Though earlier manuscripts also bore marks of ownership, the custom of affixing bookplates to books began in Germany in the mid-15th century. One of the earliest bookplates surviving in any quantity is that of Hilprand (or Hildebrand) Brandenburg of Biberach, a monk at a Carthusian monastery in Buxheim, Germany. Dated circa 1480, this hand-colored woodcut was printed on scraps of paper and pasted into the books that Brandenburg gave to the monastery library.
In Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, above the door leading to the International Room, a stone carving of an angel holding a coat of arms refers to the Brandenburg bookplate. Several other architectural ornaments in Sterling incorporate imagery derived from bookplate designs, and this is detailed in the April 1931 issue of the Yale University Library Gazette.
Many early bookplates display a coat of arms because the possession of books was largely an aristocratic privilege and the heraldic device was sufficient for identification purposes. This armorial ex-libris dates from the mid- to late 17th century and was beautifully engraved by William Faithorne (1616-1691) for Sir George Hungerford of Cadenham. Faithorne's design flaunts his artistry and masterful technique, particularly in his treatment of the mantling that surrounds the shield.
Of course coats of arms are still in use by both individuals and institutions, including here at Yale. Heraldry also remains important to provenance and genealogical studies, and the Yale Bookplate Collection offers many resources for conducting such research.
Bookplates may be divided into three broad stylistic categories: armorial, typographic, and pictorial. Even among the earliest examples, however, many ex-libris feature some combination of these three elements. The themes and designs of the many bookplates used by Yale University Library over the years are as varied as the library’s collections themselves.
William Fowler Hopson’s 1901 bookplate in commemoration of Yale’s bicentennial is a clever amalgam of the classic “book-pile” motif with a reference to the gifts of books that marked the founding of the college.