Traces of Personal History—Inscriptions in Old Books


These are some of the interesting handwritten inscriptions from century-old, and more, books.

Old books from the 19th and early 20th century are a pleasure to collect, and they often contain an added treasure—handwritten notes from previous owners. Part of the joy of owning things from bygone days is the connection one feels in handling and using a tool or article of clothing, cup, mirror or pitcher that has been part of some departed person’s life. You can imagine what they might have been like, how they felt, what they talked about and how they lived in times very different from ours. It is a physical connection to the past, a domestic fossil that speaks to you of a time and life gone by.

Books especially tell stories—and not just their own, but those of their owners. I have found locks of hair, pressed leaves and flowers, photos, newspaper clippings and postcards within the pages of old books. One large dictionary from 1910 had shamrocks pressed between each page, sometimes four or five or more. How long did it take the person to collect all those leaves? Years probably. Maybe they felt that their luck would last forever as long as they had that book. I would like to believe that there are still some lucky charms left between those pages!

Family members would give each other books as gifts and often placed an inscription to the loved one on the flyleaf of the book. I came across a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels from the mid-1800s in a used book store and bought them because I enjoy reading his historical tales of Scotland and England in the 12th to 18th centuries. When I opened the first volume I was pleased to see an inscription from Cassie Sullivan to her dearest sister, Minnie, on the occasion of her 20th birthday Aug. 2, 1889. That was the sort of personal touch that I take pleasure in and when I looked through the remaining six volumes I discovered that the industrious Cassie had put an inscription in each one! Minnie must have been a little shy about revealing her age because she erased the year on one inscription, but her naughty sister wrote it back in—1889—and chastised Minnie for erasing it. So, Minnie was born in 1869. I did a quick ancestry search in hopes of finding them but they remain a mystery. Sometimes that is better. I can picture them in lovely 19th century frocks sitting outdoors on a warm August day. Minnie is reading one of the Waverley novels to her sister, perhaps in a gazebo surrounded by flowers and trees.

Most of the hand writing is quite mundane—the signatures of the books’ owners, sometimes with the date, the noting by a parent or husband of a gift for Christmas, and sometimes if I am lucky, a little sketch, or in the case of Grace Barnwell, an elegant monogram in gilt ink. There may be handwritten notes in textbooks about information to be remembered but more often younger writers left little drawings, self-consciously flowery signatures and in one case a list of names, presumably of classmates, with comments reflecting her feelings towards them—“pretty eyes”, “kiss u” and “loves u”. One can’t help wondering what happened in this person’s life. Did they go on to date one of these people on their list? Did they fall in love? I don’t think American History or Literature was much on their minds.

Some of the pages are a tangle of names, bits of gossip, dates, class notes and scribbles—sort of revealing but not easy to make out. There are cute poems, cryptic notes, and drawings of faces, a dress and a person smoking a rather large cigar. One would have to be a very astute detective to make something out of these bits of personal history.

What will happen to all the old books by the end of this century? The rare ones, first editions, those signed by the author or from a famous person’s library or in elegant bindings will endure in private collections and museums and libraries; but the great majority will end up in used book stores or second-hand shops and eventually be thrown out. One bright spot for book lovers like me is Project Gutenberg which over the years has digitized tens of thousands of old books and made them freely available online. Other archival websites have done the same. I do enjoy browsing through the titles on PG and finding little gems, often from authors I have never heard of. The online books lack the tactile, visual and sometimes olfactory pleasures of real books and there are no birthday greetings, owners’ signatures or hand-drawn sketches.

Perhaps I will discover an ancient book someday that bears inscriptions of a rare power to transcend time. The key that opens the portal will be hidden within the book’s calligraphy and illuminations but I will find it. You will see my empty chair by the fireside with the book and know that I have traveled back to meet the people who made the inscriptions. For now, however, I will travel by imagination creating the people of the books like characters from a novel imbuing them with life, voices and their own stories.