The History of Bookmarks

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Bookmarks come in many materials and types—leather, personalized, magnetic, and handmade are some ideas. But while shopping for bookmarks, have you ever stopped to think about the history of bookmarks?

Me neither.

Interestingly, bookmarks are older than the printing press. The first bookmarks were created from leather and found in Egypt. During medieval times, they were used by monks, and in the 19th century, bookmarks became commonplace.

Early Bookmark History

The oldest known bookmark is from the sixth century. It was attached to the cover of a Coptic text, and was unearthed at a deserted monastery close to Sakkara, Egypt. This ornamented leather bookmark was connected to the Coptic text by a leather strap.

Medieval bookmarks were designed with practicality in mind. One type of bookmark, called a register bookmark, was made of string, leather, or vellum cords. These were bound together so the monk could mark several pages.

a register bookmark

Image by Alexandra Gillespie

If monks wanted to mark a specific line of a page, they used a register bookmark modified with a rotating dial. The dial was turned to mark a specific spot on the page.

rotating dial register bookmark

This bookmark was the medieval version of using stickies to mark a sentence or paragraph.

A few additional bookmarks from this time:

  • An ivory bookmark dated from the 16th century. The pattern of holes suggests it was useful for reading the Koran.
  • Christopher Barker presented Queen Elizabeth with a fringed silk bookmark in 1584 as a thank you for giving him exclusive rights to print the Bible.
  • Gérard David, Jan van Eyck, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo were a few Renaissance painters who included images of books and bookmarkers in their art works.

Victorian Bookmarks

Narrow silk ribbons were a new style of bookmark that became popular in the 18th century. They are still in use today, especially in hardback books. Even in the 18th century, the ribbons were bound to the book’s spine.

By the 1880s, bookmarks had become popular as an advertisement tool. They were made of rigid paper or celluloid and used by manufacturers, travel firms, insurance companies, companies large and small, and—of course—bookstores. Businesses often printed them by the thousands and gave them away to draw attention to their products.

Modern Bookmarks

This tour of the history of bookmarks takes us to the amazing variety of modern and creative bookmarks. They can be personalized and made from leather, metal, or paper. The internet is full of ideas for DIY and handmade bookmarks. If you want a special gift, have a bookmark personalized with a person’s name or favorite quote. You can find so many ideas on the internet that a long list would be redundant.

Here are several bookmarks that I didn’t know existed:

  • The Lastword Bookmarks—Elastic Bookmark has a feature similar to a register bookmark in that it allows you to mark a specific spot on a page using a small sliding pointer.
  • The Mark-My-Time Digital Bookmark is a 3-in-1–bookmark, LED booklight, and reading timer. All that’s needed is a book!
  • And for your inner-child, consider Wally the Bookworm. This cutie-pie will add levity to your serious books. And your kid will love it too!

One thing is certain: as I pointed out in a post about booklights, books are here to stay.

AIChat Tackles Bookmarks

In my continued attempts to find out if the AIChat lives up to the hype, I fed it some questions about the history of bookmarks.

What is the history of bookmark for books?

Bookmarks for physical books, also known as reading markers or page markers, have been used for centuries. They are a simple way for readers to save their place in a book and easily return to it later. They can take various forms such as ribbons, strips of paper, or cards. In the past, readers would use whatever they had at hand like a piece of string or a feather to mark the page. In the 19th century, bookmarks became a popular collectible item with the mass production of decorative paper and silk bookmarks featuring artworks or literary quotes. Nowadays bookmarks can be made from different materials, like leather, metal or plastic, and they can be personalized with a name or design.

My thoughts:

This is decent sounding drivel, something a student could have turned in with minimal research. There are also some punctuation mistakes:

  • like a piece of string or a feather is a non-restrictive phrase, and should have commas around it.
  • A comma is needed after the conjunctive adverb nowadays.
  • And what about the Oxford Comma after metal?

What was the first bookmark for books?

It is difficult to determine the exact origins of the first bookmarks for physical books, as the use of reading markers predates recorded history. The earliest bookmarks were likely simple objects such as a piece of string or a feather, used to mark a page in a book. Some historians believe that the ancient Egyptians used pieces of papyrus to mark their place in scrolls. Similarly, the ancient Chinese and Japanese used paper slips or ribbons to mark pages in their books. The first known evidence of a dedicated bookmark specifically made for a book is a leather-covered book marker dating back to the 8th century found in Saint Cuthbert’s coffin. It is a strip of leather with a hole in the top that was probably used to mark a page in a religious text. It is also believed that in the medieval times, people started to use narrow strips of parchment or ribbon to mark their place in manuscripts. It is important to note that the concept of bookmarks has been around for centuries, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact first one.

My thoughts:

All my sources say the first bookmark was in the 6th century. Curious what was in Saint Culhbert’s coffin, I consulted Wikipedia:

“The coffin also contained the Stonyhurst or Saint Cuthbert Gospel (now in the British Library) and the best surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery, or opus Anglicanum, a stole and maniple which were probably added in the 930s and given by King Athelstan. Other probable possessions of Cuthbert found inside are an ivory comb, a portable altar, and a pectoral cross with gold and garnet cloisonné, a rare and important early example of Christian Anglo-Saxon jewelry.”

Also, my research provides more specific and concrete examples of medieval bookmarks. How? Because I did actual research.

How sure are you of your facts?

As a language model, I am not able to verify the factual accuracy of the information I provide, my knowledge cutoff is in 2021 and my understanding is based on the information that was available to me at that time, it may not be up to date or complete. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to cross-reference any information I provide with other reputable sources.

My thoughts: If I need to cross-reference, why not just go to the original sources? Also, could a language model please learn proper punctuation?

As a language model, I am not able to verify the factual accuracy of the information I provide. My knowledge cutoff is in 2021, and my understanding is based on the information that was available to me at that time. It may not be up to date or complete.

As a lover of language, I am not impressed of these language models.

As always, comments are welcome and shares appreciated.

2 thoughts on “The History of Bookmarks”

  1. Interesting Steve – both on the bookmark history and AI’s attempts. Now I want to check out elastic bookmarks. I can see them being very useful when prepping for classes

    Reply

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