Sunday, October 11, 2009

bookmark history

A bookmark, sometimes called a bookmarker, or just a marker, is a device used to mark one's place in a book, most commonly, by simple insertion between the leaves. Modern bookmarks are often relatively simple in design, and made of printed heavy paper or card stock. Bookmarks are also made of other materials ranging from silk, ribbons and other fabrics, to leather, thin strips of wood or metal, to celluloid, ivory, plastic and parchment, and are often further decorated with ribbons, cords, tassels, and other three-dimensional objects, designed to hang out of the book, making one’s place easier to find.

Many bookmarks can be clipped on or slid over the edge of the page with the aid of a flap cut into the body of the bookmark. This is often the case with thin wood or metal bookmarks, which act like
paper clips due to the rigidity of the material they are made from. Clip-type bookmarks have other benefits, including; marking a particular spot on the page; multiple pages (clipped together); and staying in place if the book is dropped.

Hard cover books are sometimes bound with one or more ribbons at the top of the spine, which can be laid between the leaves, extending beyond the bottom of the page, to mark one's place. Bound ribbons were more common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when books were more valuable, and the need to protect them was more of an issue than it is now. This bound type of bookmarker, predates the detached bookmarks we think of today. The development or the invention of the ‘detached’ bookmark came in the 1850s. Which isn’t to say that people haven’t always slipped little bits of paper, parchment, or other items into a book to hold their place. These are what are commonly called ‘found’ bookmarks, as opposed to the manufactured and marketed bookmarks, that people began to use to mark their place, but also to trade and collect.

Many older types of detached bookmarkers are less commonly available now, but the originals are much sought after by bookmark collectors. Detached bookmarkers began to become popular in the 1850s and include machine-woven markers, popular beginning in the 1860s. By the 1880s, the printed paper or card bookmark began to appear, even as books became more and more common. This was a natural outgrowth of another popular, printed paper item at the time; trade cards, which themselves were often labeled, or used as bookmarks.

Trade cards are index card sized, often brilliantly colored, advertising cards, which were often collected by Victorian ladies in bound albums, prized for their delightful scenes of Americana. The images depicted were often idyllic scenes of home, family and social life, all middle class Victorians aspired to. Beginning in the late 1700s, businessmen used small printed cards to advertise their services, but the real growth of trade cards came when color lithography was developed in the 1870s.

In 1876, exhibitors at the Centennial Exhibition, in Philadelphia, distributed countless trade cards, which accelerated the interest in these ephemera. By the 1880s, the way paved by their trade card cousins, printed bookmarks began to appear in greater numbers, often produced for the very same reason; advertising. While advertisers were certainly not the sole producers of bookmarks, they were a large part of the trade. Commemorative bookmarks were also published using the new color printing techniques, and sold to commemorate public events of note, such as famous anniversaries, holidays, or the death of a pubic figure. Decorative bookmarks were often given as gifts; inserted in a book, to personalize it, perhaps even in the hope that the thoughts of the recipient would stray to the giver whilst reading.

Even though bookmarks, printed and often die cut in the same fashion, often advertising or commemorated the same things, were given out, sold, and collected, just like trade cards, they never achieved the same popularity for their collectibility. Trade cards remained popular through the end of the Victorian, and into the Edwardian era, but began to fade as advertisers began to move on to color magazine advertisements and other forms of advertising, which were more lucrative. Because of this, trade cards all but disappeared early in the 1900s, but bookmarks, because of their utility, continued to be produced, given away at bookshops and libraries, and used much as they are today.

For more, refer to “Collecting Bookmarkers” by A.W. Coysh, David & Charles Ltd., publisher, London, 1974, the first book dedicated to bookmarks.

I visited lots of trade card, bookmark and ephemera sites for help writing this. My thanks to the Ephemera Society of America, Mirage Bookmark, The Trade Card Place, an on line exhibit entitled "A New and Wonderful Invention: The Nineteenth-Century American Trade Card" by the Baker Library | Bloomberg Center at Harvard Business School, and Wikipedia. If there are any mistakes, they're mine.


  1. Wow, Phil I had no idea there was so much fascinating history behing book marks. Thank you for "illuminating" me on the subject, I enjoyed reading your blog.
    Great books I've read lately:
    The bad girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
    Breakfast with Buddah by Roland Merullo who was born and lives in Revere
    Golfing with God also by Roland Merullo (excellent)

  2. Hey Germana, Thanks for checking in. I'm thinking of writing a little bit about what I'm reading as I go. John Adams is huge, so I may write about that book in pieces!

    I'm thinking of dropping in some of my bookmark collection, and thought it would be fun to give it some context. -Pox


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