Bookends, for all their whimsical designs, had practical beginnings. While today's bookends are a mix between the beauty of visual form and the performance of a necessary function, centuries ago bookends mostly just kept people from getting hit on the head.
Monks in the Middle Ages: Before Bookends
An Increase of Books and the Evolving Need for Bookends
Around the end of the Renaissance, books began to be readily available to more and more people. Those lucky enough to have a very great - or even a very small - collection of books, generally kept them together, as they were still quite valuable.
Before books became so much more regular, a small pile of books might be stacked flat, or horizontally; but as the quantity of books increased, forming mountains of books didn't seem to make much sense, even just considering safety reasons. Shelves and book chests came into use; eventually books began to be stored vertically by the end of the 16th Century.
Shelves, Categories, and Bookends
As libraries and collectors formed categorical systems for arranging books, and shelves grew taller and more accommodating, bookends became a means for keeping books neatly horizontal on an otherwise unfilled shelf. Bookends of sufficient weight would keep the shelved books safely in place and reduce book avalanches, making vertical book storage and the use of bookends a definite improvement over horizontally stacked book mountains.
Bookends Today: Displaying with Pride
People today generally don't depend on bookends to save their heads from harm. Most sets of bookends serve simply to keep bookshelves tidy and add decorative complement. A set of bookends might be chosen to balance a particular display of books, those with collectible or very personal value. Many book lovers are also lovers of bookends and might become collectors of both. Finally, with all of the styles available today, bookends might be chosen simply because they reflect a certain theme - nautical, sports, cowboys, circus, etc - or because the bookends complement a decorative style like art deco, rustic, modern or romantic. It's easy to fall in love with a set of bookends before books even come to mind.
Bookends certainly had practical beginnings, and they still serve the same practical purpose today. However, today's bookends can add fun and stylish flair to any room of a home or office.