Bookseller Labels                                                                 

A resource for the obscure little world of collecting booksellers’ marks and related ephemera...

Collecting Bibliophemera


By Jim Rainer

The following article was originally published in Amphora (no. 108, Summer 1997), the journal of the Alcuin Society.  Based in Vancouver, the Alcuin Society is a voluntary association supported by people who care about the past, present and future of fine books.  Founded in 1965, it is the only non-profit organization in Canada dedicated to the entire range of interests related to books and reading.  These interests include authorship, publishing, book design and production, bookselling, book buying and collecting, printing, binding, papermaking, calligraphy and illustration.  For more information, please visit their website.  Jim Rainer is a past president of the Alcuin Society and an ex-officio board member. would like to thank the Alcuin Society and Jim Rainer for permission to reprint this article.

Most book collectors and readers will have noticed the small tickets or labels, an inexpensive form of advertising, which some booksellers, new and used, pasted on to the endpapers or inside the covers.  Most noticeable in books from the 19th or early 20th centuries, such labels have been used in Europe, the United States, and Canada since the 1700s.  A more inclusive term might be “book trade labels,” because they were used by booksellers, bookbinders, printers, and stationers to advertise their services.  My collection started with the observation that quite a few books on my shelves had such tickets, and so began a walk down one of the more interesting byways of bibliophily.  It is also a less travelled road, nay path, for these tiny pieces of printed ephemera are collected by few people.  Gayle Garlock, a friend, has an extensive collection from all parts of Canada.  A Minneapolis bookseller, Dinkytown Antiquarian Books, produced a privately printed illustrated book in 1986 which has examples of some 444 different tickets from around the United States, with three original marks tipped in.  A German who collects world-wide is reputed to have a very large collection.  The American Antiquarian Society began collecting United States booksellers’ labels, both in and out of books, in the 1920s, and its collection, some 2,000 or so, is rich in labels from the mid-1700s onward.


What is the attraction of such tiny pieces of paper, typically one or two inches long by half an inch wide?  First, they take little space and are often cheap to acquire.  Many come from the dollar-or-less book bins, flea markets, or church sales.  At this point an immediate problem confronts the collector –remove the ticket by steaming over a kettle or keep it in the book.  Purists opt for the latter, which can result in a collection or often dog-eared old books.  My choice is the middle ground.  If the book is a keeper for any reason, the ticket remains in it.  Otherwise it is removed and the book discarded; but not before recording its bibliographical details.  This leads to another reason for collecting tickets, which is historical.  A ticket may provide information on a book’s provenance, telling where (the book seller’s location is usually printed on the ticket) and perhaps when it was purchased (less definitive because the tickets are rarely dated).  Many a book’s world-ranging odyssey is shown by its ticket.  A German book in the possession of one collector has labels of a bookshop in Cairo and one in Australia.  A Portuguese dictionary printed in 1850 in Hamburg bears a dealer’s label from Porto Alegre, Brazil, as wells as that of a dealer in Vienna.  This book must have crossed the Atlantic twice.  Also, book tickets are historical tidbits about an era when booksellers sold a wider diversity of goods than today.  As well as providing printing, publishing, and binding services, early booksellers’ labels show that they sold stationery, church supplies, newspapers, apothecaries, tobacco, musical instruments, magazines, records, radios, patent medicines, music, pictures, and framing –a fascinating slice of the history of the village, town or city where the ticket originated.


A third reason for collecting book trade labels is their beauty and skillful design.  Simple type was used on the most common form of ticket, but often accentuated by distinctive paper or foil.  Many book tickets are beautifully designed and printed in one, two or (rarely) three colours, or reverse-printed on coloured paper to give the impression of two-colourprinting.  The endless variety of die-cutting (such tickets are usually embossed as well) allowed the designer to produce any shape, and such tickets are often the most interesting.  All of them are intriguing examples of printing history and skill, although tracing the printers would be difficult because the small size left no room for the printer’s name.  In my collection of seventy or so tickets only one, circa 1923, has printer identification in a type size barely visible.


My tickets are mainly Canadian and American, with a smattering of English and Scottish, and one from F.R. Wetmore & Co/Booksellers, & c./Yokohama, Japan.  This book, Flowers: Their Language, Poetry, and Sentiment, was published by Porter and each of the front and back endpapers –the single word “MacArthur.”  Could it have come from General Douglas MacArthur’s library while he was in Japan? He served there after graduating from West Point in 1903 and again at the end of World War II –an intriguing example of provenance and historical interest.


Closer to home are tickets from T.N. Hibben & Co/Bookseller/Victoria, B.C. Thomas Hibben, an American, arrived in Victoria in October 1858 and soon opened what may have been British Columbia’s first book store.  Just when he began to use book tickets is unknown to me.  My earliest T.N. Hibben ticket came from an 1894 book.  About 1859 Hibben took in a partner, Robert Carswell, an Englishman who soon moved to Toronto to found Carswell & Co., a publisher of law books still operating.  Gayle Garlock has a Carswell ticket from a book dated 1876 and has tickets from other books printed in the early 1800s.


The earliest book trade label in Canada is that of Brown & Gilmore, ,printers and bookbinders of Mountain Street, Quebec, who, in 1765, printed the first book in Canada, The Grand Jury’s Presentements, a brochure printed in both English and French, a copy of which is in the Public Archives of Canada.


These examples provide insight into the earliest days of bookselling and the book trade in Canada.  Bookbinders’ tickets are found much less often, and my collection includes only one.  It came from a 1931 André Maurois book and reads “Leighton-Straker Bookbinding Co. Ltd./Bound in Sundour Fadeless Fabric” (an English firm).  Such tickets are well worth seeking.  In the booksellers’ world well-known names are found on book tickets, some still in business, others gone.  T.N. Hibben (which became Digon-Hibbon), Victoria, B.C.; Ireland & Allan, Vancouver; D.J. Young & Co., Calgary; M.G. Hurtig & Co., Edmonton; McAinsh & Co. , Toronto; Chapman’s Book Store, Montreal; McMurray’s, Fredericton; T.C. Allen & Co., Halifax; The Old Corner Book Store, Boston; Brentano’s, Chicago; New York, and Washington, D.C.; Paul Elder’s Books, San Francisco; Zeitlin’s Books, Los Angeles; Foyles, London; Blackwell’s, Oxford, to name but a few.  Book tickets are still being used by some new book stores in the United States.  In Canada, among antiquarian book stores, only one, to my knowledge, is using a book ticket.  Wells Books of Victoria use a tiny, one-colour label printed on gold paper on selected antiquarian books.

[The original article included images of several bookseller labels from the author’s collection (pictured) and a short bibliography.  If you have any substantive comments on this article, please email them to us and they will be added to this page. – Gabe]