Incredible, Innovative and Infernal Bookmarks through History

The enchanting history of bookmarks spans more than one millennia, a living proof that readers tried every little trick in the book not to lose their place, in return coming up with some of the most innovative place-marks.

Bookmarks are inherently linked to the very appearance and spread of the books, but not only written or printed books, papyrus documents too since some reached length of 40 meters.

1st century classical poet Martial wrote a poem advertising a new edition of his works, specifically noting that it is produced as a codex, thus taking less space than a scroll and being more comfortable to hold in one hand. Surely it was accompanied by a bookmark? For residue of bookmarks discovered in the earliest Coptic codices(belonging to the Christian Church that started in Egypt) indicate without a doubt that bookmarks have accompanied codices since their first emerged during the 1st century AD.

The oldest known bookmark dates from 6th century AD and is made of ornate leather with a parchment sheet on the back. It was attached to the cover of an ancient manuscript found under the ruins of monastery Apa Jeremiah in Egypt during 1912 excavations.

Incredible, Innovative and Infernal Bookmarks through History - A ribbon bookmark detail in a Van Eyck painting
A ribbon bookmark detail in a Van Eyck painting

An Incredible Medieval Bookmark

During the Middle Ages, especially between the 13th century to the 15th century, many interesting bookmarks were used in manuscripts and incunabula in European monasteries. These were generally made from leather or parchment left after the book covers were created. In medieval monasteries, bookmarks had a variety of shapes, from a simple thread to triangles.

Incredible, Innovative and Infernal Bookmarks History - the Rotating bookmark
A rotating medieval bookmark

Rotating bookmarks were a creative kind of bookmark indeed. They were attached to a string that got pressed between the pages and they had a marker attached to it, that could be slid up and down to mark the precise level on the page. To take things further, attached to the marker was a rotating disk with numbers, 1 to 4, this indicating the column (1, 2 on the left page, 3, 4 on the right page) where the reader stopped.

Some Innovative Bookmarks throughout History

The Royal Museum of Brunei has an ivory bookmark, made in India, adorned with a geometric motifs and perforations dating from the 16th century.

And some 15th century bookmarks as seen in Van Eyck paintings, The Rolin Madonna and Annunciation. Do you notice the metal pin with a round metal head placed in the open books?

It is known that Elizabeth I was presented with a special fringe silk bookmark depicting her portrait by her printer Christopher Barker in 1584 as a thank you gift for bestowing upon him exclusive rights to print the Bible in 1577.

A common pattern between bookmarks of 18th to 19th century was the narrow silk ribbon, not more than 1 cm wide, glued to the book at the top of the spine and long enough to protrude beyond the lower edges of the tome.

The first detached and therefore collectible bookmarks appeared in the 1850s and become of interest for cultural historians. In the Victorian era, ladies from the high society taught their daughters the art of embroidery, and to show their skills in this field they would often craft a bookmark. This meant that many bookmarks were embroidered, often attached to a hand drawing, and used in bibles or prayer books and given as gifts to family members or close friends.

After 1850, bookmarks began to be made of a variety of materials. Whether they are made of gold, bronze, brass, tin, leather or ivory, they also have different sizes and shapes.

Below: a Japanese Maple leaf iridescent copper bookmark, a Pallache (Sword) with Scabbard Bookmark, a 3D origami bookmark, a wooden bookmark.

Around the 1860s sewing machines began to be used to make bookmarks, so silk ones became highly prized gifts during the Victorian era. Woven pictorial bookmarks produced by Thomas Stevens, a 19th century English silk weaver, starting around 1862, are called Stevengraphs. Woven silk bookmarks were very appreciated gifts in Victorian days and Stevens seemed to make one for every occasion and celebration. One Stevengraph read:

All of the gifts which heaven bestows, there is one above all measure, and that’s a friend midst all our woes, a friend is a found treasure to thee I give that sacred name, for thou art such to me, and ever proudly will I claim to be a friend to thee.

Incredible, Innovative and Infernal Bookmarks through History - Stevengraph showing the London and York Royal Mail Coach, silk, 1862
A Stevengraph silk bookmark showing the London and York Royal Mail Coach, 1862

Since 1880, the production of this type of bookmarks declined in favor of paper or cardboard designs. At the same time, books became more and more popular and available to the masses. Insurance companies, publishers and other businesses saw an opportunity to use free bookmarks as advertisements.

Some bookmarks were next created in form of knives since in the early 19th century the pages in books were not completely separated, so the book signs were also used as paper-cutting knives.

The Infernal Bookmark

At the beginning of the XI century it s said that the Irish monk Coloman used a fly as a bookmark. Luckily, not everyone has such a serviceable fly at hand while reading. For whenever Coloman stopped reading his Bible, he would order the fly, which was always pacing back and forth on his page, to sit on the exact line he had stopped reading until he returned to continue his lecture. Which the fly did infallibly.

Only that Coloman was not the only one… I do remember reading Memories of Childhood by Romanian author Ion Creanga. Creanga, who grew up in a small Moldavian village in north-eastern Romania, recalls his school books, handed down from one generation to the next, and far from being in pristine condition. While they, as inventive school kids, would take a break from reading to wait patiently for as many flies as possible flies to settle on the page… only to smack the book closed. Well, perhaps not using flies as bookmarks…

Apparently bookmarks were even used for propaganda purposes by the 3rd Reich in Democratic Germany.

Today, there are no limits to the types of page-holders we can use. A strip of paper, a bank note, a blade of grass, train or bus tickets, even a feather can function of the bookmark. A loved one’s picture or an uplifting message are just as appealing to me, although my favorite bookmarks are the one my children made for me.

Shape-wise too, the sky is the limit. Triangular bookmarks that could be placed on the corner of the book page, magnetic page-holders and bookmarks that attach themselves to the page like a clip are also popular. Kindles or electronic readers have a build in bookmark, any reading experience is incomplete without a proper bookmark.

Regardless of the reason, a well-chosen bookmark can enhance one’s reading experience much better than other methods that are not as safe and as attractive such as… dog ears. A bookmark connects space and time, it joins the time spent reading with the real timeline of one’s life. It is the fingerprint of the time spent enjoying a certain book.

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13 Replies to “Incredible, Innovative and Infernal Bookmarks through History”

  1. What an interesting article. I was amused by Creanga’s “bookmark”. 🙂 And yes, I’ve used a bus ticket as bookmark.

  2. Yes, Creanga went to school in a remove village of Moldova, Romania, at the middle of the 19th century. I guess even flies were slower to fly back then.
    Me too, used a tram ticket 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jo!

  3. The ribbon bookmark detail in the Van Eyck painting is AMAZING! A small detail that most people do not see in his work because it is such a subtle addition to the reality of the scene. In addition, it shows how important every little detail was to Van Eyck: Even a Bookmark. Interesting post!

  4. Yes, it is 🙂 I was thrilled to spot it.
    Van Eyck’s art is so detailed, each painting a story on its own.
    So glad to read your comment. Thank you!

  5. An enjoyable read!! I’m not particularly attached to book marks but somehow have been given many different kinds; silver sliders, Victorian lace and even something that looked like a trowel! I just use any postcard and then leave it inside the book once done.

    1. Bookmarks and postcards kind of go hand in hand 🙂 Yours sound lovely.
      Ouch, a trowel bookmark! That must have been pretty sharp. Perhaps used to cut joined pages too?

        1. It must be stunning. Ah, well, not everything that’s stylish is also practical 😉
          Handcrafted, nevertheless, ‘don’t make them anymore’. A keep! 🙂

  6. What an interesting post! Bookmarks certainly have been clever over the centuries. I’m not sure I’d ever use a fly, though . . . as if a fly would listen to me when I told it to stay put.:-)

    1. Ah, thank you, Priscilla.
      I remember collecting many bits as I grew up, never bookmarks, although I had some pretty interesting ones. I remember a santal wood one 🙂 Long ago and far away 🙂

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