Essential Reading

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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Family Records: Autograph Books

‘Roses Are Red, Dilly Dilly’

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010] 

Autograph books have been popular from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. At first, these leather-bound and pocket-sized accessories were the favourite possessions of young middle-class girls, but increasingly they were kept by young people of all classes. Such books can now delight family history researchers in that they are usually filled with the signatures (and other fascinating contributions) of the close and extended family and friends of the books’ owners. Autograph books can also prove to be real treasure troves of extra information relating to the family (including photographs, and enclosures such as marriage notices and obituaries about those who have signed them).

Your ancestor might not have kept an autograph book him or herself but he or she might well have signed one owned by someone else. You cannot, of course, search for that fragment of your ancestor’s autograph easily in the archives or online but, as the following case illustrates, some researchers have come across ancestors’ autographs by accident whilst searching archives for something else.

A family history researcher knew that his ancestor was wounded in the First World War and was sent to recuperate at Derby Royal Infirmary. He searched the National Archives Website ( under the name of the hospital and discovered that Derbyshire Record Office holds the autograph book of a young nurse, Millicent Jackson, who collected contributions from many of the soldiers (and staff) at the hospital between 1915 and 1918. After viewing the autograph book in the archives, the researcher was delighted to find that there – alongside many other contributions - was his ancestor’s signature, a poem (possibly original) together with a tiny photograph pasted into the book by Nurse Jackson. The book also included newspaper cuttings about the deaths of particular soldiers who had contributed autographs. Many autograph books like this one have been donated to archives across the country as part of larger collections of papers.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Five Things to Consider in Your Ancestor’s Autograph Book

If you do come across an autograph book owned by an ancestor, it may help your family history research in a number of different ways.

1. The most obviously useful entries will be contributions made by family members that record a name, relationship, and the date and place where the entry was made. An entry signed ‘Great-aunt Johnson, Wigan, June 1918’ for example can alert you to the fact that this relation was still alive and in this location at this particular time.

2. The entries in autograph books nearly always tell you something about the historical situations and social circles in which your ancestor lived and moved. There may be contributions from other members of a household or family, neighbours, school friends, work colleagues or military regiments. The autograph book of Mrs G. B. Stammer of Brighton (kept in the Bury St Edmund’s Branch of Suffolk Record Office), for example, contains the names of the men of The Suffolk Regiment (1915-1918) ninth Battalion, C Company.

Sometimes you will be able to cross-reference names in autograph books with other documentary sources. The autograph book of boarding-school girl Nellie McCarthy, for instance, includes the names of many of her classmates. The 1901 census shows confirms that girls with these names were indeed at school with her in Ipswich in 1901.

3. An autograph book can tell you something about the interests and aspirations of the person who owned it. There may, for example, be entries from famous people with whom your ancestor was enamoured or from particular sporting or artistic groups or societies with which the owner of the book was associated, for example, members of the local football team or amateur dramatics society.

4. Exactly how a person chose to make his contribution to an autograph book can be an important indicator of what he or she was like. Graphology – a popular pseudo-science since the end of the nineteenth century can help you analyse handwriting, for example. In 1899, the Sunlight Year book described graphology as ‘the science which seeks to discern the character of a man from his handwriting, governed by rules and [] acquired by practice and observation.’ It’s possible that your autograph-hunter ancestor might have used graphology to analyse his own collection. Here are some examples of what aspects of your ancestor’s handwriting might tell you about his or her psychology:

  • Ascending signature  - ardour, success and ambition.
  • Descending signature  - lack of confidence in oneself and melancholy.
  • Straight signature - firmness of nature or honesty.
  • Undulating or wavy signature - subtleness of nature, falsehood.
  • Large capitals at the beginning of the Christian name and surname - boasting, imagination and frankness.
  • Short final letters on words – economy, reserve and a critical mind.
And longer contributions in an autograph book can provide material with which to analyse such subtleties as the spaces between words and lines, the connections between letters, the symmetry of the writing and the pressure applied at different points in the entry! For more on how to analyse your ancestor’s handwriting see: Site promoting the science of graphology.

Contributors to autograph books betray their personalities in ways other than their handwriting as well. Consider the creative ways in which they have used the pages, turning them upside down, for example, or writing in their corners, folding the pages, or cutting holes in them. The occasion of writing an autograph also gives an opportunity for a contributor to exercise other talents peculiar to himself – sketching and designing word puzzles (such as anagrams and acrostics) being the two most obvious.

5. The choice of verse or ditty may also tell you something about the relationship between the contributor and the owner of the book. Thus my wise but wary grandmother once wrote in the autograph book that I kept in my teens: ‘Love all/Trust few/Learn to paddle your own canoe.’  Another entry by my serious but witty father in the same book commented wryly ‘Without me thou were nought!’

In the past, ‘visitor’ or ‘guest’ books in hotels or places of public interest could function as autograph books with contributors passing comment on what they had seen as well as recording their signatures and date of their visit. In such cases, the entries can create a striking picture of the world in which your ancestor once mixed. Dorothy Smith, the manageress of the Pump Room Teahouse in Bath the 1930s, for example, asked musicians and singers to sign a book after they had performed in the Pump Room’s Concert Hall (or even when they just came in for tea). Signatures included that of Paul Robeson (the influential singer and equalities campaigner), the soprano Dame Isabelle Baillie and the composer and conductor Rachmaninov. Alongside the contributions, Dorothy stuck newspaper articles and photographs – all of which make for a fascinating record of the ‘celebrity’ ambience of that particular place at that particular time. This autograph book can be viewed at Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Record Office.

If your ancestor collected famous signatures, his or her autograph book (or even individual pages of it) might be valuable. The professional business of collecting autographs is known as philography and the price an autograph can demand on the market depends upon:

  • who signed
  • exactly what they wrote
  • whether the signature was in ink or pencil (ink signatures are more valuable)
  • the overall condition of the autograph
And remember that if you do find an exciting saleable autograph, knowing something about how your ancestor acquired it – what is known in the trade as the ‘back story’ – can add to its value. Happy hunting!

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Books

Bingham, Eve, Simply Handwriting Analysis: Graphology Techniques Made Easy, Zambesi Publishing Ltd, 2007.

Branston, Barry. Graphology Explained: A Workbook. Red Wheel/Weiser, 1991.

Useful websites

Chat page from Good Housekeeping Magazine in which readers have contributed remembered verses and ditties from autograph books. For more information on philography. Detailed description of what makes an autograph valuable. Website of the British Institute of Graphologists.

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Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, autograph books, England, English, Europe

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