An Antique Autograph Book Guide [History & Values]

[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. 

A Guide to Collecting Antique Autograph Books

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

Antique Red Embossed Leather Autograph Book

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.

Autographs

This gold gilt “Autographs” decorates the first page.

Antique red velvet autograph bookThe second book, covered with patterned velvet, is plainer but still attractive.

Autographs with floral decorationBut when you open it up, you find this stunning cover page. Victorians certainly knew how to decorate a page!

1920's vintage leather autograph bookAutograph book #3 is made of embossed leather. Though a bit worn, it has a charm all its own.

first page of 1923 antique autograph bookThe 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.

antique autograph book poemLook 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.
Another friend,
Nettie M. Wilkon
Keene, N.H.   May 23, 1883

J. Anna Torrey poem in antique autograph book

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

entry in antique autograph book

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.

poem in vintage autograph book

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
 E. Dorset (Apr. 19th 1893) Burlington, VT,

Lucy's signature in antique autograph bookLucy Dayton (age 19), a woman of blessedly few words, LOL.

Ella's entry in antique autograph book

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).

funny poem in 1923 antique autograph bookCows like clover, pigs like squash
I like you! I do, by gosh!
Katherine Everett
Brown School  Oct. 7, 1927

French message 1923 antique autograph book

Un petit souvenir de votre premiere maitresse de francais.
[A little souvenir of your first French teacher.]
Helene Tru Thurn

Poem 1923 antique autograph bookIf 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!”
Affectionately,
Hilda K.

Drawings in Antique & Vintage Autograph Books

script drawing in antique 1880's autograph bookIn 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.

Drawing in 1923 antique autograph bookBut the 1923 book contains a few drawings. On this page, Marion’s friend Dot drew some silly stick figures.

line drawings form a 1923 vintage autograph bookAnd another friend contributed an even sillier page of slightly higher level drawings, LOL.

Antique Autograph Book Values

Three different antique autograph books

  1. Embossed and painted 1880’s autograph book sold for $32 in 2018 from my antique booth.
  2. Patterned velvet 1880’s autograph book sold for $22 in 2021 from my antique booth.
  3. 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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Learn all about collecting antique autograph books

Other articles you may enjoy:

Sources:

Autograph Books
History of an Autograph Book
Autograph Books and 19th Century Signature Quilts
A Look at Autograph Books of the 19th Century

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31 Comments

  1. I love these little books! I have one I think but it is not ornate at all :o(

    I think you’ve got one of the dates wrong though, you typed 1993 and the page says 1883!

    Tania

  2. Definitely a very cool collectible. It is a shame that we have lost so much beauty with the digital age.

  3. Love the script and the wordings of the thoughts! I have things of my mothers and love reading the written comments. Truly a huge shame that cursive writing is becoming a lost art!

  4. I love these autograph books Diana! What amazes me is how men thought up some of these flowery bits of poem/prose! Would you like to see mine?

  5. Those are 2 awesome finds. I’ve never come across those at any sales.

    I still have my autograph book from 8th grade – they were quite popular back then and we all wrote cute little poems in them.

  6. These are just wonderful, Diana! I used to love autograph books when I was in elementary school. I have never come across any but now they are on my radar ~ thanks for sharing!

  7. How nice! I have two of them that I purchased at an antique shop; both are from the same person, Janette Fraley, who lived in Ulster, PA. The oldest autograph in one is dated 1927 and signed by a teacher. The other book is apparently from her senior year in 1938. It sometimes makes me sad that family members are willing to part with such personal items. At least these autograph books were bought by someone who respects them.

  8. I love your collection, Diana! I had an autograph book as a girl, along with an autograph hound. How wonderful to have such special old books!

  9. Isn’t that so sweet and the sentiments are precious. I have mine from gradeschool. I always kept things –

  10. How lovely that Cora Griffith wrote in his book a couple of years before she married him, the day before Thanksgiving, November 25, 1885! (I did a quick search online.)

  11. I have 2 autograph books I purchased at an estate sale. Owned by the same person, they are from the early 1900s. The owner attended a Seventh Day Adventist College in South America and it was signed by her classmates from all over the world. Along with their signatures were beautiful colored sketches illistrating their verses. It is absolutely beautiful. The second is only half filled and not as ornate but still nice. I love my little books and consider myself so lucky to have found them.

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  13. These are gorgeous and so precious! True works of art.
    Thanks, Diana, for sharing at Talk of the Town.

    1. Hi Diana, I have an autograph book exactly like the one with the burgandy velvet cover and the same cover page. Someone even drew the same picture shown in your article!

      It apparently belonged to my grandmother Luella Hoffman Carpenter who was born in 1906. She wrote her name and address in 1943 and indicated that if it was lost, it should be returned to her.
      BUT the entries, which are from1887 and 1888, are addressed to “Katie”. I’ve never heard of a Katie in my family, so I’m intent right now on finding out who she was!

      Wish me luck!

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  15. Hi Diana, I love your blog and subscribe so I receive all your posts. I missed this one in June! going back through my email I was happy to see the autograph books. I see some signatures from Vermont. My great-grandparents were born in Port Henry, NY and are buried in Burlington, VT. So I love your local posts and pictures. Thanks for all of it. The little autograph books really touched me. thanks, Melanie

    1. Hi Melanie! Thanks so much for taking the time to write me a note–it means the world 🙂 Sometimes I used to take the Port Henry ferry over to Burlington where my Aunt and Uncle would pick me up to spend the week with my cousins. It was closer for them (living in Barre) than going to the Grand Isle ferry (opposite Plattsburg, near where I lived as a child). I still have all kinds of family in Vermont where my mother grew up. It’s such a beautiful state 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks again for the comment.

  16. Thank you for the information, I just found an autograph book that belonged to my Grandmother. It is full of poems,
    The dates are 1926 and 1927.

  17. Ha! When I was a little girl, in the 60’s, I had autograph books and my father would sign the exact words of some of the ones you show! He was born in 1914, so the ones from 1927 might have been the sayings of the day he remembered! Then there’s the ever famous “By hook or by crook I’ll be the last in your book.” I’m sorry I don’t have the books anymore. My high school year books just aren’t the same.

  18. Lots of great knowledge in this post. I remember having an autograph book as a kid; wondere what happened to it. White padded vinyl with an improbable oval pearl in the center!

  19. How wonderful to find your writing here! Glad to see a 2021 update, maybe that is why the search engine brought me to it.

    As a girl in the 1970’s and early 1980’s we were fascinated with my Grandma’s old autograph books. My brother and cousins and I enjoyed reading the books. I do not know where they went.

    She enjoyed regaling us with tales of one room school house days. She was born in 1915 so the books most probably dated from the late 1920’s.

    My favorite poem and indeed the only one I committed to memory was, “When you get married and live over the hill, send me a kiss by a whippoorwill.” This was in rural Central Texas.

    Thanks again for this fascinating look into the past!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post Pam! Loved your “whippoorill kiss” poem–what a blessing to have this special memory from your grandma 🙂

  20. The autograph books you share are wonderful. Lovely thoughts from a by-gone era.I like to collect autograph books when I see them and always love the corny home-spun sentiment expressed in them. …and occasionally somebody famous gets to sign them as well. Always a bonus.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article Michael! I’ve yet to find any famous signatures but I’ll keep looking…

  21. I have 2 autograph books that belonged to my great grandmother. On the last page is a poem.

    Last in your album
    Last in your thought
    Last to be remembered
    And first to be forgot.
    -J. W. Blackburn, 3-27/1887

    He became her husband!

    1. What a great story Debora–I’m so glad she remembered him! Thanks for sharing it with us 🙂 Such a fun idea for the last page of an autograph book–

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