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For the Edwardians, bookplates were as rebellious as modern day tattoos

Bookplates held a special place in the heart of the Edwardians. POP/Flickr

For countless young people, and even the odd deeply defiant older person, tattoos are the ultimate way to express your identity.

Go back just over 100 years, however, and revealing your personality to the world was a very different matter. Though tattoos and intimate piercings were had by people at all levels of society – even King Edward’s son, George V, was said to have had a tattoo during his time in the Royal Navy – the slightly more conservative Edwardians turned to something very different: bookplates.

The bookplate of Edith Bessie Cook. Author provided

The small decorative labels used to denote book ownership which date back to the 1500s, became hugely popular across the Western world at start of the 1900s, fading into obscurity just before World War I. But they offer a fascinating insight into the people who used them.

The early 20th Century saw a boom in book publishing: literacy levels were on the rise as were family incomes. Numerous public libraries were also established, along with Workers’ Educational Associations and book clubs. The stories published ranged widely in subject matter: this was the era of PG Wodehouse, HG Wells, JM Barrie, Saki and Rudyard Kipling.

In their time, bookplates were the physical embodiment of their owners, featuring bold, lavish and striking designs. They were seen as a decorative expression of a person’s tastes, temperaments and dispositions.

Edwardian readers were expected to share books from their own library with others, and so very special attention was paid to the plate design, to indicate the type of person that the owner was. While the wealthy were able to afford privately commissioned plates by famous artists, the average Edwardian depended on stationers or booksellers for mass-produced plates, or something from a pattern book. For the bibliophile, choosing a bookplate was a delicate process and the purchase commanded quite a price, varying from £2 to £50 – roughly £220-£5,500 today.

Personalised plates

Like the tattoo trends of the 21st Century, bookplates followed style trends, too. The more conscious would choose a socially acceptable design, aware that they may be judged by family and friends. But there was plenty of room for rebellion.

The bookplate of Sir John Forrest, explorer. Wikimedia

Each illustration or image used in the bookplate was tied to a particular aspect of the owner’s identity. Popular designs related to social class involved coats of arms, for example, or library interior scenes that showed a replica of the owner’s own reading room. Other common identity markers involved maps of the owner’s birthplace, pictures of the family house, and symbols representing the family surname. Biblical landscapes or local churches were also used to reflect religious beliefs, while images of the owner’s occupation or hobbies were other favoured choices.

However, knowing that the book would enter into the hands of other people, owners often used bookplates to portray themselves as funny and likeable, featuring a caricature of themselves or some other funny sketch. Like the more quirky tattoos of today, their reception would have undoubtedly been subjective.

Bookplates could also tell of the intimacy or distance between a husband and wife. Though it may seem a curious way to display such sentiments, the display of unity shown by the couple using a joint design showed that the two people were together. They could tell of other family changes, too, expressing relationship status – a woman marking a bookplate with her new surname following marriage, for instance – or signalling the birth or death of a family member.

Fantasy and insults

Like the novels of the time, the Edwardians also portrayed utopian images of faraway places or exotic landscapes in their personalised plates. These locations were often taken directly from fairy tales or other popular fantasy lands of the era, such as Atlantis and Avalon. These were often accompanied by Chinese or Latin philosophical quotes; for example, resurgam (“I shall rise again”), fac et spera (“Do and hope”) and pro patria (“For the fatherland”).

Pegasus flies through the night sky on this plate from 1904. Wikimedia

There was a more serious side to bookplates, too. Many designs were intended to make a statement, through striking images or more direct text. This could be political, pledging allegiance to a particular party, religion, or something more personal, relating to family members or friends. One man openly used his bookplate to “name and shame” a friend who ruined his books when helping to move them to his new house. Whatever the context, the declarations were made to shock and surprise.

The Edwardians came out of an era of inequality and poverty, and into a time where imaginations were allowed to soar. And yet, this was still the early 1900s, where social life was much more reserved than it is today. It might not seem like the most rebellious way to express one’s identity now, but then it truly could have been.

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