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19th Century Memorabilia: Autograph Books

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
April 13th, 2017

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.

 

Recently at the History Center, when cataloging a collection, I encountered two 19th century autograph books kept by students from Clarksburg, West Virginia and Toboso, Ohio.  Having previously encountered this type of material in my work here, I was inspired to sample our holdings of these books in order to learn more about our collections, and to delve a bit into the history of this genre. 

 

Regarding the history, I learned that a tradition of autograph books began in Europe, especially in Germany, and was brought to America in the late 18th century, reaching a peak of popularity in the later 19th century.  Their typical function was to provide a place for classmates to record signatures and messages of sentiment upon graduation.  They were replaced over time by the yearbook.

 

This is one of the autograph books I discovered, kept by Emma L. Taylor of Clarksburg:

 

Cover of autograph book

Autograph book from the Williams Papers, Collection A&M 4138; ca. 1880s.

 

Title Page of Autograph book with signature of Emma L Taylor

Title Page of Autograph book from the Williams Papers,
Collection A&M 4138; ca. 1880s.

 

Signature and Inscription by R.C. Martin in Emma Taylor's autograph book

Signature and Inscription by R.C. Martin in Autograph book from the
Williams Papers, Collection A&M 4138; 7 March 1885.

 

The other autograph book in the Williams Papers, kept by Alice Redman of Toboso, Ohio, includes the following inscription:  “To Alice, May your coffee and your slanders be the same.  Without grounds.  Your friend, D.A. Redman.”

 

Looking further in our collections, I found an autograph book presented to Samuel T. Wiley, the administrator of St. George Institute school in St. George, West Virginia.  An academic who compiled an impressive number of local histories, Wiley produced with Harold Powell a Preston County history that’s been published in 15 editions between 1882 and 1998.  This autograph book was presented to him at the end of the school year, in June 1887:

 

Cover of autograph book with portrait of woman on it

Cover of Autograph Book from the Wiley Papers, Collection A&M 1842; 1887.

 

Title page of autograph book with colored flowers on it

Title Page of Autograph Book from the Wiley Papers, Collection A&M 1842; 1887.

 

Inscription in Wiley autograph book

Inscription in Autograph Book from the Wiley Papers, Collection A&M 1842; 1887.

 

Another collection in our holdings contains an autograph book with a striking cover, with inscriptions from residents in the Clarksburg area:

 

Cover of autograph book showing spider and web

Autograph book from Collection A&M 3377; 1880s.

 

Finally, an autograph book in the Summers Collection, A&M 1791, shows how these books can be formatted vertically, instead of horizontally, like the other items in this blog; this book was probably owned by a son of George W. Summers when he was attending the University of Virginia:

 

Cover of autograph book

Autograph book from the Summers Collection A&M 1791; 1857.

 

The autograph book is now a largely archaic medium for recording personal memory.  Its function, however, lives on in alternative media of yearbooks, scrapbooks, and related items.

 

Sources Consulted:  Collections at the West Virginia and Regional History Center; Ancestry Library Edition for genealogy information regarding the George W. Summers family; Ohio Memory for article entitled “Leaves of Affection: A Look at Autograph Books of the 19th Century”; Wikipedia for articles regarding autograph books and the St. George Academy.

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