On bookmarks

Bookmarks in a 1922 Missale Romanum

When I worked in public libraries — even contemplating getting qualifications — I became aware of the surprising range of objects people used to show where they had got with their reading. Paperclips, scraps of newspaper, bus tickets, sewing thread, a ladies glove — all supplemented the usual dog-ear solution of folding down a corner of the page. A colleague even recounted the tale of the fried egg bookmark, though I suspected that may have been apocryphal, a bit of urban legend or friend-of-a-friend ‘foaflore’.

Of course, older books had their own built-in cloth bookmarks, especially when multiple page-marking was required — as in Roman Catholic missals — and even modern diaries come provided with these. But many of us, when we’re eschewing the disfiguring habit of dog ears or substituting old airline tickets use purpose-made commercial bookmarks. These come in a spectacular range but most are familiar to us in a standard format of a longish thin card. I don’t buy these at all, and am rarely given them as presents, but of the few I have most are acquired from a bookshop or library. Four I have to hand are from London’s Primrose Hill Books, Fishguard’s Seaways Bookshop, Foyles (London and Bristol) and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, the latter featuring Peter Blake’s magical painting The Owl and the Pussycat (completed in 1983).

But by far the most common of the bookmarks I use are postcards. Granted, these are a little wider than commercial bookmarks, but as they are mostly shorter they don’t stick out at the top of the book to, over time, get frayed and bent. And they are mostly free, which is an added bonus.

First category is the sent postcard. I mostly keep these as souvenirs: they remind me of shared holidays, romantic faraway places or monuments from the past, bringing with them quirky or sentimental associations. Here’s one from a friend showing The Devil’s Den, a megalithic dolmen from near Marlborough in Wilshire. Another is of an elaborately embroidered panel sent by another friend teaching in Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution, sent in February 1979 after he’d returned to Britain but written a month before; he writes, tongue in cheek, that “horrific tales reach us of the rigours of English winter: hunger, martial law, blizzards etc.” And here’s a third, bought but never sent, of a ski lift in the resort of Alpe d’Huez, bringing back memories of a French winter holiday with yet more friends in the early 90s.

Second category is the promotional postcard. These once used to be ubiquitous, didn’t they, before ease of access to the internet put the kibosh on that. Boomerang Media seemed to produce many of these, featuring aspiring artists and photographers — a black and white study of some seaweed by Andrew Small comes to hand — or promoting the now defunct Great North Eastern Railway with a photo of Bamburgh Castle. Other firms like Land Rover brought out a series including postcards of hot air balloons taking off in the dawn, a vehicle naturally in the background, or of a compass with EENY, MEENY, MINEY and MO instead of the cardinal points.

The last category is of cards I’ve bought. They may be secondhand postcards — often historic-related — from bric-a-brac stalls or, more often, selected postcards from an institution such as Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. Two of these are by the famous street artist Banksy, who curated a special exhibition there for his home town: one is a sleeping Thomas the Tank Engine being tagged by graffiti artists and the other is Degas’ Foyer de danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier (‘Rehearsal of a scene’) — doctored to include a desk behind which sits a world-weary Simon Cowell, X Factor fashion. The third is a self-portrait by the little-known and underrated Bristol artist Rolinda Sharples: a near contemporary of Jane Austen (though, born in 1793, it’s unlikely their paths crossed socially) Rolinda’s perceptive portraits of life in Bath and Bristol deserve to be more widely admired.

Rolinda Sharples (1793--1838) Portrait of the Artist (Bristol Museums & Art Gallery)
Rolinda Sharples (1793–1838) Portrait of the Artist Bristol Museums & Art Gallery

So, there we have it, my choice of bookmarks. Very necessary they are too, as I always have several books on the go, and key references marked in non-fiction to which I intend returning when the occasion demands. Not as unexpected as fried eggs but altogether more delightful.

8 thoughts on “On bookmarks

  1. My mother would often buy them as souvenirs of places we visited. They had miniature black and white postcard pictures on them, say about five or six, vertically (obviously!) and with a little tassel at the bottom. I’ve still got a couple somewhere. Normally I pick up free ones from the library or book fairs. The undertaker I used for my parents gave them out too, which is ok if you want to be reminded of your dead parents every time you open a book.


    1. Odd, those undertaker bookmarks, but understandable. Do you, like me, find you’re choosing appropriate books to put your bookmarks in? Foreign ones for travel books, for example, or quirky ones for light fiction?


  2. I heard of a librarian finding a rasher of bacon as a bookmark. I believed this until your mention of the fried egg which has drawn my rasher towards the apocryphal (breakfast) category.
    As a long-term book volunteer in an Oxfam shop I have come across book marks of all kinds. I generally leave them in the books as I consider them to be a special treat for charity shop book customers. I suppose the most common are train and air tickets, but there are also a lot of birthday/Christmas card fronts – with the message page removed. There are a few photos and postcards, entrance tickets to museums or events here and abroad, not many of those thick leather strips (I don’t like those) and a surprising number of interesting notes that arrived with the book: original bills, publishers requests for reviews or letters indicating that the book was sent with the author or illustrator’s compliments. Too many readers just turn down the corners of the pages and these I attempt to straighten!


    1. No, I dislike those leather bookmarks as well — too thick, and often just pretentious. And I hadn’t of course considered the bookmarks left in items donated to charity. Your list pretty well matches up with my experience of buying from these shops, and I suspect that when I in turn donate books to Oxfam, Red Cross or Paul Sartori I too unwittingly leave a similar selection of page reminders!


  3. Oh I love this—never a more true observation. As a teacher, I was often horrified that my (lazy) students would dog-ear pages of books—their books, my books, the books from the Media Center (the fancy 21st century name for a library, why I know not)—when I would discover such, I would immediately jump on a soap box about being selfish with a book not their own, yada, yada, yada—the worst was when I was new young foolish teacher—the students were to put together a presentation on a particular artist–a portion of the presentation had to consist of a brief biography or history of the artist and his or her works—-I thought I would bring in my very nice art history books as our school’s library was quite limited at the time on resources (this was long before there was such a thing as an internet—books and microfiche had to do) —since several students had to share a book, one young man thought he’d solve the problem by simply ripping the pages he needed right out of my very nice expensive art history book. . .I never brought in another book. . .


    1. I was so shocked at the conclusion of your remembrance, Julie, that my horror of dog ears is now put in perspective. How disrespectful — poor you to have to cope with that.


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