I collect way too many things, and one of my favorite categories is 19th century friendship albums, which were created by and for teen-aged girls and young women—although some of the albums belonged to young men.
A drawing from a friendship album with the date: Jan. 10, 1881-- hidden in it
They were often beautifully bound and decorated books with blank pages to be filled in by friends and relatives, back in the days before radio and television shortened everyone’s attention span. A friend or relative who was asked to inscribe a page would fill it with in poetry or prose—demonstrating his/her skill at calligraphy-- or draw or paint an illustration, or sometimes paste in a dried flower or a frilly piece of Victorian scrap—all dedicated to the album’s owner.
Examples of fancy calligraphic signatures
In the 19th century there were books published to educate the populace both on sample sentiments to write in albums, and on how to make their handwriting a source of admiration.
From the album of Tryphosa Lakin, circa 1834
The earlier the friendship album, the more elaborate its inscriptions. They reveal what subjects fascinated teenagers in the days before teenagers existed—and it wasn’t boy bands or vampires. It was religion and love and death.
"Conscious Rectitude" to Tryphosa
In albums from the 1830’s, there is a strange obsession with death—all those young people warning each other that they may die at any moment and they’d better be prepared to gain entry into Heaven. This morbid obsession is satirized by Mark Twain, if I remember correctly, in “Huckleberry Finn” when Huck stays with a family whose daughter cannot stop talking about death. (Of course an obsession with dying is not so unnatural at a time when typhoid and yellow fever epidemics raged, and something like one in three pregnant women died in childbirth.)
My favorite friendship album is the first one I bought-- in 1969 at Shepherd’s Market in London for exactly one pound. It belonged to Marie Sandoz Vissaula, a young girl living in Switzerland and covers the years 1865-1867.
All the entries are in French in the exquisite calligraphy expected of well-educated young ladies. The best (and first) page is a watercolor done for Marie by her grandfather, which must have taken him the better part of a day.
And here is the painting of a morning glory done by one of Marie’s friends, Louise Rousser.
The most heartbreaking album I own belonged to a young woman named ”Miss Addie A. Allen”, as she wrote on the first page. Addie lived in Connecticut and her friends, male and female, wrote in her album “The Token”, beginning in Feb. 1858.
Most of the young men who wrote in Addie’s album soon enlisted in the Union Army, and when they died, Addie carefully noted on their page the place and day of their death and their age. There was even a lock of hair on the page of “Joe R. Toy”, who “died in the hospital at New Orleans, 1861” as she wrote. “Your cousin, Eugene” “died April 1864, aged 24.” “Your friend Henry”, “died in the hospital at Alexandria, Sep. 1863. 23 years of age”.
Freddie Brilkley, ended his page “Oh! May it in the Book of Life/ God’s glorious Album, glittering stand/ With bright and shining names to be/ Eternally….Eternally.” He “died in the hospital at Port Royal on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, aged 21”.
One of the young men who survived evidently brought Addie back a war souvenir –a small swatch of red fabric which she sewed into her album and labeled, “a piece of the Battle Flag of the 2nd Conn. Artillery.”
As the albums evolved in time from the 1830’s toward 1900, the inscriptions became less gloomy and religious and more likely to be funny or satirical. A young lady named Elsie Dupuy Graham of Olney, PA, had talented friends who, starting in 1879, left clever drawings and sometimes made up a poem as well.
Here’s one written during a visit to Cape May, with tiny illustrations, by someone who did not sign the work:
Oh! One day At Cape May, on the shore of the Sea/ A girl, with a curl/ Sat there talking to me.
`Oh! the wave then did lave/ And coquet with the beach/ The barque and the shark/ Kept off shore out of reach.
Oh! The porpoise, on purpose/Revolved on his nose/ /The crab made a grab/ At this little girl’s toes.
“Oh! A fish! How I wish/ I could catch one” she said./” Flounder, ten pounder/ Or a lovely sheepshead”
…to be continued
By about the 1920’s the tradition of creating a beautiful album to remember and immortalize the friends of one’s youth had deteriorated into what we now know as the autograph book, for recording the signatures of celebrities and friends, who write short rhymes like “roses are red, violet are blue…” and “2 good 2 be 4gotten.”,
Today friendship albums have been replaced by the scrawls of friends in a yearbook. It’s too bad we’ve lost the habit of recording our friendships with poetry and art and predictions for our future as we leave youth behind, but I guess Facebook takes care of that now.