Autograph Books – Inquiry

Surfing books on Ebay, I stumbled across this blue Victorian velvet autograph book and instantly thought “that could be a great FanU project!”, just bigger. But, should it be a FanU project? Is an autograph book appropriate for mid-nineteenth century interpretation? Did they exist in the 1850s? Where they used? How were they used? Did women use them?

I went looking.

The first article I came across was this. It suggested that yes, indeed autograph books were used in the mid-nineteeth century. They seem to be personal and social at the same time. This passage also suggest they were for men. What about women?

Autograph Books.

There is no good thing on earth that is not abused. Humility becomes, in the hands of Uriah Heep, an instrument for the satisfaction of his own aviaries. Friendship is but too often affected, for the purpose of obtaining, at your hands, valuable favors. Even religion is sometimes used by the knave as a cloak for his selfishness. But the good things of this earth are far more frequently abused, through want of thought, that from intended malice. By one who thus unintentionally errs, especially if his error be practical in its effects, a few practical suggestions will not be taken unkindlly.

Everything that is abused must have its uses. This is implied in the very expression. Let us then examine first the uses of autograph books; and these will appear more clearly for a comparison with the photographic album. Here we have the expression of the heart as portrayed in the countenance. And is it not portrayed there? Do not the features in their varied expression or in their habitual cast, tell of the temporary emotions or of the deep-seated principles of the soul? Hence one component part of the value whic we set upon the likeness of a friend. A second component of its value to us, consists in the pleasant associations connected with it; and our valuation or it varies in proportion to the number or the character of these associations. Again, in it has been presented to us by the friend himself, it has to us a value as a token, a visible sign, of his friendship, an assurance that he cares for us.

In each of these particulars the autographic album has a value only secondary to that of the photographic. The handwriting expresses, perhaps not so well as the eye, yet does express clearly the character of the man. Did you ever notice the habitual hand-writing of your friends, and did it not in almost every case comport with his known character? An energetic man will make his strokes bold and clear; a dandified man will attempt a style of chirography that is full of flourishes, a man that is careless in everything else, will be careless also in his penmanship. True, there are exceptions to this rule; so also is a man’s physiognomy sometime wonderfully deceptive. But both of them, as a general rule, bear witness to a man’s character.

Neither does the autograph fail in its office of bringing before the memory by association, kind recollections of the past. The circumstances of our acquaintance, of the relations which we have borne to each other, of the many kindnesses performed by one or the other, cluster around the autograph as freely as they do around the portrait of a friend. And the value of the autograph is still further enhanced by the fact that it is almost always the gift (non the less valuable because not costly) of the friend himself, bearing on the very face of it as an assurance of respect or of regard.

Thus much for the simple signature. But how much is its value increased when we add to that, expressions of good will, and direct assurances of regard. For we know that these words of friendship are not the hollow, oily professions of those who are actuated only by the desire and expectation of valuable services, whose friendship will turn into indifference or hatred when their selfish ends are accomplished. Have you not felt, my reader, the power of the schoolboy attachments when in college you have met with a former companion? Did you not at once, however slight your previous acquaintance may have been, rejoice even in the midst of college-mates to see a face whose familiarity dated several years back? How much more will college friendships be valued hereafter when in the midst of selfish strangers we look over the autographic momentos of our class-mates. Add yet to this the gentle reminders of scenes of pleasure in which we have mingled, and we shall have a partial idea of the value which in after life we shall place on these manuscript volumes. [continued] (Nassau Literary Review, 1862)

Next, this student lament about autographs. It, too, talks of autograph books owned by men, signed by men. What about women?


I have an excessive hatred of a certain kind of stuff written in Autograph books. It puts a modest mad like myself quite to the blush. To have a classmate tell you in so many wordst that you are a “man of talent,” a “a fine fellow,” and “that there is no one of all the class whose friendship is so much to be desired” – all this, I say, is exceedingly embarrassment to a man of innate modesty. [continued] (The Yale Literary Magazine, 1852.)

At last, The Works of Charles Lambin which we see verses written for women’s autograph books. 9 verses titled “In The Album of….” or “to….”. If these were actually written for women, in their autograph books, then we have women owning autograph books in the 1850s.

What is that you say? Why don’t I just look at autograph books to see who owned and wrote in them?

Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 2:50 pm  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So this is not *exactly* an autograph book or *exactly* in your period of interest, but I have to share my favorite keepsake of women’s social connections. NYPL has a “Friendship Album” kept by an Englishwoman, Anne Wagner, in the years 1795-1834. In addition to autographs and poems there are locks of hair, paintings, collages, and silhouettes made by family, friends, and visitors.

  2. I have an autograph book owned by my Great-grandfather, who was a minister. Circa 1870s-80s. There are sentiments from both men and women.

  3. I have my great grandmothers autograph book from the 1880s. A bit later than you are looking for. But is a treasure. Entries are from her sisters down to age 6 ( whom I met as a lady in her seventies when I was in my teens)and from friends and family both male and female. Lots of the entries are verses. It seems folks memorized little three and four line sayings. The penmanship is an art form shown off on those pages. And I discovered two more generations from her grandmother’s entries. The entries span several years when she was in her late teens and engaged.
    The cover is painted and embossed cloth. Nothing special.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: