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From the Archives

Ex Libris, Dumbarton Oaks—The First Bookplate
From the Archives

Image: Robert Woods Bliss’s drawing for the Dumbarton Oaks Ex Libris bookplate (left) and Rudolph Ruzicka’s completed 1941 proof (right). Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

In December 1940, one month after the inauguration of Dumbarton Oaks as a research library, Robert Woods Bliss asked the artist Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978) to design an ex libris bookplate for the library’s volumes. He wanted the bookplate to combine the Harvard and Bliss coats of arms, and he sent Ruzicka his own rough sketch with two shields at the center and oak-leaf and acorn clusters in the four corners. He also sent a sample of Italian Fabriano hand-laid paper that he inscribed, “This paper to be used.” Ruzicka immediately wrote back, “It occurred to me that the two shields could be connected by a decorative background, of laurel for the Harvard and oak for the Bliss arms. Also, I’ve made the shields vertical—they seemed unfriendly leaning away from each other.” After several iterations, a design was approved that added the mottos “CHRISTO ET ECCLESIAE” and “QUOD SEVERIS METES” to the Harvard and Bliss escutcheons respectively. When the proof of the bookplate was sent to the Blisses in California, they wrote saying they were very pleased and that the design was “distinguished, interesting and unusual.” The only remaining question was when and how to use the plate. Mildred Bliss wrote on June 7, 1941:

The new ex-libris with the two shields should be placed in all books acquired after Dec. 1, 1940, but in the others…I don’t know what to say. Personally, I dislike bookplates on fly leaves and should deplore the use of the back cover. There remains the accepted tipping on over the earlier bookplate. However, perhaps most books have space for the 3 plates (RWB, MB & 2 shields) and on those too small for 3, tip the 2 shields over RWB. Voilà!

The correspondence on the design of the ex libris bookplate as well as the trial drawings and completed design remain in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

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