The Maria Gerard Messenger Women’s Bookplate Collection at the Grolier Club Library

by Meghan Constantinou, Librarian, The Grolier Club Collection on DCMNY

The Library of The Grolier Club, America’s oldest (1884) and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts, is well-known among book lovers for its strong focus on the history of the book-as-object. In the last few years, The Grolier Club Library has begun to expand into the digital realm, seeking opportunities to digitize and increase accessibility to its special collections.

Thanks to the support of METRO in the form of a 2016–2017 Digitization Funding Award, we are pleased to announce the completion of our largest special collections digitization project to date: The Maria Gerard Messenger Women’s Bookplate Collection. The collection is composed of approximately 2100 women’s bookplates assembled by philanthropist and book collector, Maria Gerard Messenger of Great Neck, Long Island (1849–1937) at the turn of the century. It represents women book owners from the late sixteenth century to the 1930s, and includes women from North America, England, France, Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and elsewhere.

Bookplates, or Ex-Libris

Bookplates, also known as ex-libris, are printed labels of ownership, usually pasted on the inside front cover of a book. Some are composed exclusively of text, often with just the name of the owner of the book (Fig. 1). Others might depict the owner’s coat of arms (Fig. 2) or, especially by the end of the 19thc, a pictorial subject (Fig. 3).

Figure 1: Book label of Lettitia Mytton, 1729. Messenger Collection, BoxMu-Q_011
Figure 2: Armorial bookplate of Elizabeth de Cléry and her husband Ülrich Erhard, councilor of Fribourg [Swiss, ca. 1592]. This is the earliest bookplate in the collection. Messenger Collection, BoxC-D_013

Figure 3: Pictorial bookplate of Regina Freudenberg, by Alfred Mohrbutter (German, 1867–1916). Messenger Collection, BoxE-F_129

The printing methods used to produce them were varied and could include etching, engraving, relief, lithography, photographic printing, and letterpress, among other processes. (Ownership labels composed exclusively of letterpress type are more properly called ‘Book labels’.)

The use of bookplates began in Germany in the late 15thc and spread rapidly in Britain, France, and elsewhere in Europe toward the end of the 17thc. In North America, they are found as early as the 1640s. A vogue for collecting bookplates arose in the late 19th-early 20thc, accompanied by the founding of various national Ex-Libris societies. Maria Gerard Messenger was just one of many enthusiasts who built large collections of bookplates at this time, often, in part, through exchanges with others.

Maria Gerard Messenger (1849–1937)

Maria (“Minnie”) Gerard Messenger was the daughter of Brooklyn merchant and banker, Thomas Messenger (1810–1881). An invalid for the last 26 years of her life, she lived with her companion and fellow philanthropist, Miss Elizabeth Chamberlaine, at “The Orchards” estate in Long Island from 1881. In addition to collecting bookplates, she assembled a large library, sold at auction by G.A. Baker & Co. in four sales between 1937 and 1938.

Amid Messenger’s numerous bookplate collections was the present group of 2100 bookplates dedicated to women book owners and collectors. Her other bookplate collections — composed of a few thousand items — were devoted to American, English, French, and Canadian bookplates. In April 1933, she donated the bulk of her bookplates to the Great Neck Public Library in memory of Ms. Elise Messenger Gignoux, member of the library’s Board of Directors from 1905 to 1932. In May 1986, the women’s bookplate collection was donated by the Great Neck Public Library to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the NMWA donated it, in turn, to the Grolier Club Library in the spring of 2016.

The Collection

The Maria Gerard Messenger Women’s Bookplate Collection extends from the late sixteenth century to the early 1930s. It represents some women well documented in the historical record, such as the English actress, Ellen Terry (Fig. 4), as well as many others, such as Else Goldberg, who are virtually unknown (Fig. 5).

Figure 4: Bookplate of English actress, Ellen Terry (1847–1928) depicting an aerial map of her home, “Tower Cottage,” at Winchelsea near Hastings, 1898. Designed by her son, Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966). Messenger Collection, BoxT_020

Figure 5: Bookplate of Else Gordon, 1902, by “Hans Zarth,” pseudonym for John Jack Vrieslander (German, 1879–1957). Messenger Collection, BoxG_057

The same holds true for the bookplate artists, some of whom, like A. N. Macdonald and Jesse Wilcox Smith (Fig. 6), are well known, others, such as Annie T. Benthall, who are not (Fig. 7).

Figure 6: Bookplate of Florence McDonald Baylis, 1905, by Jesse Wilcox Smith (American, 1863–1935). Messenger Collection, BoxB-Be_054

Figure 7: Bookplate of Mary Luce, 1898, by Annie T. Benthall (English, 1867/1868–1950). Messenger Collection, BoxL_132

The majority of the plates are produced with printing methods such as intaglio, woodcut, and lithography, while a few others use alternative methods such as calligraphy, watercolor, stencil, and stamping (Figs. 8 & 9). In many cases, a single owner is represented by multiple bookplates, which may have been created for discrete collections or at different stages in her life.

Figure 8: Stenciled bookplate of Elizabeth Sarah Villa-Real, English, late 18thc. Messenger Collection, BoxU-V_035

Figure 9. Calligraphic bookplate of Merry Brooks, Medford [Massachusetts?], August 15, 1786. Messenger Collection, BoxBi-Bz_099

The collection also includes multiple states and variants of some plates, showing evidence of experimentation with different texts, sizes, paper stocks, and ink colors. Such is the case with the bookplate created for Madame Roland de Challerange, which was printed in black and sepia versions (Figs. 10 & 11).

Figure 10: Bookplate (black and white) of Madame Roland de Challerange (French, 1701–1781). Messenger Collection, BoxR_076

Figure 11: Bookplate (sepia) of Madame Roland de Challerange (French, 1701–1781). Messenger Collection, BoxR_077

Value to Scholarship

The value to scholarship of digitizing this collection is multi-faceted. Through identifying and describing these bookplates, the project has contributed information on over 2000 book owners to the widely accessible medium of the web. This marks an important addition to the history of book ownership in general, and for the history of women’s book ownership in particular. Women book owners and collectors have received less visibility in the historical and scholarly record than their male counterparts. By naming these women, this project hopes to provide the first steps for further research.

There is additional value to be gained by examining the bookplates as a group. Due to the size of the collection, there may be enough information to pose questions about a number of underexplored topics, such as women’s preferences in subject matter. Collectively, they also reveal something about the rich relationships forged by and between women. For instance, we regularly find examples of women artists designing bookplates for themselves, family members, friends, and others. Such is the case with the 1904 bookplate designed by Olive Lothrop Grover (also known as a designer of publishers’ cloth bindings) for the American artist and suffragist, May Hallowell Loud (Fig. 12). We also see evidence, in a few instances, of the giving of bookplates to other women in friendship, such as Sophia Bond’s gift plate to Letitia Rose (Fig. 13).

Figure 12: Bookplate of May Hallowell Loud (American, 1860–1916), 1904, by Olive Lothrop Grover (American, 19thc). Messenger Collection, BoxL_125

Figure 13: Gift bookplate of Sophia Bond, Carranure [Ireland?], to Letitia Rose, 1864. Messenger Collection, BoxBi-Bz_029

Finally, the collection, by contributing artists’ names or initials, along with over 2000 images, will generate data useful to art enthusiasts and historians.

Data and Access

In recognition of the multiple ways in which bookplates might be used by researchers, we attempted to provide as much data as possible within the limits of the timeframe of the project. For each entry, we recorded (when known), the name of the book owner, the name of the artist, the medium, the subject of the image, the geographical origin of the bookplate, and the date of production. We also transcribed printed inscriptions and mottoes, as well as handwritten annotations on both the recto and verso of the plates. In some cases, information about the bookplate was provided by Messenger herself through notes on the support mounts. To provide viewers with access to these notes, we digitized two views of each object: one showing the bookplate on its support mount, and the other cropped to the edges of the bookplate proper. Although numerous gaps in the details remain, we hope these records will provide a starting point for further exploration and that users will share additional information and/or corrections as they are discovered.

The Maria Gerard Messenger Collection of Women’s Bookplates is now viewable through METRO’s freely available Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York (DCMNY) portal . In a few weeks, it will be available through the Digital Public Library of America’s website as well. The Grolier Club has also created a collection-level finding aid for the collection that may be viewed on Worldcat.org and the Grolier Club’s local online catalog. Finally, individual records for each bookplate will eventually be contributed to Worldcat, making them discoverable at the item-level.

Conclusion and Thanks

The Grolier Club Library is deeply grateful to METRO for its ongoing support of our digitization efforts. Thanks to the 2016–2017 Digitization Funding Award for the Messenger project, as well as an earlier grant to digitize a group of French trade cards as part of the Culture-in-Transit program, the special collections of the Grolier Club Library have, for the first time, an active presence on the web.