[orig. pub. May 2016, revised substantially Sept. 2021.]
Hi there! Today I want to talk about two antique autograph books that I picked up at a garage sale for a dollar each. Both belonged to the same person: Henry L. Buffum, of East Dorset, VT (not to far from me).
They date to the late 1800’s, and have lovely, Victorian covers. I decided these fascinating little books (plus one more) were worthy of an entire post all their own.
History of Antique Autograph Books
Autograph books are rooted in a tradition that began in the 16th century with Dutch and German academics. Classmates and professors signed the margins of each other’s textbooks and Bibles to remember the friendships formed at university.
Once book publishers caught on, they began to add extra blank pages for this specific purpose. Later, they printed books containing only blank pages and called them album amicorum (book of friends), what we now call autograph books.
Victorians later made the books popular throughout the 19th century. Every young woman (and some men) would have at least one book, and often they would purchase a new book every year.
Over time, a broad assortment of pithy sayings and silly poetry developed into an entire 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 for their book.
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 youngsters still enjoy them today, though less enthusiastically perhaps than in the past.
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 add interesting remarks or drawings next to their signatures, and so my book was filled simply with names. Hardly worth hanging on to and so, alas, I didn’t.
Antique Autograph Book Examples
The first of the two books I bought has a leather embossed and painted cover–very ornate with columns and drapery. I think it’s gorgeous! It would have been quite costly back in the 1880’s when initially purchased.
This gold gilt “Autographs” decorates the first page.
The second book, covered with patterned velvet, is plainer but still attractive.
But when you open it up, you find this stunning cover page. Victorians certainly knew how to decorate a page!
Autograph book #3 is made of embossed leather. Though a bit worn, it has a charm all its own.
The owner, Marion Helms, received the book from her mother on May 19, 1925.
Vintage Autograph Book Entries
Notice the lovely handwriting and fairly serious tone of these first several entries from the 1880 books.
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.
Nettie M. Wilkon
Keene, N.H. May 23, 1883
Remember me dear Henry
When on these lines you look.
Remember that ’twas Anna
Who wrote this in your book.
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.
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.
A. J. Brown
E. Dorset (Apr. 19th 1893) Burlington, VT,
Lucy Dayton (age 19), a woman of blessedly few words, LOL.
Nicely straight forward, if a bit stiff and boring:
Be pleased to accept a tribute of friendship
from a well-wisher.
Ella B. Bourne
East Dorset, Vermont (May 13th 1883)
You’ll notice the difference in the handwriting of these next three examples from the 1925 book. The tone throughout the book matches that of the first entry (very silly).
Cows like clover, pigs like squash
I like you! I do, by gosh!
Brown School Oct. 7, 1927
Un petit souvenir de votre premiere maitresse de francais.
[A little souvenir of your first French teacher.]
Helene Tru Thurn
If you are ever discouraged or blue, little girl,
I will tell you a wonderful trick,
That will bring you contentment, if anything can,
“Do something for somebody quick!”
Drawings in Antique & Vintage Autograph Books
In early autograph books especially you’ll often find 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 1880’s books with a picture, but it’s a lovely one, is it not? Lots of lovely swirls.
But the 1923 book contains a few drawings. On this page, Marion’s friend Dot drew some silly stick figures.
And another friend contributed an even sillier page of slightly higher level drawings, LOL.
Antique Autograph Book Values
- Embossed and painted 1880’s autograph book sold for $32 in 2018 from my antique booth.
- Patterned velvet 1880’s autograph book sold for $22 in 2021 from my antique booth.
- Embossed leather 1925 autograph book sold for $15 from my antique booth.
Books with a number of higher quality drawings, signatures of famous people, and particularly pithy sayings/poems will garner higher prices than the more ordinary examples seen here.
Where to Buy & Sell Vintage Autograph Books
Look for quality autograph books at estate sales and higher end flea markets. You’ll find less valuable (but still salable) examples at your average flea market.
The three examples that I’ve shown you here today all sold from my antique booth. However, in hindsight, they might have sold for higher prices on Etsy.
I’m saying this because of recent success I’ve had on Etsy selling three antique recipe books and one antique school notebook ($23.99).
This has led me to believe that Etsy may be the perfect place to sell a variety of vintage and antique ephemera, like autograph books, diaries, and more(!).
Certainly the next time I get my hands on an autograph book, I’m going to test the waters and see how it sells on Etsy.
So, I’m wondering what the owners of these autograph books would think if they knew that someday their books would be read by so many people?!! I’m pleased to give them two minutes of fame here today 🙂
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