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Bookplates, or ex-librīs (Latin: “from the books of”), are decorative labels or stamps of ownership placed on the inside covers of books. Early forms, dating to the medieval period of Europe, typically consist of heraldic insignia often associated with monastic orders, universities or noble families.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the design of bookplates became more personalized, with heraldic elements slowly replaced by increasingly symbolic/allegorical representations. One of my favorite art blogs 50 Watts contains several posts collecting numerous early 20th century bookplates. The majority of them focus on the specter of death and therein lies their appeal (to me, at least). The focus on mortality reminds me of the medieval allegorical themes of the Danse Macabre, i.e. the universality and egalitarianism of death. A number of bookplates make reference to the catastrophic wars of the first half of the 20th century and thus reflect the fears and realities of the time. “Death and the maiden” seems to be another common theme.

Collection of bookplates at 50 Watts: