By Daniel Hubbard | July 13, 2014
Today when we think of autograph books, we think of a fan holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other, arms outstretched toward some celebrity. Having one of those once owned by your grandmother might tell you something about her tastes at one stage of her life but it wouldn’t really serve as a useful genealogical resource.
Autograph books have been around since the 1400s. They were not then what they have become. In the early days of autograph books, they were used by university students to collect the signatures of professors and classmates. The modern yearbook descends from that use of the autograph book. Unfortunately, the number of people who can trace their ancestry back to someone who graduated from a university ca. 1480 is rather small and the chance that the right autograph book has survived, or ever existed, doesn’t give one much hope.
Nineteenth century autograph books are another matter. Even then, university students were a rare breed, but the use of autograph books had spread well beyond them. The books were especially common among children. Friends still signed but so did another group of people that perks up our genealogical ears—relatives. I’ve used autograph books several times in research and I’ve learned that those relatives can be very kind to the genealogists who would later appear in their families. Simply signing “Cousin Roger” can be helpful. Usually people dated entries as well, so that means we can be sure that Cousin Roger signed on June 23, 1888. That’s better. Sometimes those relatives added the town where they lived. Now we have Cousin Roger signing on June 23, 1888 and telling us that he lived in Cornerville, Illinois. That makes it even more interesting. There is one last possibility. Cousin Roger might not have signed “Cousin Roger.” Instead he might have signed “Cousin Roger Haskell.” If that wasn’t your ancestor’s surname, that name could be new to you. If you don’t know the maiden name of the mother of the autograph book’s owner, you may have found a very big clue.
If we leave Cousin Roger behind, one last thing to point out about these books has to do with the age of the original owner. Because they were often young, older relatives were typically among the signers. People in the owner’s generation are wonderful to identify. People one or two generations back can be even better. Finding the signature of “Grandpa Hartman, Oakton, Iowa” could just lead to that elusive genealogical adrenaline rush. “Uncle Horace Haskell” signing the same day as Cousin Roger wouldn’t be so bad either.
Just for Fun
There are fun things in these books as well. Often people did not simply sign. They might scribble out a short poem or aphorism or perhaps add a quick sketch. It tells you something about the personality of the signer and perhaps their impression of what the book’s owner might like.
The poems can be serious, as in the example image in this post, but they are often a bit fluffy or silly. They tend to be something well known with just a few words changed to fit the occasion-
Roses are red,
Tree bark is brown,
I look forward to seeing you,
Next time I’m in town.
I just made that up, but it is the type of thing that one finds. It is interesting that people of the late nineteenth century seemed to have a much richer set of silly knock-off poems to choose from than we have today. You won’t be stuck with twenty versions of “Roses are red” if you read an old autograph book.
One can also find somewhat heavier statements in autograph books from time to time. Sentences like “Remember that the hand of our mighty Lord rests upon you in judgement now and always” are rare but do appear. Those also tell us something about the person who would write that in the autograph book of a child.
These books are not something that you are likely to run into casually but they do still exists. Some archival collections contain a set of autograph books. Relative’s attics are another prime category of storage location. When interviewing relatives it is always wise to ask about family mementos, especially that family Bible you’ve heard of but that no one can locate. Another wise thing to ask about are small, thin books between the size of a credit card and a post card. They may say nothing at all on the cover. They may be full of autographs.