Hi everyone! A few weeks ago I bought two antique autograph books for a dollar each at a garage sale held by an acquaintance who runs a local estate sale business. I made several purchases from Rob, but by far the most interesting were the autograph books. They date to the late 1800’s, and have lovely, Victorian covers. I decided these fascinating little books were worthy of a separate post all their own.
Autograph books are rooted in a tradition that began in the 16th century with Dutch and German academics who used them to remember friends they made among their peers and professors. Called album amicorum or book of friends, they were used something akin to a resume/address book, filled with contacts and other important information. The students used the margins of their Bibles, but then publishers kindly added extra blank pages for this specific purpose. Later, they printed books with blank pages, simplifying the process altogether.
The Victorians made autograph books (as we know them today) popular throughout the 19th century. As with many customs of the day, they often went over the top–a piece of silverware for every occasion and a flower for every emotion, for example. In the case of autograph books, a broad assortment of pithy sayings and [poorly executed] poetry developed into a whole industry. One could readily find quips and poems in magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Books to memorize and have on hand when a friend requested a signature and salutation.
“Why should I uninvited/Dare to blot this page/
It may not please the owner/’Cause it’s written by an old maid.”
Interest in autograph books revived again in the 1920’s, and they continue to be used, though less enthusiastically, to the present day. I remember my first trip to overnight Girl Scout camp. My mother packed an aqua-colored autograph book for me, but by the 1970’s, no one bothered to write interesting remarks or drawings next to their signature, and so my book was filled simply with names. Hardly worth hanging on to and so, alas, I didn’t.
Let’s take a look at some of the entries, in these two books, shall we? Here we go: “Look not mournfully into the past/It comes not back again/Wisely improve the present/It is thine/Go forth to meet the shadowy future without a fear and with a manly heart. May 23, 1883, Another friend, Nettie M. Wilkon, Keene, N.H.”
“Remember me dear Henry/When on these lines you look/Remember that ’twas Anna/Who wrote this in your book, Lovingly Yours, J.Anna Torrey, East Dorset, VT.”
“Friendship consecrates these lines, Memory holds them dear, May you often bear in mind, The friend that placed them here. Your true friend, Cora B. Griffith, Manchester, Vermont, May 13, 1883.” On the spine: “Don’t forget your old friend when you are with the new.”
Henry–Ever gentle and calm be life’s stream/Undisturbed by rude storms of strife/Gently fan’d by the wings of the angels/Enter thou into the harbor of life. Your friend, A. J. Brown, Burlington, VT, E. Dorset, Apr. 19th 1893″
A woman of blessedly few words.
Nicely straight forward, if a bit stiff and boring.
The earliest 19th century books were often filled with more than just signatures and bad poetry. Quite regularly, signers sketched pictures and sometimes even painted sweet little works of art. In these cases, the owner would part with their book for some amount of time to allow the artist to finish his/her work. Collector interest in autograph books like these is quite high. Other items you might find tucked inside the pages include pressed flowers, calling cards, and locks of hair. The page above is the only one in my two books with a picture, but it’s a lovely one, is it not? Lots of lovely swirls.
The first of the two books I bought at the sale wears a leather embossed and painted cover, very ornate with columns and drapery. I gave it an initial value earlier in the month when I first purchased it of $45-50.00; that may have been a bit high.
And inside, a simple cover page with a gilded, Victorian font.
The second book, covered with embossed velvet, is plainer but still attractive. I valued it at $25-30.00.
But when you open it up, this stunning cover page greets you. Both of these books belonged to Henry L. Buffum, of East Dorset, VT (not to far from me). I wonder what he would think if he had known that some day his autograph books would be read by so many people.
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