Beauty And Utility: The History Of Bookmarks

Bookmarks have come a long way since ancient times, but medieval and Victorian ones were creative in their own right.

Book Culture Bookstr Trivia

The art of bookmarking has been around for ages—and why wouldn’t it be? We all know the importance of saving our page for later, not to mention bookmarks are more reliable than any attempt to memorize page numbers. But perhaps we take the beauty and variety of bookmarks available to us for granted. It took a long time for bookmarks to develop to where they are today. At the same time, there is still plenty of charm to be found in historical bookmarks. Let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?

Earliest Bookmarks

Bookmarks, or remnants of them, have been found in ancient handwritten books called codices from as far back as the 1st century. Specifically, they were in Coptic and Carolingian codices. Coptic was the latest stage of the Ancient Egyptian language before getting replaced by Arabic, while Carolingian was a script established by Charlemagne as the calligraphic standard of medieval western and central Europe.

Coptic codex from 5th-6th century AD
Image via José Luiz on Wikimedia

The oldest existing bookmark was attached to the cover of a Coptic codex and dates from the 6th century; it was made of leather lined with vellum, a parchment made from animal skin.

Medieval Types of Bookmarks

An interesting variety of bookmarks existed in the medieval era, though often with utility in mind rather than aesthetics. One type called the register bookmark consisted of cords made from vellum, string, or leather. Some were sewn into a book’s spine or endbands, while others were movable by way of a small rod or other anchor to which several cords were attached for marking multiple pages.

Manuscript endband with register bookmark
Image via Alexandra Gillespie

One nifty variation of the register bookmark had a rotating dial that could be turned or moved up or down to mark a specific part of a page. Medieval manuscripts usually had two columns of text per page, so the dial had the numbers one through four on it to represent each column.

Register bookmark with rotating dial
Image via Harvard University

Another type of bookmark, the fore-edge bookmark, marked a specific place in a text by getting attached to a page’s outer margin via stitching or cuts in the page. It could be parchment, leather, beads, or other materials. Sad to say, not even the outer margin itself was off-limits as bookmark material—it would be cut vertically from the top so that a long strip would be hanging loose to thread through horizontal slits underneath.

Fore-edge bookmarks made from outside margin of page
Image via Balliol College Archives & Manuscripts

While we have thankfully moved on from this method, there is one bookmarking habit that some of us have in common with medieval people: sticking whatever happens to be nearby into our books. In medieval times, options included parchment, twigs, leaves, straw, and bits of string.

Leaf bookmark found in medieval book
Image via Erik Kwakkel

18th and 19th Century Developments

In the 18th century, a new type of bookmark became common: narrow silk ribbons. These might sound familiar because they’re still used today, particularly in hardcovers. In the beginning, though, they were normally bound to the spines of Bibles and prayer books.

Woven silk bookmarks, however, became a popular gift in the Victorian era, thanks to the English silk weaver Thomas Stevens. He came up with over 900 different “Stevengraphs” for various occasions. Here’s what one of them said:

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.

Stevengraph with the caption "The Lady Godiva Procession"
Image via Wikimedia

By the 1880s, bookmarks made of stiff paper or celluloid (the first man-made plastic) had caught on as a way to advertise goods and services as well as to publicize non-profits. It was not just booksellers and publishers that took advantage of the medium but manufacturers, travel and entertainment businesses, and insurance companies as well. Everything from soap to pianos to tobacco received promotion through bookmarks. It helped that these bookmarks were often free, distributed to customers by the thousands.

Victorian era advertisement bookmark for Kramers Music House
Image via Wikimedia

Needless to say, bookmarking as a craft really got off the ground in the Victorian era, and it’s no coincidence that the range of bookmarks expanded as books themselves became increasingly available to the public. People came to embrace the idea of using bookmarks to keep one’s place in a book, and the variety of designs and materials for them has only grown ever since.

Basically anything goes now when it comes to bookmarks. You can browse places like Etsy for the best-looking one possible in the spirit of Victorian luxury, or you can do bookmarks medieval-style and grab a leaf off a tree. As long as you’re not damaging your books, you can choose whatever you want or need for bookmarks, and that’s the beauty of them.

Interested in learning about the history of book-making as well? We got you covered right here.