A book came in this week, a small tome from the turn of the last century, and, as will sometimes happen in spite of all my precautions, I opened it to take a look and wound up sitting down to read all 312 pages. No wonder I never get around to building that banana box bonfire.
The illustrations were passable, and the narrative was extremely choppy. The characters existed largely as names on paper: they did very little. And yet the story, minimal though it was, struck me and I was sorry to see it come to an end.
This jewel of literature is A Book of Birthday Gems, published in 1901 by M.A. Donohue of Chicago. It is a Birthday Book, a genre of literature you can still find, primarily in calendar form. In those days, they were often diaries, with a quote for each day and a space to write down your experiences. The quotations may be Scriptural or from Great Literature, or they may come from one certain author (I get lots of copies of the one filled with quotes from A.A.Milne.)
But this is not that kind: Donohue had another idea. This birthday book comes with three days to a page, each having a proverb, a text (Scripture), and a chunk of Great Literature. Facing that are three blanks where your friends can autograph the box opposite their birthday. So about half those pages I looked at were really easy to read.
This copy has a couple dozen autographs. I have not figured out yet which of these is the owner of the book, but I have deduced a few things about her. First, she is female, because so are the majority of her friends. Second, though she may have lived out west (the book came in a donation from Colorado: that’s another blog.) she was NOT from Texas. Three or four people wrote down their hometowns, and most of them are from Sweet Home, Texas. My assumption is that you wouldn’t write down your home state if you were signing there. (Anyhow, a Texan will tell just about anybody she’s from Texas, but she won’t bother to tell other Texans. They can tell.)
Third, the community must have been rather diverse: I find Burkes and Culpeppers, but also a Korniakovsky, a a Gephart, a Fusselman, a Vance, and a Lebold. Mind you, this could as easily have been a high school class in Chicago.
The Smiths interest me, however. Three of them have signed the book, and all have a refreshing taste in punctuation, Mertie Smith signs her name and puts a period at the end. Mayme Smith, however, finishes her signature off with a comma. Their brother Edward, showoff, signs himself “Edward,Smith.”
Interesting though they were, the heroine of the story signed her name rather farther along in the book, and went into more detail than anyone else in the book, noting that she was born in 1882, in Belfast, Co. Antrim, Ireland. This was just enough information to freeze my eyes on the page. Born in 1882. This book was published in 1901. There is no reason at all to be transfixed by the fact, but I couldn’t turn the page, held there by the notion that someone born in 1882 had been nineteen years old once, and put her name down in the box for December 18.
Well, perhaps I will have a glass of egg nog in honor of her 130th birthday, but for now I must get on. It is November 9, for which I see the proverb is “Running hares need no spurs”, which is undoubtedly true but leaves me pretty much where I was, while the text is a gloomy note from Ecclesiastes, and the literature bit is a quotation about “executive women”, which I don’t understand either, but sounds unpleasant. Not all these gems can be diamonds.
(Note to publishers of autograph books: Donohue had one great innovation for which archivists and historians would bless you. At the end of a book is an alphabetical index of autographs, where your friends are expected to sign their names a second time. Handwriting being what it is, this at least gives the reader the first letter of the name.)