There’s always a danger in book history when you suggest you may have found the first instance of something, but I wonder: could this be the first blank bookplate, i.e. ones that are pre-printed with ‘This book belongs to …’ that you then fill in yourself with your name?
These block-printed covers were produced in Orléans in the 1780s by the decorated-paper manufacturer François Michelin for the 36-volume Bibliothèque des meilleurs Poëtes Italiens published by Louis-Pierre Couret de Villeneuve. As Giles Barber writes: ‘The work of these Orleans manufacturers of decorated paper, or “dominotiers” as they were called, is of interest in that they seem to have inspired the first large-scale certain French publisher’s binding. These covers consisted of a foliage frame surrounding, on the upper cover putti below and a blank escutcheon above, the latter inscribed “Des Livres de la Bibliotheque de M[—–]”, and on the lower cover two scenes with putti on a baroque framework … The spines are divided into compartments decorated with fleurons representing conventional binding ornaments, two panels being reserved for the title of the work and volume number … These covers have been referred to before in print but their importance as a large-scale and conscious attempt at producing a publisher’s binding has perhaps not been sufficiently stressed. Couret de Villeneuve was clearly profiting from local skills to launch a special series’ (‘Continental paper wrappers and publishers’ bindings in the 18th century’, The Book Collector, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 45–6). The idea was that the buyer, Monsieur (or perhaps Mme) Whoever, could then put their name in the blank space on the front cover, though I expect many buyers, following French taste, took their copies to the binder to have them bound, at which point the wrappers would have been discarded. And copies which have survived (at least, the ones I have seen) have never had the ‘bookplate’ filled in.