The World of Bookmarks

Essays & Interviews on Bookmarks

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by Beryl Kenyon de Pascual
courtesy of

The Ephemerist - No. 124, Spring 2004
This article is abridged in parts where reference was made to original illustrations of the printed paper which cannot be shown here. Not all illustrations are identical to those appearing in the printed version.

What do we understand today by the word 'bookmark'? One definition that has been proposed is as follows: 'An object of paper, metal, or any other material, which has been made industrially, or by hand, for the purpose of placing in a book to indicate a page for future reading.' This definition obviously includes the plain ribbons of silk or other material attached to the spine or headband of a book, but excludes bits of newspaper, old bus tickets and similar items. Unlike book bindings, not all bookmarks form an integral part of a book, but in their own way they serve the same purpose, namely to protect the pages. As far back as the Middle Ages the need to indicate the page where the reader had to interrupt his reading or to mark an important passage for future consultation had led to bad habits that could damage books. Richard of Bury in his Philobiblion, which he finished writing in 1344, explained in Chapter XVI how to treat and care for books. He censured a thoughtless youth who "when he tires of studying carelessly folds the page so as to remember where he stopped. Or it occurs to him to mark with his dirty nail a passage that amused him. Or he fills the book with straws as reminders of the interesting chapters. These straws, which the book cannot digest and which no one bothers to remove, break the joints of the book or end up rotting away inside the volume"
. Strangely enough, Richard of Bury did not specifically recommend the use of a bookmark. Should we conclude that bookmarks, in the strictest sense of the term, did not exist in Richard of Bury's days? Not at all!

Between the pages of codices and incunabula stored in European libraries and archives quite sophisticated bookmarks of monastic origin from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries can be found. Examples of these appear in a medical dictionary from the fifteenthcentury belonging to the Biblioteca Capitular y Colombina (cat. no. 5-7-16) in Seville
2. One of them consists of a revolving parchment disc of 25 mm diameter inside a cover that is also of parchment. The disc bears the numbers I,II,III, IIII, corresponding to the four columns of the two pages seen when the book is open. By turning the disc, the number of the relevant column appears in a 'window'. As an additional refinement the reader can indicate the height of the desired passage in the column by moving the bookmark up or down a cord or leather thong attached to the head of the book.

From the mid fourteenth century onwards bookmarks can be found in paintings. Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) is a well-known artist from the fifteenth century who sometimes included this detail. The more luxurious examples consist of one or more cords or ribbons with a jewel at one end in the form of a small ball or button made of silver or gold, sometimes set with pearls or gems. The jewel is placed at the head of the book while the cord is placed between the pages. If the cord is attached to the spine, the jewel may be found at the lower end of the cord. More modest examples were also made and some are still in existence. They took the form of plain or embroidered ribbons or of one or more strips of leather joined at the top.

Another type of bookmark used in the past - and still to be found today - is similar to a paper clip. It consists of a piece of paper or parchment (sometimes heart-shaped) cut to a point and with a v-shaped slit. By fixing it to the side of a page by means of the tongue thus formed it could even serve to indicate a specific line of text (but not the column if there was more than one to a page). Some hand-painted bookmarks of this type can safely be dated to the eighteenth century
3. Others are made from pieces of parchment cut from medieval manuscripts but this does not guarantee that they were made in the Middle Ages. Bookmarks following the 'clip' principle continue to be made today.

Until the mid-nineteenth century decorated bookmarks used to be hand-made, usually embroidered or painted. The industrial revolution and the invention of chromolithography enabled illustrated and coloured bookmarks to be produced cheaply in large quantities and thus to be used for publicity. At the same time the spread of education to a larger proportion of the population increased the number of readers and consequently the use of bookmarks. 

As bookmarks are small, useful and often decorative, they became common gifts. As a result of industrialization people who did not wish to spend time sewing and embroidering a bookmark as a gift could, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, buy silk bookmarks woven in a factory. Prepared cards pierced with holes to facilitate cross-stitch embroidery and for attachment to ribbons were also available. 

When looking for a bookmark as a gift for a lady in high society it was possible to find luxurious examples in the shops of silversmiths and jewellers. A finely carved and gilded example is one bookmark in mother-of-pearl that was sold by a jeweller in the elegant Rue de Rivoli in Paris probably towards the end of the nineteenth century. Like many others from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this example served two purposes. It could be used as a paper-knife to cut the pages of books, which sometimes used to be sold uncut. At the same time it had a 'tongue' so that it could be used as a clip bookmark. Silver, ivory and, to a lesser extent, gold, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl were the materials used for high quality bookmarks.

In a different social context producers of consumer goods and services, such as insurance companies, began in the second half of the nineteenth century to distribute free paper or card bookmarks that advertised their products. Fig 1 is an English example from the 1880s. The artistic quality varied according to the public at which they were aimed. At one extreme one can find publicity in the form of a simple text without illustrations and with vulgar typography. At the other extreme advertisers employed the talent of well-known illustrators or at least competent professional artists. Famous examples from the art nouveau period are the series illustrating the twelve months of the year designed c. 1912 for the Scottish Widows' Fund insurance company by the Englishman, Walter Crane, and the series of bookmarks distributed together with a German monthly literary magazine by Velhagen and Klasing designed by Hugo Hoeppener, known as 'Fidus'. In the twentieth century some publicity bookmarks were produced cheaply in metal of the less expensive kinds, such as brass.

During the first decade or two of the twentieth century a special type of a bookmark was produced in various countries: the postcard bookmark. Although the dimensions were those of a bookmark they were officially accepted for delivery by the postal services. The majority consisted of photographs of famous people or 'decorative' ladies, or pictures of tourist sites. ... 

From the nineteenth century onwards the range of materials used in the production of bookmarks has grown. As Richard of Bury pointed out, not all materials are ideal. Artistic and attractive bookmarks can sometimes be too bulky for practical use. The best materials - those that are not only of a convenient size and shape but also least likely to spoil the pages or the binding - are thin and flexible. Today, in addition to the more usual paper and card, we can find bookmarks made of textiles, wood, metal, leather, various types of plastic, cork, papyrus, dried leaves and flowers encased in plastic, etc. The use of more resistant materials has enabled double-purpose bookmarks to be produced: bookmark-torches, bookmark-magnifying glasses, bookmark-ballpoint pens, and even bookmarks with a dictionary at the head (printed and incorporating a magnifying glass in the nineteenth century; electronic in modern times). Among the latest innovations are magnetic bookmarks. Many of these more durable bookmarks cannot truly be classed as ephemera. The same may be said of those produced by living artists and craftsmen either in signed and numbered limited editions or as single works.

Modern bookmarks may be divided into two main categories: publicity bookmarks and personal bookmarks (bought, received as presents or home-made). The chief considerations to bear in mind when designing a bookmark for advertising are how best to interpret the commercial message and how to attract the public's attention - 
by means of a design that is elegant, striking, humorous, or artistic? The Galician Craft and Design Centre in Lugo chose elegance (Fig. 2) to present the work of the regional glass workshops. Die-cut bookmarks immediately draw attention as a result of their unusual shape. ...

Shops, companies, and institutions related to books naturally constitute the sector which makes most use of bookmarks for its publicity. Nowadays Spanish publishers are flooding the bookshops with free bookmarks advertising their latest publications.
... In the mid-twentieth century the Spanish publishing firm Aguilar produced a series of books by the writers who had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Every book in the series was accompanied by a bookmark, ... , that was specially designed for each title by an anonymous artist. Bookshops, libraries, and the organizers of book fairs also issue publicity bookmarks. In addition, British readers will be familiar with book-token bookmarks. In Spain, particularly in Catalonia, literally hundreds of bookmarks, both advertising and non-advertising, industrial and handcrafted, are now produced each year to celebrate 23 April, declared World Book Day by UNESCO in 1996. Apart from being the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, 23 April is also rose day and St George's day in Catalonia, and has been celebrated there as Book Day since 1931

Although not directly related to books, other commercial sectors have used bookmarks to advertise their products and services since the mid-to-late nineteenth century: foodstuffs, medicines, clothes, light bulbs, insurance, hotels - the list is never-ending. Official institutions, including ministries and local councils, have not disdained this medium for disseminating their advice or information to the man in the street, e.g. advice on health and road safety, and information about transport. ...
Some organizers of cultural and leisure activities use bookmarks (not to be confused with 'flyers') to announce concerts, exhibitions, etc.

Within the second category of bookmarks, viz. the non-advertising type, there has been a boom in supply and sales in many countries during the past two decades. In countries which did not have a native bookmark tradition the growth of international tourism has stimulated the industrial and craft production of bookmarks not only as a means of publicity but also as tourist souvenirs ... . Papyrus, the bark from trees, batik-dyed silk, leather, and wood are among the materials used in various regions of the world to produce souvenir bookmarks, while typical costumes, historical figures, native art, and indigenous plants and animals are some of the motifs with which they are decorated. Many museums and art galleries sell bookmarks showing objects from their collections. Because they are cheap, attractive, and easy to transport, bookmarks are ideal items to bring back from one's travels.

Bookmarks in the field of art comprise not only artistic designs and reproductions of famous paintings but also original works of art. These are numbered series of engravings, silk-screen prints, etc. in addition to single drawings or watercolours. ...
An exhibition of monotype bookmarks created by the Chilean artist Victor Ramirez was held in a Barcelona art gallery ten years ago. The numbered and limited edition of the catalogue, with facsimile reproductions of some of the monotypes, is much sought after by bibliophiles, bookmark collectors, and art libraries

As far as amateur, handmade bookmarks are concerned, there are still some ladies who embroider examples in cross stitch or juggle lace bobbins, among other traditional techniques. The use of computer graphics may be noted as an example of more modern techniques.

Sometimes I am asked what will happen to bookmarks if computers finally replace books. If such a situation is indeed reached probably no more bookmarks (in the sense used in this article) will be produced and they will become simply objects for collectors of antiques and ephemera.


1. This is an adaptation of a Spanish article by Beryl Kenyon de Pascual titled 'El Marcapáginas: Accesorio de los libros' that first appeared in two parts in Encuadernacion de Arte, No. 20 (vol.2, 2002), pp. 27-30, and No. 21 (vol. 1, 2003), pp. 57-60.

2. This bookmark is described in greater detail in an article by Klaus Wagner: 'Una señal de libro desconocida', Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, 1977, pp. 19-21.

3. Some eighteenth-century clip bookmarks as well as medieval bookmarks are illustrated in the article by Gunther Franz: 'Drehbare Lesezeichen und Stecklesezeichen aus der Trierer Kartause und aus anderen Klosterbibliotheken', 
Ars et Ecclesia, Trier, 1989, pp. 119-134.

4. St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as of England, Russia, Portugal, and other countries.

5. Victor Ramirez: Punts de Llibre Monotips, Barcelona, 1993.

Another brief history of the bookmark, written by Peter Standley, can be found on pages 59-60 of The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, edited by Maurice Rickards and published by the British Library, London, in 2000.


Fig. 1 
Advertising bookmarks from 
the Victorian era in UK, 1880s

Fig. 2
Advertising bookmark of The Galician 
Craft and  Design Centre in Lugo, Spain





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