Familiar illustrations show medieval monks laboring over one-of-a-kind manuscripts, distant forbearers of modern books. Their painstaking works stayed chained to slanting reading stands or lecterns, accessible only to a privileged few. Even after Gutenberg’s movable type, printed tomes remained limited. Then gradually throughout the Renaissance, book collections similar to today’s appeared. Originally stacked in horizontal piles, they easily toppled and proved hard on bindings and heads. By the 1870s private libraries soon needed shelves so folks started arranging their volumes in a more orderly and vertical fashion, which is when most bookends were born.
Wooden blocks or chunks of rock first kept early groups of volumes from tipping. As formal libraries multiplied, “L-shaped” pieces of grey or brown metal appeared, just as still seen in institutionalized libraries.
Certainly these standard wedges used to keep volumes upright did a fine job, but with no eye appeal or aesthetics. As people began spending more time reading and collecting books they desired to proclaim personal taste and add to their home’s décor. So bookends evolved from being merely practical to pretty and/or conversation pieces.
Designated periods, specific dates, places, names, and materials associated with other forms of collectibles can mark certain eras now captivated by bookends. Historical events, inventions, people, fashions and activities are recreated in useful pairs. Almost every animal has been captured on bookends. Human bodies and activities abound. Yet collecting bookends marks a relatively new hobby.
Companies, some of which no longer exist, manufactured them though they specialized in other products. For instance, famous pottery names such as McCoy, Hull and Roseville produced bookends; so did noted glass creators Steuben, Tiffin and Rene Lalique.
The Ronson Company, famous for cigarette lighters, made colorful Art Deco bookends, now eagerly sought. As with any collecting, prices depend on scarcity, artistry, interest or uniqueness. Sets range in value from $25 to four figures and can be whimsical, prosaic or exquisite.
Recognized by many as “the leading expert,” Dr. Louis Kuritzky, who says his collection of 1,000 sets of bookends is not the largest, admits being a relatively late starter in this growing collector’s field. “I’d never even been in an antique store before 1991,” admits this 6 foot 9 inch physician, age 62, who lives in Florida. A musician who owns two grand pianos, he recalls being in a music shop in Pittsburg where, for $125, he purchased a pair of cast iron horses that caught his fancy as being “both attractive and useful.”
A family practice physician, this doctor teaches at the Florida School of Medicine, which means since the 1980s he’s traveled extensively, giving lectures. These excursions, coupled with his having discretionary spending money and what he calls “the collective gene,” enabled him to acquire little sculptures while realizing articles in daily use – such as bookends – often possess real beauty plus functionality. It wasn’t long after, especially as he met other collectors, that Dr. Kuritzky realized no books about bookends existed – a fact he soon changed.
In 1996, along with California collectors, Robert and Donna Lee Seecof, Kuritzky co-authored Bookend Review. It’s 124-page paperback volume offering 600 color photographs of bookends found throughout Europe in the 19th century and in America in the 20th century. During the following two years three more books were published on the subject: A Collector’s Guide to Cast Metal Bookends by Gerald P. McBride, Collectors Guide to Bookends, Identification & Values (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.) and Collector’s Encyclopedia Of Bookends: Identification and Values (Schroeder Publishing Co. Paducah, Ky.).
Kuritzky is editor and publisher of the Bookend Collector Club’s quarterly newsletter sent to 75-80 members. It’s full of scholarly information and detail. He is also a seller of antique and vintage bookends. He can be found at the Baltimore Summer Antique Show Sept. 3-6, trading under the business name “Just Bookends.”