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“Yes, this is my album” Victorian Collections of Scraps, Signatures, and Seaweed

Friendship Autograph Albums

I came across an old album of my own, the other day, that had been buried in the dust of ages, apparently, for it was torn, defaced, and generally demoralized in appearance, and, as I glanced through it, how the old associations crowded around me! Here was the writing of my intimate friend and ‘chum’ at boarding-school. It consisted of pages of allusions to our various scrapes, jokes, and amusements.

– May Croly, “Writing in Autograph Albums” (1880)

The friendship album was the most popular form of autograph album during the Victorian era—both in England and in the United States.1 A precursor to modern-day yearbooks (and even, perhaps, to social media websites), friendship autograph albums provided a space for groups of friends to document evidence of their social networks.2 Friendship album owners were usually children or young adults still attending school or college. And most commonly, album owners were women and girls.3

The distinguishing feature of the friendship album is that, although it likely had only one owner, it was created collaboratively.4 Friendship albums were passed between friends and family members, and each person was required—at the very least—to sign their name in the album’s pages.5 Once returned to its owner, the album would serve as a memento of social bonds. It could be reflected on privately by the owner or proudly shared with others.

Pictured to the right: Page of inscriptions from the Lilian L. Kidman Album.

What was collected in friendship albums?

Except for signatures, which are a constant feature, the content of friendship albums varies. Commonly, album signers would include verses of original or borrowed poetry (usually borrowed), quotations from books, or favoured song lyrics.6 Books such as J. S. Ogilvie’s The Album Writer’s Friend (1881) were published to aid in choosing apt inscriptions to write in friends’ albums. Inscriptions ranged from serious to lighthearted, as can be seen in the matching friendship albums belonging to Lilian L. Kidman and her younger, equally artistic sister, Ella (SC624). Both of these albums are housed at the University of Victoria and featured in full slightly later in this exhibit.

Pictured above: Select inscriptions from the Ella Kidman Album (created between 1897 and 1930) and the Lilian L. Kidman Album (created between 1898 and 1928).

Usually, blank books were used for friendship albums; this meant that there was space for signers to be creative. Typical especially of English friendship albums, is the inclusion of drawings.7 Many almost appear to be collaborative sketchbooks. As with inscribed verses, drawings could be original or copied, and the quality and subjects of the drawings varied. In the Kidman sisters’ albums, some pages include hastily drawn sketches—and others include carefully thought-out paintings that clearly result from hours of work.

Pictured above: Select drawings and paintings from the Ella Kidman Album and the Lilian L. Kidman Album.

What were the trends in friendship album design?

Inkblot signatures

Ella Kidman album - Inkblot Signature

Album signers were creative with how they signed their names. In the middle of the nineteenth century, many became fascinated with klecksography: the practice of making art out of inkblots. This practice found its way into friendship albums, and inkblot signatures became popular by the turn of the century. These ghostly-looking signatures were made by first folding the paper in half and opening it again, then signing your name above the crease, and finally folding the paper, once again, over the wet signature.8

While the Kidman sisters’ albums provide evidence that inkblot signatures were being created by the end of the Victorian era, the popularity of this trend increased into the twentieth century. In 1905, Cecil Henland’s The Ghost of My Friends was published for the first time in London. After opening with the instructions for creating inkblot signatures, Henland’s book provides blank pages (except for the name and date lines) for book owners’ friends to sign.9 The Ghost of My Friends became popular in the United States as well as in England, and was sometimes also used as a celebrity autograph album. Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw are two of the many celebrities who were approached for their ghostly signatures.10 Speaking further to the popularity of inkblot signatures is the existence of Your Hidden Skeleton, a second commercial autograph book that was published in 1911 by Philadelphia publisher John C. Winston Company.

Pictured above and below: Inkblot signatures from the Ella Kidman Album and the Lilian L. Kidman Album.


Calling card designs

In another trend found in friendship albums from Britain and North America, album owners would trace layered rectangular shapes into their blank books. Friends and family would write their signatures in the middle of the rectangles, sometimes accompanied by a personalized design. The effect: each rectangle resembled a personalized calling card—a memento that many Victorians would leave behind for their hosts after visiting.11

Green writes: “A tray full of calling cards was like social media for the Victorian era, a way to advertise who was in one’s extended circle” (2). While many album owners would paste in actual calling cards, the imitation calling cards that some drew into albums had a similar effect. Additionally, drawn-in calling cards did not depend on the signer actually having their own personalized and printed calling cards to give out.

Pictured above, to the right: An example (from the Ella Kidman Album) of what a calling card looked like.

Calling card design from Ella Kidman's autograph album.
Calling card design from Lilian L. Kidman's autograph album.
Calling card design from Cecelia Sylvester's autograph album.


Elaborate title/ownership pages

Of course, a signature that should not be forgotten is that of the friendship album’s owner. Usually, the owner’s signature appears early on, often on a creatively designed title/ownership page that imitates a print book. The extensive effort often put into title pages emphasizes the revered status of the friendship autograph album as a memento of social relationships.12

Ella Kidman album - Title Page

Pictured above: Ownership page from the Ella Kidman Album.

Continue to next page: Autograph Albums in Archives

  1. Croly 190 and Long 125 Back ↑
  2. Elgabri par. 7 Back ↑
  3. Croly 190 Back ↑
  4. Garvey, Writing with Scissors 15 Back ↑
  5. Long 125 Back ↑
  6. Long 125 and Stevenson 35 Back ↑
  7. Garvey, Writing with Scissors 15 Back ↑
  8. Young par. 3, 6 Back ↑
  9. Young par. 5 and Henland Back ↑
  10. "Autograph Ghosts of Famous People" and Young par. 10 Back ↑
  11. Good 562 Back ↑
  12. Lynch 93 Back ↑
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