The rise and fall of the autograph book

In 1970, when I was 15, my friends and I all had autograph books, small volumes of pastel blue, green, yellow, and pink pages. We wrote in each other’s books, usually inscribing funny rhymes we had read in someone else’s book. I reconstruct from memory:

Ink-a-bink, a bottle of ink,
The cork fell out and you stink–
Not because you’re dirty, not because you’re clean
But because you kissed a boy behind a magazine.
Be good!
Your friend Kathy M.

Helen Rosina Hughes Keller

This particular quatrain, of course, was outdated. We used ballpoint pens, not bottles of ink, which hearkened back to the early days of the autograph book, even if the subject matter did not. The autograph book has a varied history, including a gradual decline from scholarly records to silly rhymes — and beyond, as we shall see. But even more interesting are the notations by family members in books that, unlike mine, are saved and passed down, offering insights into our ancestors’ relationships.

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In the 1500s, the keeping of autograph books became a fad among students in German-speaking regions of Europe. Scholars preserved their books, not only for sentimental reasons but also as evidence of their credentials, shown in the remarks and signatures of intellectual associates. By the late 1600s, the trend was in decline, but it was revived a century later among fraternities and the middle class, with women joining the ranks of autograph collectors. German immigrants imported the custom to the U.S., where the trend peaked around the time of the Civil War, then faded out a few decades later, as high school yearbooks took over.

In the 1850s, my great-great-grandmother, Helen Rosina Hughes, lived in a Maryland community dominated by Swiss German immigrants. She collected autographs in a book with a gilt-embossed cover imprinted with a floral design and the title “Love and the Flowers.” A handful of aquatints inside depicted floral species as petalled people, with captions such as “Marigold — Grief.” Helen’s friends wrote out poems in flowing script:

To Friend Helen
Thoughts, which shall spring in friendship’s breast
Or genius touch with fire,
Thoughts, which good angels may suggest,
Or God himself inspire,
Such, o’er these pages pure and white,
By many a willing hand,
Be writ in characters of light,
And here unfading stand!
B.F.K.
Funkstown, August 1st, 1856

Elizabeth Newcomer Keller

Helen was then 18. It took the signer, B. Franklin Keller, another ten years to marry her. The testaments to friendship were so valued that this book was passed down through four generations and fell into my hands a few years ago. I’m relieved my own book has vanished; I would blush to pass on the drivel it contained.

B. Franklin’s sister Barbara also had an autograph book. It contains several poems inscribed to her in 1861, when she was 22 and recently married. Four years later, she died, probably while giving birth to her daughter, Edith. When Edith was 16, she acquired the book, which must have been a treasured memento of the mother she had never known. The entries written to Edith are simpler than the flowery verse of two decades earlier:

If wisdom’s ways you’d wisely seek
Five things observe with care–
Of whom you speak, to whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
B.W.
October 10, 1877
Hagerstown High School 

In the back of the book is a chilling two-page essay written by Edith’s Swiss German grandmother, Elizabeth Newcomer Keller. Here are excerpts:

Dear Edith, As you insist upon your old Grand Mother writing something for your Memory of her, I shall neither write prose nor poetry nor fiction but facts. I am now in my seventieth year…and could you see my past life pictured before you, it would cause your young and tender heart to bleed….I thank my God I can say with Job, tho he slay me yet will I serve him…

Elizabeth didn’t go into specifics, but I know she lived through the Civil War, and the bloody Battle of Antietam was fought a few miles from her home. Although none of her sons fought in the war, by the time she wrote in her granddaughter’s book, she had already outlived her husband and nine of her 15 children, who died from causes as varied as drowning and a fall from a horse. When I first read through the genealogical records, I deduced the suffering she must have endured. It took my breath away to see the pain expressed in her own handwriting.

Autograph books surged again in the 1940s, when my father and his eighth-grade friends were graduating from “grammar school,” as elementary schools of the period were called. His book is encased in zippered leather and imprinted with the name of the school, P.S. 103 in the Bronx. Most of the verses are whimsical and not so different from those that appeared in my book in the 1970s:

The higher the mountain,
The swifter the breeze,
The younger the couple,
The tighter the squeeze.
From Carmela

My Italian-born grandfather expressed his devotion while passing on the work ethic that would soon enable him to buy a house for his family:

The best of luck to my son for a happy
life and an honest, prosperous, and
healthy future.
Your Dad
Artie

And my favorite, written by my Aunt Rita, now in her eighties:

If in heaven we don’t meet
Hand in hand we’ll stand the heat.
Your sister,
Rita

When I asked on Facebook if today’s teenagers maintain autograph books, parents said they do not. One mother said her daughter laughed out loud when asked if she might want one. However, autograph books are advertised on the Internet to commemorate specific events — weddings, parties, graduations, vacations. Disney has a significant trade in illustrated books that families carry around Disney World to collect the signatures of cartoon characters in remembrance of their visit.

From the notes of German intellectuals to Victorian poems on friendship to adolescent rhymes to the signatures of Mickey Mouse and Ariel the mermaid — how far the autograph book has fallen! Yet I’m sure future generations will find surprises to cherish among the memories of their ancestors’ trips to Disney World.

There is one comment

  1. Jenn Wild

    Recently my Dutch niece offered me her “family and friends” album to write in… rather than a blank sheet for my own poem or poetic counsel, there were lines to fill in: my favorite color, my favorite memory, how did I know her?, and even my fave superhero. It was really cute… xox Jenn

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