Bookmarks: A brief history and exploration of styles

Contrary to a growing belief, bookmarks are not for quitters; bookmarks are for the note takers, artists, writers, logophiles and readers alike.

Bookmarks history dates back to the early days of bookmaking where highly skilled monks were called away to prayers and needed a way to quickly mark their spot in their incunabula or manuscripts. If the page was wet then they would have used a blank page or blotting sheet, for fine illumination pages they would use vellum, but if the page was mostly script and it was dry, a simple ribbon suffice.

The oldest bookmark that has been found is from 1584 when the Queen’s Printer, Christopher Barker, presented Queen Elizabeth I with a fringed silk bookmark.  The second oldest existing bookmark is currently in The Royal Museum of Brunei, it is an ivory bookmark which was made in India. It  has been embellished with a geometrical pattern made by piercing holes into the ivory, this bookmark is  dating from the 16th century.

Of course with the rise of literacy came the rise of the use of bookmarks. In the early 18th century book publishers often included a narrow silk ribbon, sewn or glued into the spine to act as a page marker, this is still seen in some modern books.

In the 1850’s the detachable bookmarks began were popularized. There is a reference to these loose bookmarks in in Mary Russell Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary Life (1852) but they are not called ‘bookmarks’ but were then known as “a marker”.

In the 1860’s woven bookmarks began to be manufactured. Thomas Steven bookmarks were la mode de jour, so much so that his marks became known as Stevenmarks. During this era of call cards, postcards, and the rise of other highly decorative ephemera, it is not hard to imagine why these became popular gifts, with high society members having their’s made of silk or adding text to the woven markers.

By the middle of the Victorian era the markers were seen in newspapers and magazines as cut-out advertisements. Some were decorative while others overtly featured items such as soaps, canned goods, or corsets. It was also during the Victorian era that so-called ‘woman’s magazines’ began to publish patterns for embroidered bookmarks.  During the Edwardian era celluloid bookmarks were cheap alternatives to ivory and much like paper could include advertisements. Most celluloid bookmarks were die-cut, using a technique called chromolithography,  much like the paper bookmarks.

Now bookmarks come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Lovers of bookmarks collect them. Currently the largest known collection belongs to Frank Divendal from the Netherlands, he collection includes over 103,009 different bookmarks from all over the world, which he has been collecting since 1982.

Here are some examples of popular bookmark types available at bookshops and online:

This metal monogram works like a giant paperclip. It is chic and else spotted but it retains heat on warm days, it can be bent or dinged, and worst of all it can leave permanent marks on pages.

These magnetic bookmarks have a front and back so you know exactly which page (not just between page 122 and 123) you left off on, but they too have their downside. They tend to be heavy and fall off, while doing so they can rip pages. They can hold multiple pages too, but be careful because the stronger the magnet the more likely it is to leave marks. On paperback books heavier magnets can damage and tear covers!

Who doesn’t love sticky notes!?! This one is great, because you can write on it. If you prefer this method look for high quality brands to ensure a good stick without leaving a residue. Of course you know when selling, loaning, or returning a book to a library you should remove bookmarks but this is even more important with sticky notes as some places will not accept the book and some libraries will fine you for returning it thusly.

I’m obsessed with using these markers in textbooks, classics, and nonfiction. A quality brand of page pointers will grip the pages like magnets or clips but will not leave marks, rips, or fall out. Bonus, these can mark words and the exact line you left off at!

Magnifying bookmarks are magnificent! Oh, so punny it hurts! Seriously, they typically have rulers so you can mark lines or notations (please limit this or use pencil unless you plan to keep your book forever!) but most importantly, they let you magnify tiny fonts/prints. These bookmarks are just the thing for long reads, mass market paperbacks, and those with weak eye sight.

If you love multi-tools then the book light clip is perfect for you! It’s a bookmark and a light all in one. I always keep one with me when I travel.

This simple beaded ribbon is what’s known in the biz as a book thong. Silly, I know, but highly effective like it’s woven silk ancestors this ‘thong’ marks the spot without marking up the book. The beads help prevent slippage.

The modern classic, a plastic, paper or cardboard bookmark with a cute saying or design, typically with a ribbon. These great all the time look out for bulky ribbons or thick bookmarks, as they may leave marks.  This is also a great style to make for yourself, you can find endless prinatbles, colorsheets, and more on pinterest. Here is a board I created full of diy bookmark ideas, directions, and even some free printables!

But let’s be honest, this is graphic is probably true for most of use avid readers:

Love bookmarks and want to know more, like how different collectors categorize their collections or better yet how to start your own amazing collection, check out these cool groups and books:

Check back soon for more bookstore insights and as always, keep reading!

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