trades. (There’s no indication, however, that this was set by Sears herself.) Between the funky type and the slightly imperfect calligraphic frames, this seems quite a bit less formal than many typographic bookplates, which are usually derive their beauty from their elegant precision. This was probably done in the 1930s.
And, of course: Cats
Ethel Tewksbury Mead
Men have dogs, women have cats. Men’s bookplates from this era abound with dogs, frequently in relation to hunting. Women, however….well, let’s just say that the term is “crazy cat lady” not “crazy cat gentleman.”
The ornate frame on the above bookplate contrasts with the simple cat of this later plate, probably mid-20th century. It’s fun & has plenty of personality, and is a good way to end any post about bookplates. These are small works of art that somehow reflect our spirit into the books we love.