Bookmarks came into being to protect expensive books as long ago as the 16th century, but they were not widespread and popular until the 19th century.
The first detached bookmarks - as opposed to silk ones which were attached to the book spine in the 17th and 18th centuries - appeared in the Victorian era and were used for Bibles and prayer books. These were home-made from scraps of ribbon or cloth which were embroidered with religious themes in the style of samplers. Soon shopkeepers were providing small pieces of perforated card, called Bristol board, which could be colourfully embroidered and cut into crosses or other shapes.
The next development came in the 1860s when decorative silk bookmarks were produced on an adapted Jacquard loom. Thomas Stevens of Coventry, who had designed over 400 different patterns by the 1870s, was the leader in this field. By about 1880, all sorts of other bookmarks were available. Wooden souvenir markers in
Tunbridge or Mauchline ware were popular and so too were rigid ones in other materials - at first in expensive silver and gold but later copied in brass, copper, celluloid, ivory and tortoiseshell. These markers doubled as page-cutters and letter-openers.
By far the most common, however, were markers made of thin card onto which colourful designs could be printed. Many of these were of a religious nature but greeting and
birthday markers were also produced in considerable quantities. By the turn of the century, commercial companies had realized the potential of bookmarks.
ADVERTISERS CASH IN
The first companies to take advantage of advertising on markers were soap and food manufacturers who included bookmarks in their packs. They were soon followed by insurance companies who, in Edwardian times, produced some of the most attractive advertising markers. Scottish Widows, for instance, issued a series with branch addresses on one side and famous paintings on the other. Walter Crane, the illustrator of children's books, was also commissioned to produce designs for their bookmarks.
After World War 1, government departments, circulating libraries, cinemas and book publishers all adopted this form of advertising but few of these are as interesting or as imaginatively designed as Victorian and Edwardian bookmarks, although propaganda markers from World War 2 and those issued by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the 1950s are often original and eye-catching and are popular with collectors.
Although they perform a very simple function, bookmarks come in a great variety of materials, shapes designs and colours, as this handsome display shows.
For the collector, bookmarks offer considerable potential, since they range from the cheap to
the relatively expensive. Card markers offer the widest scope and most that you will come
across will be well priced, although attractive Victorian examples and sought-after advertising ones in good condition will he at the top end of the range.
Dealers in ephemera at antiques fairs and markets will usually carry a range of bookmarks hut you may have to search for them amid collections of greetings and Valentine cards or old postcards and prints. Embroidered
Bristol board and woven silk markers are slightly more expensive and should only he bought if they are in good condition. Faded colours, brown foxing stains and cracks or tears all cause serious devaluation.
The more durable markers made of metal, wood, ivory, tortoiseshell and various kinds of plastics are more often found with dealers in small antiques of a general nature, and again they may he jumbled up with old thimbles and scissors, watch chains and assorted pieces of relatively cheap Victorian jewellery. The most common shapes among metal markers are variations on the trowel and dagger. Most of the blades are plain and carved from one piece of material, with a slip for the page, but the handles are often wonderfully decorative and
feature animals such as dogs or elephants, or are inset with stones; many fine silver ones have mother-of-pearl handles.
Gold markers are rare and you're unlikely to come across any at bargain prices. Hallmarked silver ones are more easily found and reasonably priced. Those with decorative handles or inset with stones are less common and therefore dearer. However, those in copper, brass, and moulded plastic can be fairly cheap unless they have silver handles (as do many tortoiseshell and ivory markers) or have novelty or art deco features.
Even so, bookmarkers in precious metals are small items, even if embellished with stones or with pretty handles, and very few will go beyond
$50, while most are considerably cheaper. Do check, though, when buying these more expensive pieces, that the silver is not bent or distorted along the blade and that the semiprecious stones are original and not later replacements and are undamaged.
Like all paper ephemera, you should keep old card bookmarks in an album where they will be protected from light and extremes of temperature. If you collect the more durable kind, they can be put in a display case but it is a shame not to use them - they can become conversation pieces and will certainly keep the book you are reading in good shape.