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History of Bookmarks

The history of bookmarks is intimately connected with the development of the book itself. New results in research on the history of bookmarks revealed indications that bookmarks have accompanied codices - the codex is the new form of books which followed the scroll form and which is still in use in our modern books - since their first emergence in the 1st century AD. According to these new results, the oldest existing bookmark dates from the 6th century AD and it is made of ornamented leather lined with vellum on the back and was attached with a leather strap to the cover of a Coptic codex. It was found near Sakkara, Egypt, under the ruins of the monastery of Apa Jeremiah (see picture on the left). 

Further earliest bookmarks and some remnants of bookmarks were found in Coptic codices from the 1st to 11th century and in Carolingian codices dating from the 8th to the 12th century.    

In late medieaval ages between the 13th and the 15th century some interesting bookmarks had been used in manuscripts and incunabula in European monasteries. They were mostly made of vellum or leather using the rest of the material which was used to make the book cover, but also paper bookmarks were among them. Some of the bookmarks from medieval monastries had already a variety of shapes like a plain strand or a clip-on triangle. Some of them were shaped as a sophisticated rotating disc made of vellum or leather and could indicate the page or the column on the page. Such a rotating disc bookmark can be seen on the picture on the right.

     Rotating disc bookmark made of vellum indi-
     cating the column on the page | around 1500
     courtesy of Antiquarian Bookstore Steinbeisser


An illuminated manuscript - Historia Scholastica - from the late 13th century written
by Peter Comester and which belongs to the inventory of the British Library bears an in-
teresting and rare bookmark. One vellum page of the manuscript is cut on its edge verti-
cally to form a longish tab which is tucked through a cut slit  on the higher part of the
edge forming a practical bookmark.  

The Royal Museum of Brunei
showcases an ivory bookmark made in India which
is embellished with a geometrical pattern of pierced holes dating from the 16th century
which had been used in illuminated Korans.  

In 1584 Queen Elizabeth
was presented with a fringed silk bookmarker by Christo-
pher Barker who had acquired a patent as
Queen's Printer in 1577 which gave him the
sole right to print the Bible. He was also a draper: hence the silk for the bookmarker.
The British and Foreign Bible Society owns a bookmarker with plaited silk cords, silver
knots and silk tassels which appears to have been made for use in a bible of 1632.

A common type of bookmark in the eighteenth and up to the nineteenth century
consisted of a narrow silk ribbon, seldom more than a centimetre in width, bound into
the book at the top of the spine and just long enough to project below the lower edge
of the page. These type of bookmarks are still in use especially in hardcover and refer-
ence books.
       A.W. Coysh's Collecting Bookmarkers is the
     very first book entirely dedicated to bookmarks.
     published by David & Charles | London | 1974


The first detached and therefore collectable bookmarks began to appear in the 1850s.
One of the first references to these bookmarks is found in Mary Russell Mitford's Recollec-
tions of a Literary Life (1852): 
"I had no marker and the richly bound volume closed as if instinc-
Note the abbreviation of 'bookmarker' to 'marker'. The modern word is usually 'book-

Left image:
Early advertising bookmark from Victorian era in UK | thick paper 105 x 70 mm
This type of bookmark was rather common among the first ad- vertising bookmarks. They usually carried advertise-
ments, sometimes for a single product, sometimes for a range of products, especially soap, ladies corsets and gar-
ments, popular foods and quack medicines.  Most of these adver- tisements were brash and insensitive.

In Victorian ages ladies taught their daughters embroidery and most young
girls were expected to produce a sampler on canvas to show their skill with the
needle. By this means many bookmarks were produced which
were intended
for use in bibles and prayer books and resulted in a favoured gift of these days
for friends and family members. These
home-made bookmarks were often pro-
duced from pieces of ribbon embroidered by hand or - more usually - to which
an embroidered perforated card or small water-colour drawing was stitched.

Right image:
I am the Bread of Life | Victorian home-made bookmark
embroidery on perforated card 21 cm | stitched on dark blue silk ribbon


By the 1860's attractive machine-woven markers were being manufactured, mainly in
Coventry, the centre of the silk-ribbon industry in UK. One of the earliest was produced
by J.&J. Cash to mark the death of the Prince Consort in 1861.Thomas Stevens of Coven-
try soon became pre-eminent in the field and claimed to have nine hundred different de-
signs. Bookmarks produced by Thomas Stevens are called Stevengraphs. They first ap-
peared around 1862. 

Woven silk bookmarks were very appreciated gifts in Victorian days and Stevens
seemed to make one for every occasion and celebration. In any case, the receiver of the
bookmark shown on the right must have felt very flattered when reading the text on the
                                        All of the gifts which haven 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.

Right image:
oven silk bookmark produced by Thomas Stevens | Coventry | 173 mm (without tassel) x 40 mm




By the 1880's the production of woven silk bookmarks was declining and printed markers made
of stiff paper or card began to appear in significant numbers. 
This development paralleled the wider
availability of books themselves, and the range of available bookmarkers soon expanded dramatically.
Insurance companies, publishers and other businesses began to make great use of free advertising
bookmarks to interest the public in the services they provided. Beautifully designed commerative
bookmarks in excellent polychromatic print were published as merchandise gifts.
Bookmarks in all shapes and sizes and in different materials like gold, brass, bronze, copper,
celluloid, pewter, mother of pearl, leather and ivory were produced after 1850s by specialized compa-
nies like Gorham, S. Kirk & Sons and Tiffany. Many are shaped like knives or swords because at the
turn of the century, many pages in books were not completely separated, so they were also used as
paper cutters.
A large collection of antique bookmarks are presented on 
Howard Schecter's online exhibition 

Left image:
19th century bookmark | produced by Merrick Thread Co. | thin card 152 x 51 mm

credit is made to:
Asim Maner:
Earliest History of Bookmarks, IFOB publication No.1, February 2016
The British Library -
R. Forrer: Mittelalterliche und neuere Lesezeichen, Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde, 2. May 1898
Adolf Schmidt: Mittelalterliche Lesezeichen - Ein Nachtrag, Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde, 1936
Frank Hamel: The History and Development of the Bookmarker, The Book-Lover's Magazine, Vol. VI. Part IV, 1906
A.W. Coysh: Collecting Bookmarkers, David & Charles Ltd., 1974
Alan Irwin, Bookmark Collector Blog,
E. Guenther Rehse: Lesezeichen, Verlag Beruf + Schule, 1994
Karl Heinz Steinbeisser: Lesezeichen Sammeln, Antiquariat Steinbeisser, 2006
Beryl Kenyon de Pascual: The Bookmark: a bibliophile's accessory, The Ephemerist - No. 124, Spring 2004
Howard Schecter: The World's Largest Online Collection of Antique Bookmarks -

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