May 31

A tiny bookplate, measuring 10½ x 5½ picas, containing the name of Samuel Phillips and dated May 31, 1652, might very well stand as a prime example of a well-designed book-plate. In addition it has historic value as probably the earliest known authentic American bookplate.

This bookplate, simply designed with a border of acorn ornaments, stands in strong contrast to the arty bookplates of our own time. Most of the latter are far too large for their purpose, which is primarily to denote the ownership of a book. Commercial bookplates have assumed the proportions and appearances of posters and have long since lost the bookish appearance which would appear to be a functional requirement. Such is the influence of the current variety, that should a bibliophile need a properly designed plate he will have to seek out a good printer. Even then he may have to insist that it be kept simple—and of course small.

The Phillips plate is still rather controversial historically. It was discovered about twenty-five years ago in a New York antique shop by Edward Naumberg, Jr. who happened to be looking for whale-oil lamps. It had been affixed to the back fly-leaf of a pocket notebook owned by the Rev. Zachariah Greene, who had died at Hempstead, Long Island in 1858 at the age of ninety-nine.

Collector Naumberg had traced the book-plate to the Stephen Day Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the period when it was operated by Samuel Green. Up to the year 1652 the Cambridge Press had produced thirty-five books or broadsides, of which just six are extant, the Bay Psalm Book of course being the principal item. This small scrap of printed paper is thus a unique example of early American printing.

There are three known dated book labels earlier than 1652, but these were printed in England, as they predate the establishment of a Press in the Bay Colony. There remains but a single plate, with the name of Steven Day, and dated 1642, which challenges the Phillips label as the first American example. (Day had changed the spelling of his name from “ph” to “v” after his arrival in the Colonies.) This label contains a fleur-de-lis border of individual ornaments which were fairly common in England at that time but were not seen in any American printing until 1693. On the other hand the acorn ornament, or dingbat, as the printer would term it, was frequently used by Samuel Green at the Day Press before and after the printing of the label.

The 1642 plate thus remains doubtful of its place as the first American bookplate, although Dr. R.W.G. Vail, Director of the New York Historical Society, so lists it in his paper on American book labels which appeared in the American Book Collector, Vol. 4, 1933. He demonstrated that a single type ornament in the Day label later appeared in the labels of Walter Price and Joseph Mors, dated 1693.

No matter whether the Phillips label was the first or second, however, it still remains a wonderful model for contemporary book-plate designers, in spite of its badly cast ornaments and poor type.

One Comment

  1. Lewis Jaffe says:

    Thank you for a most interesting article.
    Lewis Jaffe

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