I’m excited to get a chance to write amidst school and work. Because of the busyness of the season, this post will be much shorter than usual. This past summer I picked up an autograph book that was given to Mary C. Lear by what appears to be her Sunday school class in Mt. Airy on September 24, 1882. The inside inscription reads:
Presented to Miss. Mary C. Lear
By her class in the Mt. Airy, S.S.
Belle Mills, Eliza Cooper, Carrie Mills,
Lizzie Worman, Pillie Ulmer, and Malinda Updyke
This little album
To me so dear
To love and friendship
Thy leaves(?) and dedicate
This book to me presented
By my class of six
A class well represented
And to the holy truths they stick.
The gifts of this their loving hearts doth show
And most dearly by me is it cherished
We here below many seldom meet in after years.
But may we anchor side by side in heaven.
Mary C. Lear
It is hard to determine which Mt. Airy this book came from as there is one in Hunterdon County, NJ, and another in Northwest Philadelphia. Most of the people who signed the book were from Pennsylvania with one person noted to be from Hunterdon, New Jersey. Because most of the people are from Pennsylvania, without further research, I am assuming that most likely the book is from the Philadelphia Mt. Airy. The book is filled, front to back with messages, poems, and signatures from men and women. Additionally, there are cut out of flowers from calling cards and other assortment of ephemera pasted on the inside of the book. (1)
Autograph books can be seen as a collection of memories of people, places, and events documented on each page. The owner could read the messages and return to that day in their memories. Allowing the owner to reminisce on the people and the things they have potentially done together. The signatures and writings that the individual people wrote into the autograph book connect each person to the owner. It reflects the meetings that had to occur for the book to be signed. It is evidence that the owner asked each person to sign it and that the signee handled the book and a pen, thought of what to write, and signed it. These books reflect a type of intimacy that existed amongst friends, students, and potential family members and the desire to capture and preserve a piece of them through their handwriting and messages. As we look at these books today, we view very little of an interaction between people who are no longer in this world, and who may have long been forgotten. Sometimes as the handler of these types of books, I feel I am engaging with the people in some capacity who have left behind a small piece of themselves.
Autograph books began in the 16th century when German students traveled across Europe. Their popularity reemerged in the 19th century and was introduced in America by German immigrants. You can find many, like this one, at antique shops and archives. Most of the ephemera that I write about I keep and remain within my collection, mainly because they are in print and potentially already exist within archives. Because this is a larger resource that many people have left their mark on, I am going to reach out to some repositories and offer it as a donation. As always so much more can be done on this subject but for now, I will leave it here. Thank you for reading!
Ruby Johnstone, “The Tradition of Autograph Albums,” American Jewish Historical Society, https://ajhs.org/autograph-albums/