Dog Ears Begone! - The History of the Humble Bookmark

Dog earring books is a divisive topic. Some people are puritans, suggesting that a book can only ever be marked with a physical marker, rather than creasing the pages. Others feel that this approach is too restrictive, and don't mind the wear and tear that occurs in the alternative process. This debate has been raging for longer than may be first imagined, so today I wanted to provide a short history of the centre of the furore: the humble bookmark.

Ancient bookmarks

The earliest bookmarks are thought to have been used as far back the 1st century AD, but most of the oldest surviving bookmarks date back to between the 13th and 15th centuries. These bookmarks were found primarily in religious incunabula - early printed books, specifically those created before the 16th century - and were made of vellum or leather, usually the offcuts from the production of the book itself. The common shapes were present at this time, but some more inventive bookmarks were also discovered, such as a rotating disk form of marker, with numerals to remind the reader which column they had left their reading session on previously. Many of these bookmarks were also attached to a string (as in the example below) to allow them to be moved up and down in accordance with the precise line location that required marking. Around 35 of these bookmarks are currently held in library collections, primarily in Europe. 

16 century and onwards

One of the most important historic moments in the history of the bookmark came in 1584 when Christopher Barker (the Queen's printer since 1577, and thus the only man in England legally allowed to print The Bible at the time) presented Queen Elizabeth with a silk bookmark, likely for use in her personal copy of the religious text. Silk became a common material in bookmark production after this, with nearly all such ribbons being bound into the book itself, thus making them inseparable from the tome they were marking. This style of bookmark remained dominant in reading circles until detachable bookmarks became more fashionable in the mid 19th century; one of the first references to this new style of bookmark can be found in Mary Russell Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life (1852). 

A weaver from Coventry named Thomas Stevens revolutionised the collectible bookmark landscape in 1862, when he produced what would come to be called the first 'Stevengraph'. Stevens used a modified loom to weave intricately detailed, beautifully coloured images into strips of silk, which were then used for many items, namely greetings cards and bookmarks. By end of the 19th century, Stevens had produced over 900 different designs, and these are still considered highly collectible today due to their rarity, as all but one book of designs was destroyed in the 1940 bombing of Coventry. The only book of Stevens' designs that survived - saved the night before the attack by a relative of Stevens- was summarily donated to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, where it can still be viewed today.

Leather bookmarks were en vogue at this time as well, with the added ornamentation and beauty of their fringed ends being a big draw for people. There is no single consensus on why leather bookmarks have fringes, but the leading theories are that the fringes prevent the bookmark being lost between the pages, that it prevents the end of the bookmark from getting dirty, and that it was a cheap and effective way to add ornamentation to a smaller item when the embossing process was less precise. Whatever the reason is, we think that fringing looks stunning on a leather bookmark, and adore the added tactility of it. 

As books became more widely accessible towards the end of the 19th century, the material that bookmarks were made from shifted accordingly. Card and stiffened paper bookmarks became the fashion, as these were easier to mass produce than intricate Stevengraphs, and the image we have come to associate with the word 'bookmark' in the modern world was born. 

Our leather bookmarks 

While we understand the accessibility and ease of a paper bookmark, we at Scriptum are big proponents of the idea that the everyday items that are part of your life should be both functional and beautiful, and so we have created our Scriptum Italian Gilded Leather Bookmarks. The bookmarks are available in three rich jewel tones, and feature our 20th anniversary logo embossed into the smooth leather, gilded with gold leaf foil. They have been carefully designed to fit all sizes of book, and make a thoughtful gift for the reader in your life, reminding them of you as they sneak a chapter here and there throughout the day. For those who prefer simply to dog ear their pages, we have a plethora of fascinating books on offer, both in our Turl Street shop and online, for you to dive into and fold the corners of at will! 

Stay safe and well, Scriptum blog readers x 

Green Leather Bookmark with Gold Engraving on a Book