The use of bookmarks goes back many centuries. They would have originally only been used by men, perhaps monks who had a certain education and could read. Books were available to them. A few women amongst the aristocracy might also have had the pleasure of reading. It is said that Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a bookmark by Christopher Barker who, at this time the later 16th century, had the sole right to print the Bible and the Common Book of Prayer. The material used would have ranged from a fine quality strip of leather or a narrow piece of silk.
The years went by, the industrial revolution came into being and with it the eventual strong rise of the middle class. The middle class now had more money, collected more possessions to show off that money and more importantly their children had entrance to schooling. Books were precious objects prominently displayed. From the 19th century on bookmarks took a slightly different turn. The purpose was the same but now a variety of materials
were used. They ranged from the above leather and silk attached to the spine of the book to gold, silver, ivory, mother of pearl, enamel, tortoise shell, nickel, brass, wood as well as certain semi precious stones. During the 20th century bookmark styles also began changing as people began to realise the value of advertising on these items. So much so that it was not only the names of book publishers that were displayed . Libraries, art galleries, insurance companies, opticians, estate agents, musicians were eager to use this new and possible worthwhile opportunity to bring their names and services to the public’s attention.
A further development was that bookmarks became collectable. They had become available in themes: The profiles of royalty, famous people of the then past and present, various artists, musicians, comic characters.etc. Fortunately some of these have survived and now reside either in museums or in the collections of private individuals. South African bookmarks reflect birds, animals, the national flag, business advertisements etc.
There may be some people today who consider the bookmark as an anachronism. Not of the present but of the past, if so they should be reminded that the usage of the word bookmark has been acknowledged by technology. The word is used regularly in the world of computers as a pointer to retrieve quickly various internet web sites.
This article was first published in Facts Found historical research service and published by kind permission of Dr Dawn Gould