Minnetrista Blogs

The Hidden Art of Bookplates

Do you like treasure hunts? How about finding hidden works of art? A lot of artwork can be seen in predictable places. You’ll definitely find paintings in museums, and beautiful illustrations are often found in the pages of children’s books. Occasionally murals pop up in public spaces. And it’s not surprising to find a sculpture just around the corner in a lush garden. At other times, artwork shows up when you least expect it.

One of my favorite places to find hidden art is in the front covers of books. Yes, of course, many books contain pictures of some sort, but I’m talking about the art form of the bookplate. Imagine opening an unassuming book and inside the cover instead of finding a blank page you discover an image that opens your imagination. Unlike the illustrations in a book that depict the storyline, bookplates serve the job of identifying the book’s owner and are pasted into the front cover by them. Don’t assume these are boring pieces of paper with nothing more than a name printed on them, however. Bookplates are most definitely an art form that can be as unique as each of us.

This bookplate is found in the front cover of the book Across the Continent. The plate proudly places the name of the owner, Arabella Dunlap, front and center. Minnetrista Heritage Collection

This bookplate was used by Frank C. Ball to identify the books in his personal library. According to a note on the back, it was designed after a photo taken of the family home, Minnetrista, by his daughter Lucy. Minnetrista Heritage Collection

Bookplates often contain the phrase, “Ex Libris”; a Latin phrase that translates roughly to, “from the books of . . .” When the owner’s name is added and the label affixed to the inside of a volume, it provides reassurance that a borrowed book will find its way home. Or at least that is the intent. Whether or not it works is left in the hands of the borrower.


This bookplate was mass produced and ready to be purchased off the shelf. Once home, the owner, Caroline L. Kohl could write her name onto the plate. Minnetrista Heritage Collection

But bookplates don’t just contain a name. They often include beautiful imagery ranging from the very simple, to the very complex. As miniature prints, these artworks represent pride in the ownership of a book, and they very often reflect the personality and interests of the owner. For many people, a bookplate may have been selected from a variety of pre-printed designs—much like the one seen above. A box of the paper plates would be purchased from a store or bookseller and the owner could then insert their name at home or take it to a printer to have their moniker added. They were then ready to be pasted inside their personal volumes.

Elisabeth Ball had two bookplates. The one on the left contains the name of her family home, Oakhurst. The one on the right was made in several different dimensions to fit book of many sizes. Minnetrista Heritage Collection.

For serious collectors, or individuals with an extensive home library, a personalized bookplate, made especially for them provided the most unique mark of pride. Often, illustrators would take on commissions to produce these one-of-a-kind designs. While each illustrator had his own style, they would often meld their look with the interests and personality of their client to create a bookplate that reflected the book’s owner. The two bookplates above were owned by Elisabeth Ball. The one of the left was designed by Dugland Stewart Walker for Elisabeth in 1916. As a successful children’s book illustrator, Walker matched his stylized look with Elisabeth’s interests in nature, botany and fairies. The bookplate on the right contains Elisabeth’s name on a silhouette image of a hornbook. Hornbooks were teaching aides with interchangeable primer sheets used by school children. Elisabeth had many examples of these primers in her extensive historic children’s book collection (we’ll delve into that in another post). While both are very different, both are very much Elisabeth.

So, the next time you pull out an old book at a relative’s house, or from the shelf of a used bookstore, be sure to check front cover. I know that in the Minnetrista Heritage Collection I always check the volumes in the archives. While you may discover nothing more than a blank page, you’ll occasionally be greeted with a beautiful surprise that proudly tells you a bit about the person who loved that book in the past. And those hidden works of art should not be missed!

Like his grandfather, Frank C. Ball, Edmund F. Petty made sure that the books from his personal library carried his name. Minnetrista Heritage Collection