Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Autograph Books

When I was in Florida, going through some of our old family stuff, I came across three old autograph books. They're from the 1880s and once belonged to my great-great-grandmother, who lived in rural North Carolina near Fayetteville. In that part of the country at that time, one was unlikely to ever come across a celebrity, or anyone who would sign what we think of now as an autograph. Instead, these books contain messages from family members and friends, usually little rhymes or poems that were meant as keepsakes. (Sort of like our more modern school yearbooks.)

They also contain a few notes that I assume my great-great-grandmother, whose name was Maria Jane Bullard, wrote herself -- while dreaming of taking a trip in a boat to an exotic location, for example.

Here's one of the pages. Don't you love the penmanship?

What is the blooming tincture of the skin
To peace of mind and harmony within,
Comeliness of form, or shape, or air
Cannot with words, or deeds, compare.
                               Your teacher
                                          C. P. Jerome

Not everyone wrote so skillfully. Perhaps this was a school friend.

To Miss Janie.
It is sweet to wait
But oh how bitter
To wait for a girl
And never get her.
    From your friend,
               Purlie S. Tatum

This must have been a common rhyme back then -- it appears several times in the book from different people.

For Miss Janie,
Long may you live
Happy may you be
Eating ginger cake
And drinking catnip tea
      is the wish of your true friend
                   W. E. Gainey

This one is a bit bewildering. I think it must be a mistake. Either that or an insult!

May you always ascend
The hill of prosperity
And never meet a friend.
         J. C. Crisp

Some of the entries are dated. Again, great penmanship! Jane Bullard's sister, Lula -- who my grandmother knew as "Aunt Lu," though she was technically a great-aunt -- eventually married a Hall.

To Miss Janie Bullard
May your life as a snowflake be
That leaves a spot, but not a stain
    Is the sincere wish of
          Your friend
                   J. S. Hall
Idaho, N.C.
March 26, 1883

Incidentally, I can't find Idaho, N.C. on Google maps. Perhaps it no longer exists. Other communities mentioned in the books include Rennert and Lumber Bridge, where my family was from. (My grandmother was born in Lumber Bridge.)

I guess getting married and being a wife was the ultimate goal of many young girls in that era. When this was written my great-great-grandmother would have been about 16.

To Miss Janie
May your life be one of pleasure
And not one of woe and strife;
May you find a golden treasure,
In being a man's wife.
           Jas. H. Mitchell
April 8th '83

Eventually Jane Bullard did indeed get married, to a man named John Lee Cade. And here he is in her autograph book, with words written a year or two before they wed. (The note in ballpoint pen is in my grandmother's writing. Interesting that she refers to her grandmother as Jane Maria. I'm certain Jane was her middle name, though that's what people called her. Also, some sources give her first name as Mariah.)

The album is a garden spot
For all my friends to row
Where thorns and thistles flourish not
But only roses grow
            Fayetteville, N.C.
                           J. L. Cade

And finally there's this one, which despite all the heartfelt tenderness, family history and fine penmanship displayed in the other entries, might be my favorite.

For Janie
Love is a funny thing
Beauty is a blossom
If you want your finger bit
Stick it at a opossum
                 Fayetteville, Oct. 4, 1885


Margaret said...

Do possums bite? They have nasty little teeth. Several people who couldn't afford yearbooks had these Autograph books and had us sign them. But we wrote dumb stuff like "Have a great summer" "It was fun to have you in class" etc. No poetry to be found anywhere. :)

sparklingmerlot said...

I guess if you are ascending the hill of prosperity you don't want to meet a friend coming down it as they would be down on their luck.
Old autograph books are just lovely.

Frances said...

I have my Grandmother's autograph book. I discovered it when my Mum died. " Nanna" was born in 1890 and it is the most wonderful little book full of poems, drawings, even a couple of watercolour paintings on the small pages. Towards the end I found a tiny envelope with a letter in it...written in very small writing. It was from Nanna's grandparents to mark her 1st birthday. Quite " religious "in tone and the part that stuck out for me was......." if you should grow to be a woman" I guess it wasn't a given that babies would survive to adulthood!

Moving with Mitchell said...

What a treasure. The prosperity one is taken from Mark Twain “There is an old-time toast which is golden for its beauty. ‘When you ascend the hill of prosperity may you not meet a friend.‘” Another one, which may suggest the meaning: “Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man's, I mean.”

Andrew said...

I had forgotten about the simple poems that were written in autograph books. I also had forgotten that autography books were not just to get celebrity signatures. I had one, with red faux leather covers. I've no idea what happened to it.

You have quite a treasure and I'm sure you know who you will pass it onto.

Rachel Phillips said...

A great find, part of social history. We had autograph books at school in the early 1960s when moving from lower school to upper school. I don't know what happened to mine but I can still see some of the entries in my mind. The most popular was Roses are Red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are you. Teachers had also signed mine but no rhymes or words from them.

Ed said...

I've run across a few of those over the years but never one with phrases. They have just had signatures of people in and around the lives of the owner of the book.

I'm not convinced that the first letter in your "Idaho, N.C. card" is actually an "N". All the fancy script N's that I have seen start with the loop at the top and not the bottom. I wonder if it is an A instead of an N.

Boud said...

What a treasure of a book. And yes, even the kids penmanship is pretty good! I agree about the meaning of that prosperity quotation -- meeting means someone's descending the hill, so they've lost their prosperity. It seems to be a hope for friends to be traveling with you, not opposite.

Bob said...

Penmanship has gone by the wayside. I kind of miss it because it seems so very personal.

Debby said...

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, autograph books were 'the thing'. As I understand it, they were popular when my parents were in school as well. Earlier still, they were little books that one displayed their penmanship in by writing poetry (from memory!) that reminded them of their friend, and then they signed it. By the time that it got to my parents' age, it had become more light hearted. I always signed my books with this little rhyme: "I love you, I love you, I love you so well. If I had a peanut, I'd give you the shell."

Ascending the hill of prosperity and never meeting a friend? It simply was humor. If you become rich, your friends would expect to borrow money.

e said...

I have a LOT of Tatum ancestors from NC. I'll have to see if that person is connected to them. Nice find!

The Bug said...

Those entries are amazing! That one from her teacher though - was he saying that she wasn't pretty? Or MAYBE (Ms. Cynical Bug) he was letting her know that inner character was more important than fixating on looks.

Ms. Moon said...

The rhyming of "blossom" and "possum" is genius.
Have you researched what sort of pens were used to write these? Some design we certainly do not use!

Sharon said...

How fun to read all of these notes from the distant past. I'm impressed by some of the handwriting. Much of the writing is quite beautiful and the little poems are great.

NewRobin13 said...

I love that you have this old autograph book. It's such a treasure.
I still have the autograph book that I had when I was in 6th grade. My twin brother has his as well. A few months ago we were writing to each other some of our favorite notes in it.

ellen abbott said...

Oh what fun! And wife and mother was the only future women were allowed back then. We have some Halls in our family lineage.

Wilma said...

A wonderful glimpse into history at a personal level! Lula must have been a popular name at that time in NC. My grandmother was a Lula (and my middle name from her) from Monroe NC.

jenny_o said...

I love these, especially the last one. I didn't realize autograph books were around at that time. We had them when I was in school (primarily the middle grades and only the girls) and I treasure mine. Maybe I will do a blog post about them. And you're right about the penmanship. Did you know that many kids are not even being taught cursive writing anymore?!

Jeanie said...

THIS is almost unbearably precious. The fact that it has John Cade's message makes it all the more so.And it's such a step back in time. I'm so glad you rescued it. (And on a related note -- I think it's criminal they don't require teaching of cursive writing anymore -- even if it wouldn't be as elegant as this.)

Susan from the Pacific Northwest said...

Autograph books were a thing one year in elementary school for me. This was in the 1960s in Montana. I remember one rhyme that a girl named Evelyn wrote in mine:

When you are old
And overweight
Remember that girdles are

Why I remember that I have NO idea, maybe I realized it was ridiculous even then.

Kelly said...

I do love the penmanship and think it's funny that you've "transcribed" it for us. What's not funny is that someday kids won't be able to read cursive writing like this!

After what you replied to me about the Fitzgeralds and alcohol, I thought it was interesting I came across this book in something I read this morning: The Trip to Echo Spring - On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. It focuses on six writers, Fitzgerald being one of them.

Blondi Blathers said...

Oh how I enjoyed this entry. I had an autograph book till sometime in my late teens I left it somewhere in New Brunswick accidentally. -Kate

John Going Gently said...

Snippets of the past in copperplate

Ellen D. said...

That is a great treasure to have. I have an old autograph book that my family members signed in 1958 with their name, address and phone numbers. Also I had some of my 3 grade friends sign too. Lots of "Roses are red, violets are blue, etc."
Donald S. wrote:
"To wise you are To wise you be
See if you are To wise for me"
I guess he hadn't learned the difference between "to" and "too" yet!! :)

Janie Junebug said...

So cool! I love messages for "Miss Janie," the way some people address me since I moved to Florida. It was definitely de ri·gueur for young ladies to get married and have children. Otherwise they were spinsters, the maiden aunts with no children of their own.


Steve Reed said...

Margaret: I think they do! I wouldn't want to test one.

Merlot: That's a good guess! Kind of like what people said in the other comments -- the friend would be hitting you up for money.

Frances: Can you imagine living in a time of such uncertainty? No wonder people were more religious.

Mitchell: Kind of like The Smiths song, "We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful"!

Andrew: I had one too, but I don't think anyone ever signed mine. I was waiting to meet a famous person.

Rachel: Oh, I know that "Roses are Red" rhyme. I guess it was universal, at least in English-speaking countries!

Ed: It may be a peculiarly drawn N, but I'm sure it's an N. There are other pages that also refer to Idaho, N.C.

Boud: Interesting. I would never have figured that out.

Bob: I agree. It was always interesting to see other peoples' handwriting.

Debby: You could at least give them the peanut! I think you're right about the meaning of that humorous quote. It's pretty subtle!

E: That would be quite a coincidence, but then again, there were far fewer people in the world back then!

Bug: I interpreted it the second way -- that the inside means more than the outside.

Ms Moon: It kind of ruins it that he she wrote "opossum" instead of just "possum," but I think it was meant to be pronounced like the latter. I think they're just ordinary fountain pens? (And plain ol' pencils.)

Sharon: Skillful writing with a fountain pen was a lot like calligraphy.

Robin: Funny! It's cool that you can exchange memories that way.

Ellen: That certainly was the expectation for a woman, particularly in rural North Carolina.

Wilma! Funny! Was her last name Bullard? Are we related?

Jenny-O: Yes, you should blog about them! I'd love to see them! I had an autograph book but I don't think anyone signed it. I was waiting to meet a celebrity.

Jeanie: I agree, it's a shame we've moved away from handwriting. Even I never write anything by hand anymore.

Susan: HA! That's hilarious. I'm not sure they even had girdles in my great-great-grandmother's day. Corsets, maybe.

Kelly: That sounds like an interesting book. Apparently Fitzgerald considered alcohol essential for his writing, but he really did drink copious amounts. I transcribed these pages because I was so afraid others would have trouble reading them! (Plus it makes the names Google-able.)

Kate: Well, THAT's a bummer. Maybe it's still hanging around in New Brunswick waiting for you to come and get it?!

John: They are an interesting glimpse at a bygone era. My great-great-grandmother was born just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Astonishing, really.

Ellen D: Ha! I bet those old phone numbers are interesting. Do they use exchanges, like "MUrray Hill 5-9975"?

Janie: Funny that you can connect with the name! This is why my mom was named Jane -- after this ancestor.

Wilma said...

My Grandmother's name was Lula Ramar Cheney! I love that I got Lula as a middle name. Not Bullard - too bad, I was hoping we had a kin connection!