52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 52: A Special Scrapbook and Commonplace Book
We’ve sadly come to the end of our year long exploration of our collections. We’ve had tremendous fun getting to know obscure corners of our photographs, manuscripts, rare books and muniments better. Next week we’ll round up the year’s work, examine what we’ve learnt and what the future may hold.
But there’s one last project to talk about. We decided at the start that we would create a scrapbook of each weekly activity, and add it to the collections here. This was in imitation of the many scrapbooks we have amongst the manuscripts, in personal and family papers, estate collections, professors’ academic papers and also as individual items given to us or purchased over the years. We have scrapbooks on themes such as advertising, architecture, current events, Royal visits, various wars and conflicts, politics, agricultural science, coats of arms and business logos, travel, beekeeping, cycling tours of Norway, recipes, pig farming, golf, ghosts, antiquarian research, archaeological digs, and whatever else the owner was interested in. Late Victorian scrapbooks often featured Christmas, New Year and Easter cards, embellished with purchased embossed and die cut pictures and we have a number of wonderful examples.
Scrapbooking has long been a popular hobby but expanded exponentially in the Victorian era through the easy availability of printed festive cards, advertising cards, calling cards, tickets, and other brightly coloured ephemera known as ‘scraps’. Special albums for scrapbooking might have ornate embossed covers and clasps, or could be hand-embroidered or painted.
This past-time was enjoyed by children and adults alike, to collect mementos, preserve memories, letters or photographs, to commemorate a special event, or document family history. It opens a window on the cultural life of the past, and is a great benefit to social historians looking into the lives of ordinary people. Further examples of scrapbooks in our collections can be viewed here.
Our scrapbook has a specific theme, to document the work we have done on the Historical How-To blogs over this last year, and uses archival quality paper, ink and glue, and printed copies of images. These items are readily available thanks to the continuing popularity of this hobby. All blog contributors have done or are in the process of creating pages to illustrate what they did for the blog post and most of us have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to cut up bits of coloured paper and stick them to other bits of paper, an activity many of us have not done since childhood. As you can see, many pages go well beyond mere sticking bits to each other, with examples of glass, ink, paper, knitted and sewn items all added to pages in creative ways. I love the variety of approach and style – each one is unique and distinctive in its own way. The intention was to do the pages as we went along but inevitably most of them have been put together quite recently! Once they are all in, we’ll make a place to view them all online. Here are some examples from our blogs on crafts, games and pastimes, recipes, photographic processes, shopping, ghost and travel tours, hen-keeping, Christmas paraphernalia and more. For more examples of pages from our scrapbook take a look here.
The other literary creation we decided to replicate was the commonplace book. This was the precursor of the scrapbook, originally a Renaissance idea to have a book into which favourite passages of text, prayers, proverbs, sayings and quotations could be copied. Students created notebooks in their studies to compile a collection of ideas from their readings to be used in future speeches, compositions and if they were training for the ministry, sermons. The notebook was an aid to memory, and a store for useful passages of Scripture, commentary, philosophical extracts and historical notes for future works.
In Special Collections we have a variety of scholarly and academic commonplace books, from a series by Edmund Gibson, bishop of London, who compiled alphabetical guides to modern theological authorities, canon law and Biblical quotations, dated 1725 (msBX5199.G6/ms5319-5321), to John Scot of Scotstarvet, msPR3671.S3 (1620-1644) which contains notes on works by George Buchanan and subscription lists for donations to the Humanity Class Library at the University.
The commonplace book of Francis Pringle, msLF1111.P81C99, (c.1699-1745) has verses, copied letters and notes on events in the life of St Andrews University, while that of John Cunningham, msPN6245.D71 (1771) includes calligraphy, mathematics, home remedies, Masonic hieroglyphs, chess and artistic instructions.
Two other volumes are full of an alphabetical list of scientific enquiries by Professor of Chemistry, John Robison, msQ171.R8 (c.1800). For instance pages 41-43 cover Barometer; Baking; Boghall; Blast Furnace; Blast Bander; Bread.
We also have a number of very attractive 19th century ladies’ commonplace books, featuring poems, postcards, engravings, photographs, drawings, pressed flowers and any other pretty items which appealed to the owner.
They were often passed around friends to add a poem or a saying or sketch. Examples include the commonplace books of Miss Euphemia Black, ms5564 (1862), Mrs Mary Ann Arnot ms30354/5 (1841), Catherine Fletcher ms37489, (1838-1856), and the witty Roberta McIntosh, ms37102 (1860-1867), all local St Andrews residents. Their choices can also tell us much about the culture of the time, social attitudes and interests.
This is the kind of book we have tried to imitate for this post. But it has proved more problematic to reproduce than the scrapbook. I think people were unclear what the term meant, as we don’t really have an equivalent today. Although I have discovered that Jane actually has her own commonplace book for her favourite poems, and she has been the most at ease in contributing to our book. I suppose online albums and webpages and blogs are now where people put their ideas, photos, poems and contributions from friends.
But we have made a start and more pages are gradually being filled in as people get inspiration. I think in years to come it will say something about the culture, thoughts and pre-occupations of our time, just as the earlier scrapbooks and commonplace books speak for theirs. Some sample pages from our commonplace book and further examples from our collections can be viewed here.
I shall miss the buzz every week of a new project happening somewhere in the shed or the portacabins, the mix of people working together, the break-time discussions, the changing materials on the work table and peculiar happenings on the landing with mysterious compounds in the fridge, jars of unidentified fluid on the coffee table, taster sessions for edible goods from historic recipes, and the revelation of unexpected creativity and talent in the department. It’s been a rare chance to play with our collections in ways not normally possible and I think we’ve grasped the opportunity to make something special out of it.