In this limbo period of lockdown, I am doing what I have suggested that so many of my clients do — go to the storage locker and take photos. If your sons and daughters do not want what is in there, they have photos in the Cloud. So when I have two free hours, I am in Goleta rummaging through my expensive second garage.
This week I found something that I had forgotten about – completely. Back in 1977, my dear grandmother, who was born in Hamburg, immigrating when she was in her early 20s, brought with her an autograph book to the New World. The book was wrapped in an old newspaper from 1974 and addressed to me. I stuck it in the locker in one move and forgot about it. And it is a treasure.
Most of the signatures date from 1918, when she must have been 16 or 17 years old, perhaps graduating from her school. There are one-page poems, guidance from her teachers, classmates, relatives, all beautifully written in pen and ink.
So delicate is the older German handwriting that I can barely make it out, and my grandmother in 1977 spent time cutting out paper of the right size as a cover for each of the pages, on which she typed the English translations of all the sentiments. She must have worked for hours, because the translations are often difficult (try to translate a poem) or personally directed.
In her typed notes, she gave me indications of why. One entry says: “written to me in the heather.” She must have been relaxing with a girlfriend in a Hamburg park; the friend wrote a suggestion for living well. What a blessing in these dark times to have discovered the love between friends in 1918, and that friend was my dear Oma, as we called her later.
This is an autograph book, and we find them in the U.S., but these books began in Germany. Calvin’s friend had one signed by Calvin in 1545. Other religious folks collected their mentor’s thoughts in their family Bibles.
Bibles in the 17th and 18th centuries had blank pages upon which signatures and sayings could be annotated.
Common folk had common Bibles and common annotations, all dear, but aristocratic families had pages upon which they emblazoned their family crest and family mottos. So the family Bibles in the 17th and 18th centuries were the first yearbooks.
The autographed Bible gave way to the autograph book, the “Stammbuch,” primarily amongst scholars, who carried them from university to university, recording colleague’s signatures. This is the predecessor to the reference bibliography.
In the 19th century, German fraternities discovered them, and they became records of teachers and classmates. By the 19th century, young women collected sayings and held them dear. German immigrants brought them to the U.S. during the Civil War, and they became a popular method for retaining sentiments in America.
These books are formatted vertically or horizontally and can be beautifully covered in embossed leather. In my grandmother’s case, her book was bound in deep green impressed paper with a Nouveau flower on the cover.
The first signatory was Oma’s stepdad, who told my young grandmother that riches are not worth the shine. Look to other riches, he suggested.
My grandmother married a man in the U.S. who invented something wonderful, and in later life they became wealthy. She never let that wealth change her: Perhaps she remembered her stepdad’s admonition?
The factors that make these books valuable are the celebrities who signed them, the cultural time in which they were signed and how the times speak through the simple sentiments in the books.
In the case of my grandmother’s book, the tenor of the time was the German Revolution of 1918-19 at the tail end of World War I. When friends were writing in my grandmother’s book, Emperor Wilhelm II had abdicated his throne in favor of a constitutional monarchy, which became known as the Weimar Republic. The abject defeat of Germany, the poverty that ensued, and the conflict between the haves and have-nots created discord. The Social Democrats came into power, and my grandmother was educated in such a school.
The first Weimar National assembly took place in the new year of 1919, and Germany had a parliamentary system. The cultural climate matters to her little book, written from 1918-1920, and I notice that the sayings deal with the fleeting nature of money and riches.
Because these books were popular for the common sentiments, the German name for them is poesiealbum.
If you have an autograph book, look for famous names. The two most valuable in existence are Beethoven’s and Babette Koch’s books.
My Oma’s book is not valuable to anyone but me, but it must have been grand for the young woman who became my Oma to watch her stepfather sign the first page. She brought it in her small suitcase to the new country in the beginning of the 1920s.