Autograph Books: Yesterday’s Social Network

May 8th, 2023

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!

Photo credit : P997 Eastern Townships Resource Centre Textual Records collection
Entry written by C.W. Knights in Sarah J. Groom’s autograph book, dated June 15, 1887 in North Hatley. The entry reads: “To Sarah / When the golden sun is setting / And your heart from care is free / And of absent friends are thinking / To not forget to think of me.”
Photo credit : P098 Frederick Simpson Coburn fonds
Artwork appearing in Frederick Simpson Coburn’s autograph book, signed [Jeanie G. Caimie] and dated February 1885.
Photo credit : P260 Alberta Everett collection
Cover of an autograph book recently donated to the ETRC by Alberta Everett (née Ross).
Autograph Books: Yesterday’s Social Network
May 8th, 2023
Jody Robinson