Book Stamps

Many thanks for your guesses.

What you see in this picture is the verso of a title page leaf. The stamp at the top of the picture is indeed the one of the Basel Public Library. The coat of arms beneath it depicts the arms of the Gufer von Reinhardsberg family from Bamberg, active at least until the early 18th century. The interesting point about this coat of arms is that it has nothing to do with the publishing history of the book, which was printed in 1520, and written by Andreas Karlstadt (1486-1541).1 This coat of arms is also not recorded in other copies of the book.

The most likely explanation is that a member of the Gufer von Reinhardsberg family owned the Folger copy book and stamped it with their arms.2 Later, the book was acquired by the Basel Public Library before being deaccessioned as a duplicate (therefore the inscription “Dupl” on the stamp).

At a later point, it went into the collection of Emmanuel Stickelberg, where it then was acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1977.

A stamp made of wood impressed onto the paper by hand must have been used to print Gufer von Reinhardsberg’s coat of arms, unlike the armorial woodcuts found on title pages of 16th and 17th century books and pamphlets, which were printed with text.

David Pearson remarks in his book on provenance that very little has been written on book stamps. As a matter of fact, his text is the only useful reference I could find on the subject. Clearly more research needs to be done on them and what follows is simply a series of observations rather than any conclusive remarks.

Book stamps have been used since at least the early 16th century as marks of ownership or gift, similarly to many manuscript inscriptions and drawings found in books. In the early modern period these stamps were made of wood or metal (rubber only started being used in the 19th century). It is unclear what the physical stamps looked like as none are known to have survived. Those made of wood, though, must have been basically woodblocks (such as the Gufer von Reinhardsberg’s coat of arms stamp) perhaps carved to be higher than type-high to be more easily hold and impressed by hand. Those made of metal may have had a shape similar to punches or signets but with lines, which could be printed in relief.

Book stamps are commonly found on book title pages, but they are also seen on flyleaves and other parts of a book. Their size varies but they are usually made to fit on a page with text and ornament. Gufer von Reinhardsberg’s coat of arms was most likely stamped on the verso of the title page because it was too large to fit on the recto already crowded with text and a woodcut border.3.

The designs of the book stamps I have seen so far in the Folger’s collections can be sorted in different groups. The largest group is made of stamps depicting heraldic devices, usually more modest looking than Gufer von Reinhardsberg’s:

Some were printed with colored ink (by contrast Gufer von Reinhardsberg’s coat of arms was hand colored):

Another set of stamps depicts monograms of book owners:

These could be quite elegant like the monogram of the English book collector Narcissus Luttrell (1657-1732). The Folger owns at least 137 books from this collection.

According to Pearson, Luttrell’s stamp is also one of the few pre-18th-century stamps, which was used in England.

Another category includes stamps depicting a figure, some religious and some not:

Stamps frequently mixed several features; for example, a heraldic design with the initial letters of the owner:

Pearson mentions that most early English book stamps were made of letters forming the name of an owner and he differentiates those from book labels made of metal type and ornament printed onto a separate piece of paper then pasted into a book:

or printed on the leaf of an unbound textblock:

Pearson also makes a distinction between book stamps of private book owners and those of institutional libraries, which became common in England in the late 18th century. It is clear, though, that library stamps were used on the continent at an earlier stage and could be as ornamented as those of private collectors such as the stamp of the Saint Victor Abbey library in Paris (12th-18th century):

Private owners and libraries sometimes seem to have owned several book stamps with different designs. Here is a book showing on its title page 3 different stamps from the library of the German Benedictine abbey of Ochsenhausen in activity from the 11th to the early 19th century:

The largest stamp depicts a figure of a knight with Ochsenhausen in the background and a bull emerging from a doorway (“Ochsen” means bull in German),

while another one is the name of the monastery.

The last one (perhaps the most recent one because of its more modern design) simply depicts the abbey in a roundel with its name surrounding it.

These stamps must have been used at different times and it would be interesting to be able to date their respective impressions. 4

In most cases, the impressions from these stamps must have been done by hand. When examined with a magnifier, their irregular inking becomes visible. This could be due to the lack of pressure, the irregular inking of the stamp, the material it was made of, and/or the quality of the paper. Sometimes, the stamp was over-inked so that it is impossible to identify its design:

Sometimes, though, clues to the makeup of the stamp can be drawn from an impression and/or a design.

An embossed mark on the verso of a leaf with a printed stamp, for example, indicates that it was most likely cut in a heavy piece of metal:


Likewise impressions showing ink smudges at the edge of a design are reminiscent of those found on the edges of metal type, and must also have been cut in metal:

As a matter of fact some stamps used metal type:

As mentioned before, stamps made of wood must have looked like woodblocks with lines left in relief to be printed with ink. The shape of the lines can thus be a clue as to whether or not they were cut in wood or metal.

In the stamp of the library of the San Pietro in Vincoli, the very thin white lines of St. Peter’s robe were cut out and did not print while the rest of the composition, left in relief, printed in black ink. The irregularity of these lines and of the lettering seems to indicate that they were cut in wood:

By contrast the lettering in this unidentified stamp appears to be more regular and may have been cut in metal.

Further evidence of this is the very thin outline of the subject’s nose: such thin line in wood would have easily broken after a few uses.

One of the stamps used by the library of the Ochsenhausen abbey, as matter of fact, shows traces of broken lines in the body of the knight:

Stamps made of stencils are more easily identifiable as they do look like stenciled designs with a certain flatness and their design produced by separate dots of ink.

but what about the stamp of the Saint Victor Abbey library. Could it have been printed with a stencil?

Many questions, indeed, remain. Since many of these stamps are unidentified, it is difficult to date them with any precision. It would also be helpful to better understand when they were used (some owners, indeed, did not use them all the time such as Humphrey Dyson). Who were their makers is also an unanswered question. The attention paid to the designs of these book stamps, their use, and the information they can provide on the provenance of a book, though, merit that we pay attention to them.