Who Was Uncle Johnny?
There is a mysterious bookmark in my collection that floats into my mind every so often. It came with a lot of miscellaneous bookmarks from an estate sale, probably from somewhere in the northeast. This bookmark is made of soft maroon leather with a sueded texture on the front and a smooth back. It has an oval with a photograph of an elderly bearded man in a hat and coat, gazing at the ground. Above it is stamped “Uncle Johnny” in a fancy script. Nothing else on the bookmark identifies its origins. There is something haunting about this photograph. The old man looks distinguished but also dejected. His expression is not visible but his posture suggests sadness. The composition of the photo has a path behind him leading to a dark door in a stone building.
As I think about possible sources for this bookmark, nothing seems to add up. If it is for a business or product, surely a more vibrant or upbeat image would be used. If it’s to commemorate a relative, wouldn’t a more personal photograph have been selected? It seems of higher quality than a homemade bookmark with its fancy lettering, but why would “Uncle Johnny” merit such treatment? Where was the photograph taken and when? Is it symbolic or representative of something that was widely known at the time of its creation?
Genealogists often come across old photographs with no identification amongst their relatives’ belongings. Tantalizing with their gazes, old-fashioned poses and clothing, these people from the past may be of no importance to the researcher—perhaps they are long-forgotten acquaintances. Or they may be the ghosts of relatives about whom many facts have been discovered but no physical manifestations have been seen. Sometimes there are clues that can lead to identification. There is even one professional genealogist who specializes in tracking down the families of lost artifacts, often reuniting photographs with their families. She has compiled a list of sources for identifying orphan photographs.
Bookmarks as genealogical artifacts had never crossed my mind until Uncle Johnny appeared. Then I began to notice other examples of photo bookmarks that carry family history. There are many companies that make commemorative photo bookmarks for the whole life cycle—baby showers and birth announcements, christening and baptism, confirmation and communion, bar and bat mitzvah, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, graduation, weddings and retirement. Often these are meant to be favors for guests as well as keepsakes for the honoree and family members. One company, Impressive Inscriptions, produces a range of photo bookmarks even including ones for pets who win competitions.
Then there are designs incorporating a bookmark-sized frame for inserting a photo that can be changed. This type is often seen in leather but also is common with metal frames. Typically these designs have no identifying information printed on the bookmark making it less likely they will retain their identity over time if the owners don’t trouble to label the photos.
Of course, there are many examples of handmade bookmarks using personal photos. One clever idea is to pose someone for a photo so that their hands fit over the page or to cut an existing photo of a person to make a die-cut bookmark as Kodak illustrates. Another novel idea is the photo booth bookmark using those strips of photos you pose for in a booth.
Another mystery bookmark in my collection appears to be homemade using a hand-colored photo of a woman pasted on a stiff card. Whether this lady was someone’s relative or just made a nice image is impossible to know because there are no marks on the photo or the card. I realized I have a bookmark-sized photograph of my own grandmother who died when my mother was a teenager. I don’t know if this photo was a sort of memorial or just a common use of that format.
Occasionally on eBay or other antique sites, old bookmarks appear containing photos and obituary information. Sometimes these are provided by local newspapers, presumably as a courtesy to the family of the deceased. These bookmarks could find their way into bibles or other books of importance, but easily could be overlooked by later generations only to end up as curiosities for collectors. A number of companies provide memorial bookmarks with photos and a range of designs and sentiments.
I came across an unusual use of photographs by one of the clever designers on Etsy who created a soldier bookmark out of images of daguerreotypes or ambrotypes of Civil War soldiers. I have a photo from the same era of my great-great-great grandfather. This bookmark gave me an idea that genealogists could make or have made bookmarks of their ancestors to use while they are doing research. The bookmarks not only provide a useful tool for paging through old record books that are often difficult to use, but also provide inspiration by having images of ancestors nearby. By recording key dates and places, they could also serve as handy references. Even making inexpensive bookmarks from unidentified photos might result in serendipitous identification while doing other research.
As for Uncle Johnny, however, he will remain a mystery, forever enigmatic on a special bookmark.
Bookmark specifications: Uncle Johnny
Dimensions: 1 3 / 4 x 5 5/8”
Material: Leather and photograph
Date: 1920s or 1930s?
Bookmark specifications: Woman with lilacs
Dimensions: 2 1/8 x 4 _”
Bookmark specifications: My grandmother
Dimensions: 2 x 7”
Laine Farley is a digital librarian who misses being around the look, feel and smell of real books. Her collection of over 3,000 bookmarks began with a serendipitous find while reviewing books donated to the library. Fortunately, her complementary collection of articles and books about bookmarks provides an excuse for her to get back to libraries and try her hand at writing about bookmarks. Farley’s web site is Collecting Bookmarks (Physical, not Virtual). Contact Laine.