Bookmarks Out of Time
Lauren RobertsWhat was amazing about the box that came from an eBay seller last week was the variety of things in it that people had used as bookmarks over the years. This seller is a reader, collector and seller of books. In his description for this particular item, he said, “This listing is for almost four pounds of paper items I have found tucked inside of books. Some were bookmarks and some, well, I have no idea why they were there. Every time I found something, I would throw it into a desk drawer.”
That drawer finally got so full that he decided to offer them up in one large batch. I was pleased to win it and, as it turned out, even more pleased to receive it. Though it was stuffed with paper items, only three turned out to be real bookmarks. The rest consisted of greeting cards, photographs, prayer cards, pamphlets, school papers, postcards, letters (one was still in its unopened envelope), receipts, bills, advertising, magazine pages, envelopes, paper doll cut-outs, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and programs.
The biggest surprise for me was the number of folded but full sections of various newspapers—six of them. I have to wonder: were these used in oversized art books? If not, the paper would overwhelm the book, sticking out the top and fore edge of it. Perhaps they were only meant as quickie bookmarks, the sort of thing that might get stuffed in the pages of a book during a quick bathroom break. But if this was so, then why have the papers stayed in the books in their folded state over the years? Did the reader have dinner, then listen to the radio forgetting his book? Was the book boring enough to be closed and the rest of it left unread? Did a man put it down never to pick it up again, and his wife, while cleaning, put it away where it resided, unloved and unfinished until it left their home? I’ll never know, but the questions intrigue me.
Tucked under the newspapers were two sheets of old paper with typewritten (ye gods, I had forgotten what those looked like) test questions on “Investment Banking and Brokerage Practice” showing that Stanley Berg did very well on one True/False part (90%) but only so-so (50%) on another. The third paper had a long list of review questions (“How does the ticker system operate? What is its economic value?”) The instructor was the Educational Director of the New York Stock Exchange, a man named Birl E. Shultz, Ph.D., who taught this introductory course. I know that because his outline covering 13 sessions is neatly typed on five legal-sized pieces of paper and stapled together. The paper is rough and yellowed with age, and it is clear that the typewriting is from an early electronic model or possibly a manual one. It’s an odd feeling to look at it these awkwardly-produced (by today’s standards) papers.
An oversized publication titled Voice of the Air (volume 1, no.7) from 1929 and costing five cents appears to be a kind of local newspaper/magazine for the people of Beaver Falls, PA. The front cover has a photograph of two stern wheel packet boats racing in an annual race for “river supremacy.” (The Tom Greene won.) Inside are pictures of various goings on around the country among them an attempted hypnotizing of a lion, the opening of a new airline from Hollywood to Reno with aviator BeBe Daniels doing the honors, Charles Chaplin’s children who “require nearly $500 a month each” in child support, starlet Sally Blane modeling the new “sun-tan suit of navy French wool to acquire the popular shade of the season” as well as an extensive list of available radio shows and their broadcast times.
“Chemical Detection of War Gases for Civilian Defense” is an article ripped from the trade journal, Chemical and Engineering News. It is dated July 25, 1942 and shows the tenseness of America in the early days of World War II when the fear of enemy attack was high, and “suitable methods and equipment” were being sought.
A heavily Scotch-taped promise to pay dated July 28, 1921 from someone whose signature I cannot read indicates a $300 loan (a rather heavy loan amount at that time) due one year from the date of the paper. Its left side is fancy with a lovely engraved image of two horses and an eagle. Such decorated paper even for mundane transactions is common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
What appears to be a short story or at least the beginning of one is handwritten with pencil on a now fragile piece of unlined 5 x 7” notepaper. It is titled “Julia” and reads: Julia is a small girl. She lives near the seashore. Britain is Julia’s Father Land. The girl loves the British seashore. The girl also loves the British sailors. Julia is a farmer’s daughter and lives in a small cottage. But Julia loves the seashore and the sailors. The sailors also love Julia. Julia often walked near the seashore. Julia walks with the sailor’s (sic) daughters and they dance near the seashore. Many roses are near Julia’s cottage. Julia gives water to the roses. Often Julia gives roses to the sailors. It’s obvious that the letter writer is a young girl. I wonder if she grew up to be a published one.
Another publication, this one titled “General Electric Merchandise,” is a newsletter geared to GE’s distributors. What’s especially interesting to me, is that in mid-1965 (about the same time as the NYSE course papers) technology as we know it appears to be nearly non-existent. It wasn’t, of course, but when was the last time you saw a printed, Xeroxed letterhead with typewritten copy carefully inserted? It pains me to think of the frustration of the typist trying to line up the left margins. (Also, note that they are asking for their suppliers’ zip codes, warning that “it won’t be long until they [the post office] insist that the ZIP CODE be shown with all addresses.)
From what appears to be the inside front page of the Pittsburgh Gazette of April 6, 1906, is a nice-sized article about a unique family reunion. Two images top the piece which begins, “On a farm in Bethal township, purchased from the Indians by the grandfather of its present owner and occupant, was celebrated yesterday the gold wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Croco . . . Six generations have lived uninterruptedly on this same farm . . .” One family staying in one home for that long is a situation impossible to imagine today, and it makes me feel nostalgic for something I’ve never known.
What I at first took to be a book of matches—it has the same appearance—is actually contains thread and needles (one needle at this point) from the Hoisery Shops in Pennsylvania. “Join the Fashion Merchandise Club,” it proclaims, “and Receive Free $1.00 credit on any merchandise upon redemption of club card.”
What I find so compelling—and the reason I think I am going to keep all of these items in a separate special collector’s binder that I normally use for bookmarks is that almost every one of these items was kept by someone for some specific reason. Some are no doubt throwaways that were close at hand. But most seem to have a link to the original keeper like the letter postmarked January 11, 1931, from Paul (no last name) to Miss Mariam Sullivan at St, Mary’s College.
This letter shows signs of the exquisite handwriting still taught to schoolchildren at that time. “Dear Mariam,” it begins, “Just a line to put you under obligation to write me a letter. I’ve just finished six games of squashed racquets and clicked off fifteen lengths of the pool and a note to the great Kelly. I am now fourth in the “swim to Brownsville” with a grand total of fifty-three lengths.” He goes on to relate news of a party he attended “with the well-known and highly pulchritudinous Ruth Hartman,” the death of a priest, the swearing in of a new judge, and his current book, The Life of John Marshall.
But other, less personal pieces also possess meaning. A short newspaper article with the handwritten notation “1934” has a headline reading: Freak Weather in 1816 Broke Every Record.
New Haven, Conn., Aug. 28 — (UP) — Meteorologists, thumbing the records to find a summer as disastrous as 1934 to mid-western states, got as far as 1816 and hastily reached for a stimulant.
The articles goes on to detail each month where January and February were mild, March proved cold, April started warm but grew colder, and May, June, July and even August saw ice and snow. September brought two weeks of relief, but the rest of the year returned to freezing temperatures. Who knew that? I didn’t—until now. Amazing.
It was “the year without a summer.”
A page from an unknown magazine but obviously of the World War II vintage offers on one side tips and techniques for removing stains. The other side is a continuation of a longer article titled “Making the Meat Go Further” with five suggested dinner menus and main course recipes including “Top-Stove Bologna and Potatoes” and Frankfurter-Soy Pinwheels.” At the bottom of the page is a short sidebar: You Can Use Your Fats—and Salvage Them, Too, It notes that the government needs salvaged fats to use in gunpowder, medicines, lubricants and other war materials. Use your fats, it encourages readers, over and over until they are too dark or strong-flavored, then turn them in. Saving a tablespoon a day makes about a pound a month and that pound is worth four cents plus a bonus of two meat-ration points.
It’s undated, but a Western Union telegram addressed to Mrs. Caroline Coursin congratulates her on her daughter’s graduation from Warren High School. It looks touching until you realize that it has been sent from Gartners Jewelry Store trying to sell wristwatches as a graduation present. (It’s more than possible that this “telegram” is actually a replica, a mailed ad designed solely to ignite action in an era when telegrams still signaled important news.)
One of the funniest piece in this group of ephemera is a magazine profile piece, probably from a newspaper’s Sunday magazine, about the television program, Batman. In “Has TV [GASP!] Gone Batty?”, John Skow explored the realm of one of the silliest shows ever filmed. I remember watching it even as I ridiculed it in my mind, probably because the actor who played Batman, Adam West, was noticeably attractive to my adolescent self. (A photograph in the article of a shirtless, “bat-less” West confirms I had good instincts. Or not. A comment by West about a promised dressing room—“It'll be great: stereo, bar, dozens of broads, color TV . . .”—makes my nose wrinkle in distaste now.) For all that, it’s actually an interesting article about American pop culture in the mid-60s.
It can be no surprise that book readers tend to be strong readers of magazines and newspapers as well. Most of the ephemera is print rather than images such as a short piece that American Weekly ran in 1940 titled “Was This The Biggest man Who Ever Lived?” Mills Darden of Henderson County, Tennessee, was seven feet, six inches tall and weighed 1,040 pounds! It took eight men to boost him into his specially-built, two-horse wagon. Naturally, the doors to his home and the ceiling height were larger and taller than usual. He had been born in 1799 in North Carolina, but moved to Henderson County in 1822 where he became known as the king of hog-callers. For breakfast, he routinely ate what would kill most of us: 40 biscuits, a pound of butter, two and a half pounds of bacon, 18 eggs and three quarts of coffee. Oh, and he drank two gallons of water before he left the table.
As a bookmark, what could be better than the tiny booklet put out by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that lists the “Notable Books of 1927” Under fiction, one finds The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder), Death Comes for the Archbishop (Cather), A Good Woman (Bromfield), The Magic Mountain (Mann), Red Sky at Morning (Kennedy) and To the Lighthouse (Woolf) among others. Nonfiction includes America Comes of Age (Siegfried), Escape (Galsworthy), Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (Jean-Aubrey), The King’s Henchman (Millay), Letters (Bell), Revolt in the Desert (Lawrence) and Tristram (Robinson).
As fond as I am of libraries, it is no surprise that one of my favorite pieces is a borrower’s card, the kind librarians used to write your name on when you took out a book. (This is before my time.) The book is To The Last Man by Zane Grey. Its first due date is October 5—John Gardner is the first patron to borrow it—but it shows no year. The same with the second date of October 18. But in 1937, it was taken out five times between November and the end of the year. In 1938, it was borrowed nine times, the last time by William Keaney who should have returned it by May 2.
Much later, 1966, in fact, is the expiration date on a New York Public Library card for Lydia P___________. The backside, although distorted by water, shows an overdue fine of $2.45 owed to the library. Did she pay it? I like to assume she did, but we’ll never know.
Postcards are or at least were popular bookmarks. There are quite a few here, but some of the more unusual ones include these humorous ones. One is designed to look like a telegraph with the “handwritten” saying “Wait—coming—Remember! If you cant be good be careful—“ (Telegrams were sent without punctuation since each letter cost, and a punctuation mark counted as a letter.) Another shows a man hanging onto the edge of a cliff above the ocean with another may lying on the grass above him. “Drop in” it says in cheerful letters. Both are unused.
The weirdest and funniest of all is a kind of hillbilly one that would probably be politically incorrect today. It shows a man leaning back in an old wooden chair, his bare feet propped on the railing of the broken-down porch of a broken-down shack, smoking a corncob pipe, a book in his hand. A bottle of homemade liquor is in one corner with “XXX” on it and a dog sleeps peacefully under the porch. Two women are staring at him. Both are also smoking corncob pipes and barefoot. One is grossly overweight, her hands folded under her apron; the other is rail thin with a baby under one arm and a bag of flour under the other. She is saying, “Naw, he kaint read, he’s jest puttin’ on airs.” Under the picture is the notation: Write me soon – I can read.” This one is also unused.
The prettiest postcard is of Seneca Rock in West Virginia. It is a gloriously colored drawing with that texture older postcards often have (see close-up, above), and it conveys a sense of nostalgia and beauty that somehow seems missing in the shiny splendor of today’s postcards. Unsent, it is as pristine as the day it was purchased.
Dated 1973 is a blank Declaration of Estimated Personal Income Tax card with that famous early technology phrase at the bottom: Do not fold, staple or mutilate. It is for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Compared to today, it certainly looks easy, with just a few boxes to fill in, though I doubt the required users of it then thought so.
Photographs are often used as bookmarks, and this batch contains about a dozen. Of them, my favorite is shown above. The men look elegant and amused, almost “Gatsby-esque,” as if they are on holiday at a resort beach town. Their dress makes me guess this is from the 1920s, Gatsby's era, though I am not certain. Looks like they were having fun wherever they were.
Greeting cards are another popular option as impromptu bookmarks. This one, dated 1912, is simply gorgeous with a weight, embossing and coloration unknown to most of today’s cards. Even the sides of the card are have gold gilt. The color is still as fresh and bright as ever, and the wishes for a good new year lovely and warm.
Another New Year’s greeting card is in the shape of a fan. What makes this unique is the use of fabric for the bouquet which has been pasted (in an indiscernible way) upon the heavy cardstock. It is further enhanced by extraordinary embossing and die-cut designs. Not something you’d see today which makes it all the more special.
Anyone who works in a large company is familiar with the manila envelopes that go around with the recipient’s name and department written on it and the old ones crossed out. But back when people didn’t change jobs as often as we do, routing slips were used to make sure that all those who needed to see something saw it. This one shows how it was done in a company that didn’t experience much turnover. Like many things, this brings a sense of nostalgia back even though it was before (probably long before) my time. I don’t miss many of the old things—carbon paper, typewriters, paper clips in place of Post Its, routing slips in place of e-mail CCs—but they are nice to remember.
And in a small newspaper clipping—old enough to be yellowed—is this small article titled “War Birds” Aids Widow. It states that Major Elliott White Springs, author of War Birds, visited Memphis and left $12,000 for the widow and children of John MacDougal Grider, whose wartime diary was the basis of his book. It’s a small, but touching note, an honorable act of sharing proceeds, and it makes me wonder if it was Mrs. Grider who tore this out and put it in a book (maybe this book?) as a keepsake.
The ephemera represented in this box is a good example, I think, of why people collect it. It often represents an ideal of a time uncontaminated and undiluted by any reality. With this kind of lot, though—composed of a mishmash of pieces not deliberately chosen—the ephemera is not so much collectible as it is real. There’s no question that some of it was kept as personal mementos. But others were probably things close at hand—pieces of paper ripped from a newspaper, a business card, a list—that were no longer needed or wanted for their original purpose. They went on to their second life, that of marking a place in a book. And then they were forgotten until an eBay seller decided to see if anyone wanted to give them a new home.
Bookmark specifications: None noted here
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, 900 bookmarks and approximately 1,000 books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) and Book Publicists of Southern California as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. You can reach her at