Digitizing Ex Libris: The Helen Pearson Bookplate Collection

The primary mission of the Digitized Collections at Portsmouth Public Library is to optimize access to our local history collections while preserving the same for future generations. Our latest project in Special Collections is the addition of the Helen Pearson Bookplate Collection. This collection consists of 336+ historic bookplates, amassed and originally organized by local artist, musician and Portsmouth native, Helen Pearson. She collected the bookplates between the years of 1920 and 1949 and bequeathed them to the Portsmouth Public Library upon her passing on August 19, 1949. The collection was also added to and partially mounted by then PPL Director, Dorothy Vaughan. One of the highlights of this collection is Pearson’s own bookplate, sketched by her in 1927 and inspired by a daylight meteor viewed from her home in Portsmouth on November 15, 1927.


Born in Portsmouth on Nov. 13, 1870, Pearson was raised in a family of artists. Her father, Amos Pearson, was a florist and a music teacher originally from Ipswich, MA. Pearson’s mother Susan was also from Portsmouth, daughter of Rev. Tobias Ham Miller and an artist and musician as well. The Pearson family boarded local and visiting artists for much of Helen’s childhood, including her aunt Mary E.B. Miller, who earned her living as a portrait painter. Other tenants in the Pearson home were famed illustrator Maxfield Parrish and painter Ulysses Tenney, best known for his portraits of New Hampshire statesmen including Franklin Pierce.

Pearson herself was trained as a concert pianist and attended Boston’s Cowles Art School. She played piano with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra in New York but was recognized throughout the seacoast for her pen and ink drawings (stay tuned for our next digital collection!) in local publications. Her “Open Door” drawing especially, was used for many years in Portsmouth publicity pamphlets. [i] But what does Pearson’s background have to do with bookplates and why would we digitize them? Do they have any real value? And what exactly are they?

Bookplates are essentially labels or prints in various forms that are placed inside a book bearing an owner or institution’s name (and often, a great deal more information). They are also called ex libris, or Latin for “from the books of.” If you have ever flipped through books in a library or a used bookstore, chances 3_34_PPLare you’ve come across a bookplate or two. Although marks of ownership were placed in books and manuscripts earlier, it was the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century that spurred the popularity of the bookplate. As printed books became more abundant, a need arose to establish ownership over one of multiple copies. Books were considered a luxury for centuries afterward and a solid bookplate served as a theft deterrent and status symbol. [ii]

Bookplates today are usually categorized into one of three themes: the heraldic, the pictorial and the typographic. The latter was and is still used most frequently by institutions for cataloguing, numbering or memorial documentation. Typographic bookplates also offer researchers insight into the history of a collection or an institution itself. In a 2001 article about the eighteenth century Architectural Library of Boston, author Martha McNamara discusses the value of the library’s bookplate in surviving volumes as evolutionary evidence of the library’s collection development and the profession. One example McNamara mentions is “…bookplate number “62” that was acquired after the initial collection of fifty-five volumes (the only known collection history)…as well as its subsequent renumbering to “83” showing that at one time the library’s collection numbered more than eighty volumes.” In particular they confirm the previously unknown library acquisitions after the catalogue’s initial publication. [iii]

Until the seventeenth century however, almost all bookplates fell into the heraldic category (also called armorial) and usually contained the coat of arms or mark of the owner or house to whom they belonged. The seventeenth century as a whole saw bookplates continue to grow in popularity; and while mostly still heraldic, were increasingly known for their aesthetic appeal.


The evidence of this shift is apparent on the official bookplate above of France’s Louis XV (1711-1774) from Pearson’s collection; the coat of arms is prominent but also highly decorated.


Bookplates varied in popularity for the next century but remained visible until the mid-nineteenth century when their trendiness hit the height of its frenzy from the 1860s through the 1890s, depending on the geographic location. Their purpose however, was markedly different. Bookplate designers found a foothold in creating personal (or pictorial) bookplates and catering to a more aesthetically minded population. Bookplates were used less for labeling books and more commonly for collecting, for trading and for creating images of one’s: heritage, accomplishments, likes and important milestones. [iv] They were not dissimilar to social media today.

During this period bookplate societies were formed, exhibitions were held highlighting the most sought-after or unique designs, and an entire genre of books was written on the ex libris itself. Bookplates retained their prominence until the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the depression era. While they have been sporadically resurrected in more recent decades, today’s literary landscape has drastically reduced their institutional use and rendered bookplates fairly obsolete in terms of necessity. Collage 1While the context has shifted once again, bookplates may be more valuable than ever before. Bookplates like those in the Helen Pearson Bookplate Collection are research clues. They are mini biographies: of individual people and places from Congress St. in Portsmouth to Bulgaria. They are a timeline of decades; from the French House of Bourbon to the Roaring Twenties in the U.S. They indicate personal preferences and priorities and offer a sense of cultural norms to help complete a historical picture. As you flip through the Pearson collection as a whole, several references become immediately clear. One is her own affinity toward varying artists, movements and medium types in bookplates. This adds another element of interest and research possibilities. Second, is how many of these bookplates, when viewed one against another, are highly, and strikingly, personal.

One pictorial bookplate stands out particularly as an example, due to the extensive description that accompanied it. This bookplate (shown at left) was an original creation for a Melville Clark.1_32_clark.jpg It was designed in 1937 by Charles P. Morse in Syracuse, NY and the feature at center is his family coat of arms. The four corners of the border include symbols of (from top right): a reference to his father, G.W. Clark and the founding of the Clark Music Co. in 1858, an image of the first American-made Steinway piano in 1853, the sign from the original function of Clark’s home, the Drovers Tavern est. 1820, and a reference to a harp concert Mr. Clark gave to President Woodrow Wilson as well as the medal he received from him. Interspersed throughout the design are additional personal references, including nods to the Clark’s Rotary and Kiwanis memberships as well as prominently displayed symbols on either side of the coat of arms. One of these is his designation as a 32nd degree Mason. The other is a star in honor of his brother Clarence Clark, who was killed in action in France in 1917.[v]

Bookplates are not as popular as they were several centuries ago but they are definitely still around. Google images, Pinterest pages and Etsy shops are all easy ways to find personalized bookplates or offer inspiration to create your own. And many institutions, including libraries, still use bookplates to memorialize gifts and funding sources. But it is the historic bookplates, like the Helen Pearson Bookplate Collection, that have become the most valuable. These tiny works of art offer personal clues and institutional details and allow researchers one more option for historical evidence. For additional bookplate collections and history, check out the list below.

  • New York Academy of Medicine Center for History page and details the conservation and history of a private collection of bookplates entitled The Bookplates of Medical Men.
  • Bookplates at Yale: Exhibitions, Libguides to the thematic and subject based bookplate collections at Yale University.
  • Ex Libris: Bookplates in the Archives, History of some of the earliest bookplates from King’s College at Cambridge.
  • In 2011, ABC Australia online did an interview with the author of the Art of Bookplates, Martin Hopkinson, which can be downloaded here.
  • The Bookplate Society – founded in the 1970s with origins in the 1890s for collectors, designers and owners.



[i] Brighton, R. (1993). Various Views of Portsmouth. Portsmouth Herald, A4.

[ii] Yale University. (2017, May). Bookplates at Yale. Retrieved from LibGuides at Yale University: http:guides.library.yale.edu/bookplates.

[iii] McNamara, M. J. (2001). Defining the Profession: Books, Libraries and Architects. In K. Hafertepe, & J. F. O’Gorman (Eds.), American Architects and Their Books to 1848 (pp. 76-90). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 78.

[iv] Hopkinson, M. (2011). Ex Libris, the Art of Bookplates. London: British Museum Press.

[v] Morse, C. P. (1937). Book Plate for Melville Clark. Portsmouth Public Library Special Collections, Syracuse. Retrieved 2017.





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