The American Antiquarian Society has an extensive collection of pre-1800 American bookplates, with representative examples engraved by famous patriots like Paul Revere, or commissioned by founding fathers such as George Washington (left). AAS founder, Isaiah Thomas, had two different bookplates made by Revere and AAS, of course, has several examples of each ( below). These objects are elegant and intimate reminders of the private libraries formed in the colonies and the young nation, and mesh well with the Society’s focus on the history of the book in America.
The earliest bookplate in the collection dates from 1642. This plate for Steven Day (below) has been the object of study by bookplate historians for decades and is considered by many to be the first bookplate printed in North America. The Society’s entire bookplate collection includes just over 41,000 examples from 1642 on up to about 1930, but the pre-1800 era is an important focus for the institution.
The Society’s bookplate collection was started in 1915 by the Reverend Herbert F. Lombard and relies heavily on Charles Dexter Allen’s seminal work American Book-plates: A Guide to their Study with Examples, first published in 1894. I knew the collection was astonishingly good, but two recent acquisitions have underscored just how strong it is. Last quarter a generous donor sent us a listing of over 100 bookplates in his collection that he wanted to donate to the Society. He asked me to check the list for duplication and let him know which plates we lacked. There was exactly one, yes that is right, one, pre-1800 plate that we needed, out of the dozens of early plates on his list. We are very pleased to add the armorial bookplate for George Livius, 1790, listed as number 506 by Allen (see right).
A month later, I was at a book fair where a dealer had generously set aside an album of pre-1800 bookplates for me to see. I took quick photographs of each page in the album (thank you iPhone!) and checked them against our holdings. Again, out of about thirty beautiful early plates, we lacked just one. This engraved bookplate was issued as a blank for gentlemen to use by filling in their name in manuscript. Allen, who amusingly terms this a plate for “promiscuous use,” lists the design under the name of Jacob Brown, as that is the copy he saw and recorded in his bibliography. Our plate is filled out for a N.B. Baldwin, but features the same reclining man reading on a sofa, a scene engraved by Peter Rushton Maverick (1755-1811) who was at work in New York and is well-represented in the Society’s print and ephemera collections.
And so the hunt continues for any other pre-1800 bookplates not already in the Society’s collection. If you have one, let us know! It is always a pleasure to check, as it requires looking through numerous volumes of beautiful, intricate bookplates, all tidily organized by last name. Far from an onerous task, believe me!