Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a Researcher in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Örebro University, Sweden. Her research interests and publications focus largely on class conflict, literacy practices and consumer culture in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain using a multimodal ethnohistorical lens.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a renewed interest in what we read and what our books say about us. With those all too familiar Zoom meetings, we have become increasingly conscious of our backdrop of bookshelves and wonder whether our literary tastes and author preferences stand up to public scrutiny. Knowing that our bookshelves will be seen by others can lead us to behave in particular ways, hiding certain books and foregrounding others, adding ornaments or decorations to shelves or even colour-coding our collections to “liven them up” a little. The importance of books as material objects rather than vessels of information is particularly captured in “shelfies.”
The shelfie can be defined as an image of a person’s own bookshelf that is usually shared across social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter (Fletcher et al., 2019). Shelfies “present a curated collection of works that the bookstagrammer thinks is valuable” (Maguire, 2016:79), often accompanied by bookish objects or other personal possessions. Therefore, shelfies are inherently linked with identity performance and help mediate individual and social relationships with books.
While the shelfie may seem a product of the contemporary age, it is not, in fact, as novel as it appears to be. Indeed, we can find “shelfies” in Victorian paintings and photography, but particularly in bookplates – the focus of this blog post.
A Brief History of Bookplates
The late nineteenth century marked an important period in the history of the bookplate. Up until this date, bookplates were predominantly armorial in design and owned by male members of the upper class who commissioned artists to create images. This all began to change when stationers and booksellers introduced in-house artists to design pictorial bookplates that reflected a book owner’s personal interests rather than their lineage, thereby opening up bookplates to the middle classes. Another development took place at the beginning of the Edwardian era when mass-produced bookplates emerged onto the market, selling for much cheaper prices and making it possible for even the working classes to decorate their volumes with a bookplate (O’Hagan, 2018).
Now in a world where bookplate ownership itself no longer signified status, wealthy individuals turned to choices of image, colour and typography in their bookplates to project class and taste. With reading such a popular pursuit and books so symbolic of a person’s identity, it is unsurprising that book owners relied on two types of bookplates in particular – library interiors and bookpiles – which can be considered Edwardian versions of the shelfie. Let’s take a look at two of my favourite examples.
Robert Hall was a solicitor who went on to become the Mayor of Salisbury. Wiltshire Leaders describes Hall as having “an omnivorous love of reading, which has made him one of the most cultured citizens of the intellectual centre of Wilts” (Gaskell, 1906). This is made apparent through his bookplate.
Hall’s bookplate shows the library in his house at 62 Harnham Road, Salisbury, its walls lined with leather-bound tomes – a clear marker of prestige. In the foreground, we see a selection of Kelmscott Press books with their unmistakable spines, vellum bindings and silk ribbons overtly displayed: William Morris’s The Glittering Plain and News from Nowhere, his translation of Beowulf and the distinctive 1896 edition of Chaucer. Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World lies open on the table, displaying its distinctive woodcut borders and frontispiece to viewers. All of these books serve to frame Hall as educated and place him at the foreground of fashion and taste. As Hall was the past secretary of the Liberal and Radical Association, we can assume that he also shared political sympathies with Morris.
Just as with contemporary shelfies, the accompanying props give off a wealth of information about Hall. The carefully positioned cricket bat indicates his favourite sport (“Hall always kept up his early love for the fine old game of cricket,” states Gaskell in 1906’s Wiltshire Leaders), while the view of Salisbury Cathedral outside the window signals his piety and beliefs (Hall was president of Salisbury Temperance Society and a member of the Poor Law’s Board of Guardians). The row of photographs and classical busts mark out Hall as an intellectual, but also hold additional symbolism: the only bust to be facing viewers is, in fact, Hall himself embedded into the scene and made exaggeratedly older to connote his wisdom. Finally, Hall’s choice of furnishings all strictly adhere to guidance on building a private library (e.g. Mrs Beeton, 1880; A.H. Miles, 1909), highlighting the great attention he paid to cultivating a positive image of himself in keeping with class-based expectations.
The bookplate of Alice Kuhling, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Kensington, London, is more modest than Hall’s, yet still manages to convey a strong sense of her personal identity to viewers. Designed by leading bookplate artist William P. Barrett, the bookplate shows a small shelf of books with numerous leather-bound volumes stacked on top of one another. The spine labels are deliberately made prominent, revealing an abundance of canonical authors – Dante, Scott, Byron, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Moore – and two hugely popular works of the time – Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and J.M. Dent & Son’s Master Musicians series. Already, we get a clear sense of how Kuhling is framing herself: as an erudite and well-read person. An open book of sheet music sits in the foreground alongside a lyre, which evokes classical antiquity and associates Kuhling with wisdom and grace. The French motto “un livre est un ami qui ne trompe jamais” (a book is a friend that never deceives you”) works in a similar way to an Instagram caption, framing the image and indicating Kuhling’s love for reading and her knowledge of a foreign language.
It is clear from her bookplate that Kuhling is playing up to expected norms on how a young middle-class woman should behave. We see nothing provocative or potentially scandalous in her choices; instead, we are presented with a model of femininity and gentility, further accentuated by the border of delicate roses and the innocent cherub at the bookplate’s top. Kuhling’s name at the bottom of the bookplate is written in a copperplate script – a style that was no longer used in the Edwardian era but maintained its associations with high social status and respectability. As handwritten scripts in bookplates were often based on the owner’s own handwriting, this style creates a sense of personalisation and shows Kuhling’s control over her public persona.
Whether on social media or in bookplates, “shelfies” are used by individuals as elaborate sign systems that offer detailed information about their lives. However, while contemporary shelfies are largely appreciated for their aesthetics and design choices, Edwardian shelfies were more valued for their strict adherence to cultural norms on gender/class and cultivation of taste. Despite these differences, it would seem that Edwardian owners were just as anxious as contemporary owners about what their books would say about them. An 1898 article in House magazine warned “show me your room and I will tell you what you are.” In the age of COVID-19 and the spotlight being shone on our bookshelves once again, we are made to think carefully about this statement. Old habits certainly do die hard.
Huge thank you to the organisers of and contributors to the “Bookshelves in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, whose work formed the inspiration for this blog post.
Beeton, I. 1880. Housewife’s Treasury of Domestic Information, London: Ward, Lock & Bowden Ltd.
Fletcher, L., McAlister, J., Temple, K. and Williams, K. 2019. #loveyourshelfie Mills & Boon books and how to find them, Mémoires du livre / Studies in Book Culture 11(1), https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1066945ar
Gaskell, W. 1906. Wiltshire Leaders: Social and Political,
Maguire, E. 2016. My Inner Fangirl. Kill Your Darlings 26, pp. 72-82.
Miles, A. 1909. The 20th-century Household Guide, London: Edwin Dalton.
O’Hagan, L. 2018. Towards a multimodal ethnohistorical approach: a case study of bookplates. Social Semiotics 29(5), pp. 565-583.