Autograph books have been around for centuries. They originally were a way for students to collect signatures of classmates and instructors. Most often, students would allow friends and instructors to use the blank pages of their bibles to sign their names, but over time, books with only blank pages were created with the sole purpose of being used for capturing signatures.
By the end of the 16th century, autograph books were common throughout Germany. For academics, autograph books were used not only for gathering sentimental notes, but also as a way to gather correspondence of fellow colleagues. This became similar to a list of references that they then held onto for years. Although the popularity of autograph books started in Europe, by the 18th century, Americans had caught on to this trend as well. The popularity of these books peaked during the Civil War. They were traded amongst friends, classmates, or colleagues to be filled with personal notes, poems, drawings, and signatures.
My interest in these books developed when I discovered an autograph book entitled Leaves of Affection while exploring the Rare Books room at the State Library of Ohio. I leafed through the book and noticed some lovely drawings and colorful illustrations. I decided that this was something I wanted to look at more closely, and began the process of digitizing and transcribing the book. It was during the process of transcription that I realized this particular autograph book was filled with much more than signatures. What I found were sentimental poems and personal notes to a girl named Clara Stone and her family.
After doing some genealogical research, I discovered that Clara was born in 1849 in Tiffin, Ohio. Her father’s name was Uriah Stone, and her mother was Nancy Egbert Stone, a seamstress. Clara had a younger sister, Isabelle, or “Belle,” who was born in 1851, and a brother named Egbert, born in 1853.
Many of the entries are from Civil War soldiers and are written to Clara, Nancy, and Belle, offering gratitude for their kindness. Some of the entries are from family members in the war, and other are soldiers who were stationed in, or passing through Tiffin. They all wrote affectionately of time spent together, as well as thoughtful reflections on the war, and hopes for the girls’ futures. Here is just one example:
Life is so short, life is so fleeting
Life is so full of its trouble and tears,
That friends are formed tho a smile be their greeting
And words then have said are remembered for years.
Please accept the wishes my friendship doth offer,
And let them grow brighter as years [fade] away,
O let them still live when the heart that has left them
Lies low beneath the sod, with its cold mother day.
May the pathway of life tho, toilsome and lonely,
Be strewn with the flowers which friendship doth bring’
May the sunshine around thee proceed from God’s blessing
Which thy hearts music is as the angels doth sing.
When the last golden rays of the sunset are falling
When the evening of life is drawn to a close
May thy heavenly father send his angels to hear thee
Where the flowers of heaven so sweet ever grows.
July 1861 Ms. D. Merrill
To see the full transcription of Leaves of Affection, you can find it here in Ohio Memory.
Another interesting autograph book found in Ohio Memory is one owned by former State Librarian Mary C. Harbaugh. This book is filled with signatures from senators, lawyers, and other important political Ohioans. This autograph book, unlike Leaves of Affection, is more of a traditional autograph book, in that it only has signatures and locations of the signers. It serves more as a log of important Ohioans and political figures who possibly were users of the State Library. If you’d like to see some of the signatures in this book, the transcription can also found in Ohio Memory.
Over time, autograph books were replaced by yearbooks and fell out of favor with Americans. But these books offer good insight into an important time in our history, and an intimate glimpse inside the lives of ordinary people. If you would like to learn more about The Mystery of the Autograph Book, you can read about it on the Ohio Memory blog!
Thank you to Alexa Elgabri for this week’s post! Alexa is a graduate student in the Kent State School of Library and Information Science who is completing her practicum with the State Library of Ohio.