A History of Collecting Bookmarks

Photo by Hannah Hudson

A sample of bookmarks collected by Stuart Hudson who focuses on bookstore bookmarks from across the globe.

In the archives of poet Gwendolyn E. Brooks, now housed at the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is a single tissue stashed in a notebook in which she worked through ideas for her poem “The Life of Lincoln West.” Like many writers and readers, she simply took what was at hand to keep her place among the pages. 

Whether grocery receipts, concert tickets, or greeting cards from holidays long passed, every library or collection is likely filled with these mementos that, although often only saved from the trash by providence, preserve a moment in time. Sharon McKellar, a librarian at the Oakland Public Library in California, has been sharing the things left behind in returned books on the library website, with a ticket to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, a crochet needle, and a handful of sweet gum leaves pressed while in their autumn colors amidst the ongoing archive of family photographs, handwritten notes, and airline boarding passes. 

courtesy Becki Thompson

Celluloid and metal advertising bookmarks collected by Becki Thompson.

The bookmark as a designed object has a history long entwined with bookbinding when it was usually a ribbon or bit of thread attached to the spine or endband, or even a paper tab inserted into a slit in the page itself. Some of the early bookmarks did more than mark a page, such as the rotating bookmarks of medieval Europe that involved  small paper discs that could be oriented to remind the reader of an exact column and line. 

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of mass production, the bookmark became popular as its own object. In the 1974 Collecting Bookmarkers, considered to be among the most comprehensive bookmark histories, A. W. Coysh writes that the “first detached and therefore collectable bookmarkers began to appear in the 1850s,” but that it “was not until the 1880s that paper bookmarks became common.” He used his own collection of mostly British bookmarks to trace a chronology of this material change, from embroidered ribbons and wooden paper knives in the Victorian age, for when books still came with uncut pages, to celluloid that imitated tortoise shell and elaborate copper pieces from the Art Nouveau era. 

One of the leading bookmark manufacturers of the 19th century was English weaver Thomas Stevens. Customizing the jacquard loom, he created machine-woven silk bookmarks with vibrant scenes for every occasion, whether Christmas greetings or a commemoration of a major event like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. These “Stevengraphs” remain prized today (there is a dedicated Stevengraph Collectors Association).

The affordability of printing and distributing paper bookmarks would finally make them ubiquitous as an advertising device, not just for book-related industries but for promoting patent medicines, insurance, soap, cigarettes, and countless other products, making them rich areas of collecting. “They were not only souvenirs in gift shops; they were used as a tool for promotion and public messaging,” said Katie Rudolph, an archivist and librarian at the Denver Public Library, which holds the Ina Zager Bookmark Collection with bookmarks ranging from vacation souvenirs to those warning of playing by power lines.

courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / courtesy Wellcome Collection

Left: Silk bookmark mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln manufactured by Thomas Stevens (1865-69). Right: Bookmark issued by M. Beetham & Son in London advertising soap and opticians (1900-05). 

“I call it the ‘significance of insignificant things,’ when objects that we don’t think much about—ephemera—can lead to interesting history or details as well as be appreciated in their own right for their design,” said Laine Farley, a librarian who is the co-editor of International  Friends of Bookmarks (IFOB). “Bookmarks are background players to related things like bookplates and, of course, books. Yet they serve an important purpose and have been used for centuries.”

IFOB is a community of almost 300 bookmark enthusiasts across the globe, from Canada to the Czech Republic. The members’ eclectic interests demonstrate the broad scope of bookmark collecting, from those made of silver to military bookmarks and bookmarks from libraries. 

“I think the range of what can be used as a bookmark draws me to collecting them,” said Jillian Impastato, an IFOB member who works at the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine. “I like that they are utilitarian while also elevating one of my favorite hobbies.”

IFOB launched the first World Bookmark Day in 2017, with the eighth annual edition planned for February 25, 2024. It’s aimed at celebrating what is often an unsung area of ephemera collecting and further connecting bookmark lovers to share their insights or swap pieces.

“I only have a couple hundred because I like to regift them,” said Becki Thompson, a bookmark collector based in Anaheim, California. “As a reader, I give a great number of books, and one thing I love doing is including a vintage bookmark in the books I give. I try to match that bookmark with the recipient; for example, my cousin is a state fair-winning knitter, so I love finding sewing or knitting trade card bookmarks to include in her books.”

Oklahoma City-based bookmark collector Stuart Hudson noted that used books can also be “a low-cost, intra-national, and intergenerational casino for bookmark collectors,” adding that he recently found a vintage de Ladoucette wine label marking E. B. White’s 1949 Here Is New York.

“Bookmarks are a fantastic design medium, particularly for advertising,” Hudson said. “A bookmark’s size is a creativity-inducing limiting factor. There is just enough room to communicate either a message that connects with their desired demographic or engaging visuals to which a potential customer is drawn.”

A bookmark may last longer than the read itself, moving into other books, roving to new libraries, and hiding within the pages until maybe decades later it falls out again into the hand of a new reader, offering a trace of who held this book before.