Monday April 11, 2011

Bookends: another chapter

Why do bookends appeal? Is it their decorativeness? Is it the fantasy they portray? Is it that they visualize the romance, adventure, history and knowledge found in books? Are they used to reflect our sense of style? Is it that they are in pairs? Perhaps it is all these reasons.

Bookends: another chapter is an exhibition at Mosman Library that showcases treasured bookends held in private collections. The exhibition, on display from Tuesday 12 April to Sunday 15 May 2011, is an opportunity to view some fantastic pieces dating from the 1920s to the 1980s.

The craze for bookends

Bookends are a particularly 20th Century phenomena, functional and ornamental, reflecting trends in the decorative arts. In 1932 The Brisbane Courier reported bookends had taken over from toast racks as the most popular wedding gift.

A bookend is one of the simplest and most decorative machines invented, with a base and an upright, its weight intended to create a force to resist movement.

Over the centuries, technological innovations led to the evolution of the book format. Books became cheaper to print and cheaper to buy and by the 1880s little libraries were springing up in homes all over the world.

In the early 19th century a small portable shelf known as a book carrier was popular and as personal libraries expanded a more efficient book support was required; a Victorian home decorating book advised cutting “in half a cube of wood six inches every way” and in the 1870s a bookend, made from a sheet of metal, punched out and bent into an angle, was patented.

By 1900 bookends were a highly desirable commodity and their sculptural and design possibilities became increasingly attractive. Capturing the imagination, and like the books they support bookends tell a story, deriving inspiration from literature, art, mythology, history, flora and fauna and sentimental favourites.

Chameleon like in nature, bookends take many forms including, fictional characters, writers, composers, clowns, children, elephants, dogs, lions, galleons, globes and even books. Throughout the world bookends were made by commercial potteries, foundries, woodworkers, sculptors and in Australia they held great appeal to art potters.

With no recommended height bookends vary in size and are found in metal, stone, marble, wood, glass, ceramic, bakelite, plaster, plastic and resin. Materials used can reflect the changing styles in the decorative arts and period of manufacture, copper and oak suggest Arts & Crafts, chryselephantine and chrome indicate Art Deco. Pressed wood was popular in the 1940s and Mulga wood was popular in Australia from the late 1920s to the 1970s. Aluminium was used after the the Second World War when aircraft parts were recycled into useful items.

The first half of the 20th century saw a strong worldwide bookend culture emerge their novelty and fantasy open to exploitation. In 1929, “Booklovers”, an American talkie, told the story of two carved bookends coming to life. In Australia, newspapers, women’s journals and hobby magazines reflected the craze for bookends. There were reports on travellers returning from exotic locations with ebony elephants and alabaster tiger bookends. A theft of bookends in Tasmania made the local papers when a man was convicted and fined five pounds for stealing, along with other items, a pair of bookends. A short story in the Western Mail, Shoplifter had a women stealing one mulga wood bookend, while in movies bookends were the ideal murder weapon. A fancy dress pattern, published in the Brisbane Courier, had the novel idea whereby one person, wearing a head dress which comprised a set of books with a face at the back, could be bookends.

As well as being ideal for promotional and commemorative purposes, endless gift lists noted bookends as suitable for men and students. While a gift list for the “Mere Man” recommended bookends for a girl who likes reading thus saving the trouble of trying to find out what she liked to read! A short article in the Cairns Post reported a bride presenting her groom with “a collection of books and book-ends” as a wedding gift. In 1947 a piece of gold from Kalgoorlie was mounted on Mulga wood bookends as a wedding gift for Princess Elizabeth. Mulga wood bookends were often the preferred gift for visitors to Australia and there are numerous reports of Ambassadors and other officials receiving bookends on their departure.

The interior design ethic popular in Australia between the wars emphasised the utility and aesthetics of the modern room while allowing for individual variation and with an underlying focus on fantasy and novelty bookends fitted into this scenario.

Features on home decorating suggested ways of using books and bookends to create a unique living space and at the same time indicate ones interests and sense of style. One magazine recommended using plaster bookends as they could be given a dust resistant finish and polished with a furniture cream. Another showed that placing a pair of frosted crystal doves bookends in the boudoir and faux ivorine and ebony elephants in the den gave these spaces character. A short paragraph noted a resourceful office girl using two small colourful pumpkins as bookends in her bed-sit.

It was inevitable that some bookends were purely decorative or so small they unable to support books. Never fear these same magazines had solutions and could offer helpful hints on how to prevent bookends from sliding.

Bookend culture was also a source of amusement and numerous cartoons were published. One showed a recently married couple asking a guest about his gift and on learning it is a set of bookends, the bride decides “we must buy some books” . Others were variations on a theme – tourists in Mexico commenting on sleeping Mexicans making good bookends or elephants explaining to hunters they would not move as they were “practicing to be bookends”

An amazing array of novelty designs were published for making your own bookends out of leather, felt, shells, soap or using crafts such as pokerwork and embroidery. Recycling was encouraged with directions for converting old books, gramophone springs, butter boxes, matchboxes and house bricks into bookends. In Adelaide an enterprising gentleman engaged a modeller to make plaster masks of himself and his wife which were mounted on highly polished wood plinths for use as bookends.

After the 1960s the interest in bookends as functional objects seemed to wane and their appeal as a collectable increased, valued for the maker, material, theme, style, condition and rarity.


‘Bookends for Princess’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1947, p. 3.
Cartoon ‘Loots of fun’, The Western Mail, 1 August 1935, p.15.
‘The craze for bookends’, Brisbane Courier, 8 September 1932, p.7
‘Here is concentrated artistry’, The Australian Women’s Weekly Homemaker 6 October 1934, p 24.
‘Ideas worth remembering’, Barrier Miner, 3 March 1936, p. 3.
‘Man fined for Pound sign 5 for theft’, The Mercury (Hobart), 28 August 1954, p. 7.
Michael Bogle, Designing Australia: readings in the history of design, Pluto Press, Annandale, 2002
Henry Petroski, The book on the bookshelf, Vintage Books, New York, 1999.
‘Seeking your own face in plaster’, The Adelaide Advertiser, 28 March 1936, p.25
‘Shoplifter’, Western Mail, 10 September 1953, p. 46.
‘Vegetables as bookends!’ Home and Hostess section, The Argus, 15 April 1939, p.11.
‘Wedding Slyney-Winkel’ The Cairns Post, 7 October 1949, p.6

— Posted by Donna C. Braye, Curator in  |  Permalink





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