Thursday, June 15, 2017

Old bookplate featuring a beard-grabbing skeleton

This bookplate for Edward Stewart Gifford Jr. is either humorous or spine-tingling, depending on your point of view. (I choose humorous.) It features a skeleton grabbing the beard of a surprised scholar. Or maybe he's an alchemist whose experiments to revive the dead had an unexpected outcome. Details in the illustration include a microscope, a flask, the edge of a globe and a small shelf of books that includes Gray's Anatomy and Plays.

The is also a painter's palette and several brushes that have been attached to the wall in an odd manner.

Skeletons and skulls are not an uncommon element of bookplates. Scott D. Haddow wrote a short post about them on the blog A Bone to Pick in 2012. He states: "At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the design of bookplates became more personalized, with heraldic elements slowly replaced by increasingly symbolic/allegorical representations. ... The focus on mortality reminds me of the medieval allegorical themes of the Danse Macabre, i.e. the universality and egalitarianism of death."

Some additional skeleton-themed bookplates can be see at the BibliOdyssey blog, the blog of Harvard's Houghton Library, and the website 50 Watts.

The Duke University Medical Center's digital repository has a copy of this same bookplate (within the History of Medicine Collection of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library). According to Duke, the illustrator is Virginia Mason Gifford (there is a tiny V in the lower-left corner and a tiny M in the lower-right corner). Edward and Virginia were married.

Edward Stewart Gifford Jr. was, according to a short obituary notice in the May 12, 1994, edition of the Philadelphia Daily News, an ophthalmologist for more than 50 years and also a published author. His books included 1958's The Evil Eye: Studies in the Folklore of Vision, which actually sounds pretty cool.1

Virginia, who created her husband's bookplate, died in 2003. In 1988, she published a book titled Glimpses of My Family's Past.

This bookplate was inside a copy of the 1929 Peter Smith reprint edition2 of A Diary from Dixie, as written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, "wife of James Chesnut Jr., United States senator from South Carolina, 1859-1861, and afterward an aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army." The book was part of Mom's estate. I cannot remember whether it was on her bookshelves because it interested her (she loved diaries by women) or my great-grandfather (who loved books about the Civil War).

1. An Amazon reviewer wrote this in 2015: "If you're looking for a how-to, this isn't the book. But if you're looking for a fun, exhaustive cultural history of The Evil Eye across history and many different cultures, you'll love this book. Written by an eminent eye-doctor who had a passion for collecting eye-related lore and artifacts, it's information-dense, wit written with a wry sense of humor that stops it from becoming dry and text-bookish. Amongst the topics he covers are the beliefs and traditions in casting an evil eye, the ways it's been combated and how magic and medicine have been used to heal and protect more mundane eye problems as well."
2. Peter Smith, who died in 1982 at age 85, was according to The New York Times, "the dean of the branch of publishing that reissues hard-to-find books for libraries, scholars and collectors. Nearly 1,000 titles were issued under his imprint."


  1. Scott Cranin/Ivy Ridge BooksJuly 25, 2018 at 2:26 PM

    Just found another book with this bookplate and read your terrific research, thank you! The book is Andrew Lang's "Custom and Myth," which certainly fits with the theme of the bookplate and the interests you mentioned in your piece.