Out of approximately 1,400 bookplates in the Los Angeles Library’s Bookplates Collection, about 120 distinctive bookplates have female names imprinted on them. Even though the number is small and little is known about some of these women, the bookplates manifest self-identity and the intellectual ambition of their female owners. I would like to pay homage to these women for Women's History Month and highlight this highly uncharted research area despite the difficulties in researching on the topic of the history of women’s book ownership with the hope that it may inspire researchers to explore this area and around the body of knowledge.
The History of female book ownership goes back to the early 16th century in Europe, often evident in the form of signatures on endpapers or title pages and genealogical information, or memos on blank areas of pages. The earliest bookplates owned by women are documented from the late 17th century, mostly attached to religious and literary books. However, the stories about these women are hidden and overshadowed by their patriarchal representatives such as their fathers and husbands. There is ambiguity in whether women’s libraries or books truly belonged to women themselves or were collective possessions of male-led households.
Photo credit and source: Rainford & Parris Books via this website
There is more documented evidence of women’s book ownership demonstrated through bookplates in the early 18th century in Europe as printing technology became more accessible and some women had the means to own and maintain libraries. The printers often would reuse already existing wooden plates initially made for husbands or fathers and modify the first names in order to produce bookplates for some females in the family. However, there were prominent women in high society who had independent intellectual capacity and financial means to own large book collections of their own. Yet, they were often noble and unmarried women or widows left with large estates by wealthy husbands. Elizabeth Percival’s grand bookplates signify her position in the society and financial capacity as her bookplate was big enough to fill an entire page of an endpaper in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596). However, some authors such as Norna Labouchere who wrote Ladies bookplate: An Illustrated handbook for collectors and book-lovers (1895) argued that bookplates with women’s names may not guarantee their ownership of books even in the 18th century.
Photo credit and source: Images reproduced courtesy the Rare & Special Books Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
As for the make-up of female readers’ libraries in the 18th century in Europe, some scholars still characterized the nature of women’s book collections to be religious and literary. However, there is also a counter argument that women in this early modern era started to read and own books about professional matters and topics that matched their intellectual curiosities.
Entering the 19th century, some women in this period were able to own relatively larger numbers of books on various topics. Some women even owned impressive libraries as books became more affordable and some educational opportunities became available to women. Consequently, the meaning of women’s bookplates may have progressed to self-expression and intellectual identity in addition to physical ownership of books in this time period.
Widespread availability of paperback books slowed down interest in and necessity for bookplates in the 20th century. Yet, many institutions’ collections consist of women’s bookplates from this time period, perhaps due to increased interest in collecting and trading bookplates in general. Some notable women’s bookplates from the Los Angeles Public library’s Bookplate Collection are also from the early 20th century. The following are selected bookplates of women from California that deserve our attention.
Dolores Machado Barrow
The LA Times obituary for Dolores Machado de Barrow (unknown - 1937) describes her as a graduate of University of Southern California who valued education and viewed it as progress for women’s rights. Her accomplishments included serving as “the chairman of History and Landmarks of California Parlor, member of the ‘Faculty Wives’ of the University of Southern California, Women’s Service Auxiliary of the Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles County Medical Association in which she was largely responsible for founding the library, and the state program Chairman of the California Women’s Medical Auxiliary.”
Eleanor Sims Boone
Eleanor Sims Boone (1905 - 1954) was a Stanford graduate and Professor of Biology at Mills College and her family estate was well known as “Forest Home” located in San Ramon, Contra Costa County, California. Her attachment for the family farm / home and love for books is expressed through her bookplate.
Ruth Thomson Saunders
Ruth Thomson Saunders was an artist, typographer, and also a printer active in the 1920s and 1930s in California. Saunders and her husband ran the Saunders Studio Press in Claremont, California. She designed her own bookplates as well as for many others, including for friends and libraries. Eileen King, a librarian from Los Angeles Public Library’s Art, Music, and Recreation department talks about Ruth Thomson Saunders in more detail in this video.
Leota Woy (1868 -1962), originally from Indiana and lived in Glendale, California in her later years, was a painter and artist who also designed bookplates for herself and others.
Bookplates from other women
There are some bookplates owned by women who were less known or simply unknown. The designs are so intriguing that they call your attention. However, no information about these women beyond their names and the designers who created these bookplates can be found.
It requires imagination to picture the lives of these unknown women, as the plates have been removed from their original contexts. What kinds of books did these women read? What were their interests? What were they curious about? What were they trying to tell about themselves through their bookplates? We invite you to imagine and keep researching with us. Please share if you find any interesting information about these women and their bookplates.
Lastly, this blog post is limited to discussing women’s book ownership / bookplates from the perspective of European and North American heritage. I am challenged to seek out information and research about women of color who were bibliophiles and left unprecedented legacy through intellectual pursuits in the era in which they may have experienced insufferable oppressions of all kinds.
You can see the entire Los Angeles Public Library Bookplate Collection on Tessa. Please check out the following resources if you would like to learn more about women’s book ownership and their bookplates.
- Female book ownership in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic by Rindert Jagersma and Joanna Rozendaal
- Early modern female book ownership
- Women’s studies group 1558 -1837
- Ahead of her time: Magdalene College Cambridge has discovered a treasure trove of women’s intellectual history by Tom Almeroth-Williams
Books in Los Angeles Public Library’s Collection
- English book-plates : ancient and modern by Egerton Castle
- Ex Libris: the art of bookplates by Martin J. Hopkinson
Digitized Books in Public Domain:
- Ladies bookplate: An Illustrated handbook for collectors and book-lovers by Norna Labouchere (1895)
- Women designers of book-plates by Wilbur Macey Stone (1902)
- American book-plates : A Guide to Their Study with Examples by Charles Dexter Allen (1905)
- German Book-plates An Illustrated Handbook of German & Austrian Exlibris by Karl Emich Leiningen-Westerburg (Count of.), George Ravenscroft Dennis (1901)
- French Book-plates By Walter Hamilton (1896)