By Jazmine Aldrich
The Eastern Townships Resource Centre (ETRC) Archives include several autograph books; these are typically small, bound books containing signatures, poems, proverbs, doodles, and other unique entries. Other names for these books include autograph albums, memory albums, and friendship albums. On the surface, this type of record may seem to hold very little historical value, but they can tell us a great deal about the individuals who kept them and their social connections.
Autograph books can be traced back to the sixteenth-century European tradition of the album amicorum (“album of friendship”). These albums were commonly kept by university students to recall their classmates, professors and other social contacts. The albums preserved lighthearted or heartfelt messages from social connections. In a world long before the Internet and social media, autograph books provided a means of documenting one’s network. For some, these books may also have served as a symbol of social status – a vast network, neatly kept in their pocket.
Typical entries in these books include the signatures of contacts whom individuals felt were worth remembering. Entries often include a sentiment along the lines of “remember me,” “think of me,” or “forget me not.” These notes are often accompanied by a date and a geographic location which can situate a social relationship in its historical context. They can help us to learn not only who lived in or frequented a particular area in a given time, but also, who they interacted with. These books give us glimpses into the social lives of their bearers.
Autograph books also often contain poems, proverbs, verses, quotes, and brief snippets of writing that attest to the culture of the time in which they were written. Autograph books can answer questions such as, what was teenage humor like in the 1920s? Florence Mead’s autograph book offers the following entries as potential answers.
“Forget you? No! I never could. As long as I can whistle. I might as well forget to yell when I sit on a thistle.” (unsigned)
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Peroxide makes the blond grow blonder. Onion makes the breath grow stronger. Friendship makes life grow longer.” -Annie Parkhill, Boynton, Que.
The book dates from Florence’s studies at Macdonald College School for Teachers, with entries from her classmates, roommates, and friends.
Autograph book entries sometimes include pop culture references, song lyrics, references to jokes and shared memories. They may also include artwork, ranging from simple doodles to intricate drawings which attest to the abilities of the artist. Some authors even include pressed flowers or locks of hair with their entries.
The popularity of the autograph book varied over the centuries, but a notable resurgence took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The practice became so popular, in fact, that publications such as J.S. Ogilvie’s The Album Writer’s Friend (New York, 1881) recommended “choice selections of poetry and prose, suitable for writing in autograph albums.” Though these albums were especially popular amongst girls and young women, the practice was not gendered and some of the ETRC’s examples belonged to men – including that of renowned Eastern Townships artist, Frederick Simpson Coburn.
The tradition of the autograph album lives on in the signing of yearbooks – a practice which remains popular with students today. Do you have an autograph book or yearbook that you would like to donate to the ETRC? Get in touch with us!
By Jazmine Aldrich
History is made up of the stories of individuals: their choices, their experiences, and their relationships. These stories can be abstracted with time – that is – until we reconnect with the traces they left behind. They become more than a name: they are someone who lived – in a different time than us and under different circumstances – but who nevertheless experienced the ups and downs that make up a life.
This brings me to the story of Mead Haskell Baldwin. While I could never tell you every detail of his life, I will introduce you to some of his experiences as a young man, which I learned about through the records left by he and his family.
Mead Haskell Baldwin was born on September 28, 1891 in Baldwin’s Mills. He was the second son of Willis Keith (W.K.) Baldwin of Baldwin’s Mills and Lill Mead Ferrin Baldwin of Holland, Vermont. Mead was also the younger brother of then-five-year-old Harold Ferrin Baldwin. The only two children of W.K. and Lill, one gets the impression that Harold and Mead were brothers by blood but friends by choice.
Harold and Mead travelled the western Canadian provinces and United States together as young adults. The brothers worked as surveyors in western Canada towards the end of 1910, and spent Christmas of that year in Los Angeles, California, returning to Baldwin’s Mills in May of 1911. When at home, the young men occupied themselves with running the various family businesses, including the sawmill, general store, and post office while their father was away.
By 1913, Mead had left home and completed a business course at the Eastman National Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York; he then pursued work as a bookkeeper in Minneapolis, Minnesota – where he remained until July 1917 when he voluntarily enlisted with the American Expeditionary Forces.
During the First World War, Mead served with Bakery Company No. 343 – a supply unit of the United States Army’s Quartermaster Corps. Mead’s baker training was given at the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, beginning August 1, 1917. He served from October 1917 until March 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas. Following a brief period at Camp Merritt, New Jersey, Mead’s unit landed on French shores on April 15, 1918 and remained overseas for the next fourteen months. Mead was discharged at Des Moines, Iowa on June 19, 1919; he then returned to Minneapolis to reintegrate into civilian society.
In a heart wrenching letter to the United States Veterans’ Bureau in 1926, W.K. recalls that Mead “reached home [Baldwin’s Mills] in August 1919, broken in spirit. […]. The buoyancy of youth had changed to moroseness or melancholy.” Little more is known of his postwar life in Baldwin’s Mills until tragedy struck the family two years later. On February 17, 1921, less than a month after Harold had married Ruth Stevens May, Mead’s life came to a sudden end following several weeks of suffering from what would likely be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder in today’s terms.
The Baldwin family shocked: W.K. Baldwin – by then serving as the Member of Parliament for Stanstead – returned to Baldwin’s Mills from Ottawa. In the month following Mead’s death, he offered to fund one third of the costs associated with building permanent highways from Baldwin’s Mills to Coaticook and Stanstead, as well as funding their maintenance for a decade – all in memory of his late son.
The community mourned the loss of Mead, recalling in the Sherbrooke Daily Record his “sterling manhood and worthy qualities.” Letters of sympathy poured in from near and far. Mead’s former fiancée, Helen Wilma Kielgas of Duluth, Minnesota, recalled him to Lill as “the kindest and most generous of men, one who intentionally hurt no one, one who was a true friend, idolized and loved his mother.”
Mead’s death marked his loved ones and his community; while his is a difficult story to tell, it is a testament to the love that endures long after someone is gone.