Bicycle Diaries: <i>Stuck...</i>

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In the Wall Street Journal, Joanne Kaufman writes about an easily forgotten art.

Tucked in a corner of my desk drawer is a three-by-four-inch black box with a silver lid containing 100 yellowing dry-gummed bookplates. The image on them--an hourglass atop a pile of books--is set against a black background with a cream-colored border. Laurel leaves wrap around a scroll that proclaims "Books Span the Ages." Underneath the book stack is another scroll reading "From the Library of." My name, middle initial included, is printed in Garamond italics below. It's the last box of a set of three, a back-to-school present from my mother when I was eight years old.

I don't remember many gifts from my childhood. The bookplates stand out because they seemed, at the time, an affirmation of me as A Reader and of my books as having standing in the grown-up world.

... [b]ut after just a few hours, I'd had it. Licking those gummed backs, then trying to determine the exact center of the front inside cover of "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" and the "Signature" biographies (Martha Washington, Julia Ward Howe, Nurse Mary Anne Bickerdyke, etc.) that formed the spine of my nonfiction collection--well, thanks, but no thanks. Even when I wised up and started using a dampened sponge, it was a tedium that rivaled piano practice.

My plates, like those of many others, were the product of the Antioch Bookplate Co. (now known as Antioch Publishing), based in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The firm's co-founder, Ernest Morgan, was in a work-study program at Antioch College in the early 1920s. Taking note of the barrels of paper scraps at the school's print shop, he cut a deal to barter janitorial work for the use of the equipment to print bookplates, then drove around Ohio selling them to bookstores, building up a little business.

Artist and print-maker Rockwell Kent designed several of the company's early plates, and Morgan himself wrote some of the messages, including the popular "I enjoy sharing my books as I do my friends asking only that you treat them well and see them safely home," written on a scroll edged by a grapevine. (The earliest bookplates had less-friendly sentiments. Fifteenth-century designs often contained warnings of the dire fate awaiting book thieves.)

Ohio artist Robert Whitmore fashioned the oldest, most durable design sold by Antioch: a tree with its roots wound around an open book. Other favored images: an owl sitting on a stack of books, one of them opened to the words "ex libris," and a man standing on a library ladder.

In the 1940's and '50s, and into the '60s, it wasn't unusual for the company to field 300 orders a day for personalized plates. "Some of our customers were bibliophiles of the first order," says Ernest Morgan's son Lee, who took over the business in 1969. "They'd order 1,000, then turn around and re-order. But," he adds, "there isn't much interest anymore. Plates have lost their literary cachet."

... people are ... coming up with new ways of using bookplates. For example, authors are signing them and shipping them off to bookstores for insertion in their latest work. [Karen Gardner who owns bookplate business, now called Bookplate Ink.] recently took an order for a bookplate designed to be the centerpiece of a 60th-birthday celebration. Guests were asked to send a book as a present, and the plate went inside each offering.

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