Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Family Records: Birthday Books (Scotland)

‘Many Happy Returns’

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008]

Few sources for family history can be more appealing than the Birthday Book. These small-size, intricately designed, volumes were very popular among the middle and upper classes in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, Birthday Books were so much in demand that a variety of publishers in Scotland’s big cities vied to produce the most attractive format. Birthday books tended to be kept by women rather than men, so if your ancestor was the wife or daughter of an Edinburgh banker or lawyer, a Glasgow industrialist or a Scottish laird, it’s possible that she may once have owned a birthday book and that what she wrote in it may help you to find out more about your family in the past.
The Lyric Birthday Book, Edinburgh, 1883

The Victorians celebrated birthdays with more gusto than previous generations- parties were held, for instance, with cards, cakes and games. It was important that birthdays were not forgotten. Birthday books often included the birthdays of large numbers of friends and family recorded over a long period of time. One I came across recently was purchased in the 1880s but included entries made as late as the 1960s. Originally birthday books were bound in leather or red morocco; many had gilt edges and ornamental printed endpapers. Those that have survived are often broken at the spine, dog-eared and held together with tape, attesting to many years of use. They were sometimes interleaved with lined blank pages for notes. At other times smaller spaces were left for entries between illustrations and quotations.

Whatever state your Birthday book is in, read it very carefully. Like the Family Bible, it may have provided one of the few places for your ancestor to record important family information over several generations.
Title Page of The Lyric Birthday Book, Edinburgh, 1883
Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Five Things to Look for in Your Birthday Book

1. Establish To Whom the Book Belonged

As Birthday Books were reasonably expensive, they were often given as gifts from one family member to another (usually for a birthday or at Christmas). Check to see if there is an inscription at the front of the book which might help you establish who owned it. Owners of birthday books often mentioned their relationship with the people whose birthdays they recorded. Entries such as ‘John Andrew McWilliams, great nephew’ for example, can be very useful if you are trying to fill in names on the branches of your family tree.

 2. Understand the Entries

Read each entry carefully as sometimes extra genealogical information is included alongside the name. In the book (pictured here) the name of ‘Arthur William Pierce’ is written as one of the entries for October 21st. The writer also helpfully recalls Arthur’s year of birth 1915 and the year of his death 1948. This entry, therefore, provides several pieces of useful information all at once. Entries may also record the age of a relation – sometimes recorded in brackets or after a slash. In these cases, you need to ascertain in which year the book was used – look at the date of publication as a guide. All this can, of course, be helpful in the search for birth and death certificates.

 The Scott Birthday Book (1879) which  includes quotations from the works of Sir Walter Scott. This page mentions the birthday of twins Romulus and Remus alongside the birthday of the writer, Henry Irving.

  3. Look out for Records of Other Events

 Birthday books can also contain surprise entries about other family events and anniversaries and even about events outside the family in the public world. Deaths and marriages as well as baptisms and burials were often recorded. Other, more lengthy, entries can be eye-openers that can give your family history research a real boost. One gem I came across recently, for example, was: ‘September 30th (1901): George Prior married, 2nd time.’

Deaths as well as births were sometimes recorded in birthday books - This one records, Dear Mother died. The Birthday Motto Book and Calendar of Nature, Frederick Warne and Co. 1871.

4. Ask Who Wrote the Entries

Sometimes, the owners of birthday books would ask friends and relatives to sign their own names. Indeed, some books actually requested contributors to sign the relevant page. In this way, birthday books double up as autograph books. If you have genuine signatures, you can attempt some analysis of handwriting. Ask yourself, for instance, if the script is confident and assured or small and hesitant. This may indicate something about your ancestor’s personality. Turn the pages upside down to get a better feel for the flow of the writing.  

This page records the relationship between the writer and her ‘great niece,’ Jennifer Thorn Walder, born 1934. The Birthday Motto Book and Calendar of Nature, Frederick Warne and Co. 1871.
5. Consider the Format 

With a large number of English birthday books also on the market, Scottish publishers looked for unique selling points to make their books more attractive. Some celebrated the nation’s literary talent, for example, Auld Acquaintance: A Birthday Book of the wise and tender words of Robbie Burns (compiled by James B. Begg a grandnephew of Burns) was published by the Edinburgh publisher William P. Nimmo in 1883. And The Scott Birthday Book, which contained quotations from the works of Sir Walter Scott was published in 1879.

Some Scottish birthday books celebrated the nation’s dual culture. The Highlanders Book of Days: A Birthday Book in Gaelic and English was published in Edinburgh by Maclachlan and Stewart in 1885, for instance. These Scottish birthday books joined a large number of English-produced Birthday books which promoted other nineteenth-century novelists and poets including:  The Robert Browning Birthday Book (1896); The Byron Birthday Book (1879); The Charles Dickens Birthday Book (1882); and The Tennyson Birthday Book (1900).

Since birthday books were available in a wide choice of formats, the particular type of book owned by your ancestor may well say something about his (or more likely her) religious interests, literary tastes or other predilections. If your ancestor owned the The Temperance Daily Text Book and Birthday Record of 1883, for instance, you might conclude that his or her family had taken the pledge. For those of a jollier temperament, there were a number of appealing Scottish titles including: The Birthday Book of Riddles and Guesses by Mary E. Donald (1918) and the anonymous Birthday Book of Wit and Humour, 1879 (both published by Nimmo in Edinburgh). 

Whatever your ancestor’s interests, there was probably a Birthday Book out there on the market to satisfy it. English publishers were also producing Birthday books with themes as disparate as Empire, foxhunting, suffragettes, cricket and astrology. The format of your birthday book should either tell you something about your ancestor, or about the times in which he or she lived.

If you have the good fortune to come across a birthday book among your family papers, treasure it. If you don’t, why not search for one online. A number of birthday books often come up for sale on the second hand book site and on the auction site It’s just possible that your family birthday book is out there somewhere and that it might just contain the clue you need to take you on through censuses and certificates to discover more about your family’s past.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful websites  A full list of Birthday Books published during the Victorian period and beyond can be accessed through the search facility here. Birthday Books for sale on the internet. the internet site where you might find your family birthday book up for auction.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Scotland, Scottish, birthday books

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