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A bookmark is an object used to find the exact point of a book. It works as a reference sign for information of interest or to resume reading a document starting back from the page previously interrupted.
It can be of various materials, including canvas, silk, leather or metal, wood, plastic, and paper: In the first case, it is generally an inserted webbing in the binding of the book, which takes up the color and inlays of the cover; in the second case, they are objects packaged separately from the book and usable for texts without the accompanying bookmark.1
Some bookmarks are simple; others bear magnificent illustrations, often inherent in classic fairy tales, Celtic symbols, and fantasy traditions, as beautiful as they become collector’s items.
Historical background of the bookmark
The bookmark is inextricably linked to the written word, to the first alphabets organized in codes (you can read more in this article). Since the need arose to find information with simplicity, the use of a prototype of the bookmark was probably born. Still, historical evidence confirms its use only starting from the first century A.D. onwards.
The first artifact, which has come down to us, is a leather bookmark adorned with parchment dating back to the sixth century of A.D., found, in the 1920s, attached to the cover of a Coptic codex in Saqqara, Egypt.2
The Middle Ages
The spread of amanuensis writers and the practice of copying and collecting in codes the knowledge of the past times has widely extended the use of bookmarks in Europe in monasteries and abbeys, but not only there: the Royal Museum of Brunei exhibits in its collection a bookmark of Indian origin, in ivory embellished with geometric patterns, dating back to the sixteenth century.3
The official birth of the bookmark
Despite the documented use in the last two thousand years, official historiography attests to the birth of the bookmark in 1584. A typographer, Christopher Baker, presented Queen Elizabeth I with a bookmarked silk inserted in the binding.
However, historical finds an earlier pictorial depiction such as the Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldi, from 1566, or in the painting The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin by Jan Van Eyck, from 1433-4, you can see a book stopped with a button, a sort of do-it-yourself bookmark.4
The Modern Era
The birth of the press, of the incunabula, by Johannes Gutenberg was an essential invention that sanctioned the survival of the bookmark. The spread of printed books involved the affluent spheres of the population. At the time, books were extremely costly. Therefore, it has made it essential to use these objects to find the mark of the last read page without ruining the book.
In the Victorian era, women used to paint and embroider their bookmarks on ribbons, creating personalized objects that showed the artistic skills of the ladies of the time, at least until the late nineteenth century, when they began to print bookmarks in different shapes and materials.
During the World Wars, especially in the WWII, the bookmark became an advertising and informative tool, approaching the function we know today, elevating it to an effective communication tool.
With the advent of eBook readers and web pages, bookmarks have become virtual. Strings of code allow computers and eReaders to find the last portion of text read or save entire web pages in favorites.
However, the traditional bookmark survives as a collectible object. Thanks to lovers of paper books who, in addition to using them in their readings, jealously preserve them or give them to other readers.
Curiosity about the bookmark
Until the nineteenth century, bookmarks had a sharp blade to divide the pages intonse or the pages that were not wholly divided during the cutting phase, covering a dual function of bookmark and paper cutter. Until the early 1940s, readers had to complete the cutting of the pages of the books that remained attached to the upper corner. Because of this practice, now lost, except for some publishing houses that deliberately print untouched books to give a journey through time to their readers, an untouched book is synonymous with a new book, not yet read.5
What about you? What kind of reader are you? Traditional bookmark or bookmark on eReader? Everything is fine, as long as you are not an ears fan!