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75 Years Ago this Month: The New Dumbarton Oaks Bookplate

Posted On September 21, 2017 | 13:24 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (January 2016)


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

After the legal transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to the President and Fellows of Harvard College on November 29, 1940, a variety of institutional changes needed to be made. One necessary change was the creation of a new institutional bookplate for the eleven thousand volumes, formerly part of the Blisses’ private library, that were now the property of the research institute. The commission for the new bookplate design went to Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), a Czech-born American illustrator and engraver. Ruzicka previously had designed Robert Bliss’s bookplate. He also in 1935 had created for the Blisses an engraved plan of the Dumbarton Oaks estate, which included thirty-eight vignettes of the gardens. Robert Bliss spearheaded the new bookplate project and in late December 1940 sent Ruzicka a rough sketch having two shields at the center and oak-leaf and acorn clusters in the four corners. Ruzicka surrounded the two shields with laurel leaves for Harvard and oak leaves for Dumbarton Oaks and added the Harvard and Bliss mottos, Christo et Ecclesiae and Quod Severis Metes. When in January 1941 the newly-designed bookplate was sent to the Blisses in California, they wrote back saying they were very pleased and that the bookplate was “distinguished, interesting and unusual.”

The question arose, however, how to deal with the fact that most of the books that had transferred to the research library already had both Mildred Bliss’s and Robert Bliss’s bookplates in them. Director John Thacher wrote the Blisses in California suggesting two possibilities: (1) that the new bookplate accompany the Blisses’ personal bookplates, thus indicating that these were books that the Blisses had acquired for their own library and then conveyed to Harvard University and (2) that the bookplate be put only into those books acquired after the transfer. With the second solution, he recommended putting “a small, little bookplate with just the words ‘Dumbarton Oaks Harvard University’” into the Blisses’ former books. This was the solution that was adopted.

The legal status of Dumbarton Oaks, however, would change again on June 9, 1941, when the property was deeded from the President and Fellows of Harvard College to the Trustees for Harvard University, Inc., a District of Columbia corporation. Eventually, to reflect this change, in 1955 Ruzicka was asked to redesign the bookplate to include the name of the Trustees for Harvard University and the year of the incorporation, 1941. Ruzicka’s new design was quickly approved.

This new bookplate would be added to all existing books and to all books acquired in the future.