Autograph books were a fad when I was in sixth grade. I bought mine at the Ben Franklin store. It had a nifty padded plastic cover and multi-colored pages. All the girls brought theirs to school. (Did boys have autograph books? Probably they signed ours.) We passed them around at recess or at lunch. If the teacher caught us passing them in class, or just pulling them out of our desks to read the latest entries, they’d be confiscated for the rest of the day.
Sentiments were simple: “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.”
“Down in a meadow, carved in a rock, you will read these words: Forget me not.”
They were funny: “Yours till Niagara Falls / till the chocolate chips / till banana splits.”
“When you are married / and have twins / don’t come to me / For safety pins.”
Grownups wrote more serious messages: “You are a fine student. Carpe diem – seize the day.” “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I bought an old autograph book at an estate sale in Beach Park last winter. It was on the “special” shelf at the checkout and I scooped it up. It’s 5 x 8 and has a green leather cover embossed with a sprig of gold flowers.
The book begins: Kriegsjahr, 1914-15. Erna Gerlach, Kiel Hassee, HasseerStrasse No. 7.
That is, Erna lived at 7 Hasseer Street in the Hassee neighborhood of Kiel, in northwestern Germany. (I used Google Maps to pinpoint the address.) Kriegsjahr means “war year.” When Erna began collecting her friends’ autographs World War I was underway. Halfway through the book the date changes: “Kriegsjahr, Januar, 1916.”
Erna’s book has some fifty entries written in the lovely fluid penmanship of steel-nibbed pens. All are in German, of course, using old-style script that must be deciphered before translating. The signatures are plain: Ella Werner, Frieda Buttner, Anni Tiedje, Elsa Hoppner, Alma Kobarg, Gertrud Freundstuck, among others. Every signature is preceded by “zur erinnerung,” which means, “to remember,” or “in remembrance.”
I translated a few phrases. I could not discern any references to the war. Edna’s brother Edward wrote about a bit of moss (I think), modest and pure next to a proud rose, and signed, “Always remember, from your brother.” Another friend quoted a common German proverb, “With God at the start and at the stop, this is the best resume.” (“Resume” meaning “course of action.”)
It turns out that autograph books began in 16th-century Germany when university students began to have their Bibles signed by their classmates and instructors. Soon publishers started producing books with blank pages. These “books of friends” or Stammbucher were kept over lifetimes. They fell out of fashion for a while but in the late the 19th century young women and girls revived the fad. (See this interesting article .)
I know the “what” for this century-old treasure. There are more questions. Did Erna emigrate to the Chicago or Milwaukee? When? Why? Was the estate sale for her descendants or had someone acquired the book somewhere else? Perhaps a ZB News reader can fill in pieces of this intriguing puzzle.