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It Started in a Shoebox!

In 1964, my father and I were cleaning out the apartment of my favorite uncle, Dudley Meyers. Uncle Dudley was a “bit of an eccentric” according to my mother. Dad handed me the old shoebox and said “There’s some bits of paper in that. Keep them if you want.”

I took the shoebox and a bigger box full of folded papers and dusty “Year Books”. During a summer break several years later, I decided to tackle those boxes of mysterious papers and prints.

The booklets were the “Year Books” of the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers — all the way from 1929 through the early sixties. Well, I was hooked.

In the collection I found names that I recognized: Charlie Chaplin, Jack London, Raymond Burr, and Franklin Roosevelt. It was a treasure trove of history. And then there were the artists: J W Jameson, Rockwell Kent, Carl Junge, and Margaret Ely Webb.

The bookplates were accompanied by the letters Uncle Dudley received with the bookplates enclosed. Signatures of noted figures in the arts, politics, and academia. The bookplates were a curiosity. None of my friends knew about bookplates.

The contents of the boxes became art when I graduated from college. My first “real” apartment was decorated with some of Dudley’s collection. I thought of the bookplates as miniature art that needed to be displayed.

The framed ex libris became a frequent topic of conversation for visitors (second only to the deep purple walls of the living room).

I joined the ASBC&D and kept up my membership annually. About ten years ago, I began the task of creating a listing of Dudley’s collection. I catalogued each plate by author and by owner. I put them in three ring binders mounted on acid free paper.

About the time that I finished this project, I had the opportunity to acquire the bookplate collection of Katherine Towne, a librarian and collector from Michigan. The collection was much more extensive than Dudley’s. I estimate it contains more than 12,000 examples plus letters and books.

I now am working on the Towne inventory. Using the internet I am matching bookplates with biographies of the owners and of the artists. It’s taken 5 winters and I’m only finished with five of the twelve volumes of ex libris. The bookplates have become historical records of people, their passions, and the places that were important to them.

Now, folks I talk with give me strange looks when I mention bookplates, but once I explain the idea, they get excited and start opening every old book looking for treasures.

I have developed a presentation titled “Bookplates — The Original Homepage” which I have given several times. The American Topical Stamp Association asked me to speak. The attendees were quick to recognize the similarities between stamps and bookplates.

I continue to cherish the bookplates I have. They have taken me from curiosity to art appreciation to historical research. A bookplate is a window into the past when books were cherished.

Designed by Rockwell Kent

 

Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan