Nowadays if you want to record something to remember for further reference, you likely take a quick photo on your cell phone for your Instagram account. But in pre-computer days, you wrote such things into your commonplace book.
A combination of scrapbook, diary, and notebook, commonplace books were bound books of blank pages, to be filled however the owner pleased. I especially like a 17th c. synonym: a "silva rerum", or a "forest of things." Most often the pages were filled with passages copied from books, plays, poems, or sermons that were significant to the user, but surviving commonplace books also include scientific observations, random thoughts, and newspaper clippings pasted in place. Especially in a time when books were rare and/or expensive, commonplace books were a handy way to store information for later use.
They were intensely personal, meant primarily for the user rather than posterity, and as a way to store information and inspiration. They're filled with penmanship that ranges from dazzling to undecipherable, but there are also plenty of doodles and random flourishes, and missing words haphazardly inserted.
Commonplace books were kept by humble clerks and great writers alike, including John Milton, John Locke, H.P. Lovecraft, Francis Bacon, and E.M. Forester. University students were encouraged to keep them as a way of organizing ideas and thoughts, and as memory aids. Even Sherlock Holmes kept commonplace books to assist with his cases.
Although commonplace books might seem at odds with the digital age, rare book collections are now putting them online for a wider audience to read. Here is a commonplace book focused on tips and thoughts on angling (fishing), compiled between 1694-1717 by Nathaniel Bridges. Here's a legal commonplace book kept by Thomas Jefferson from 1762-1767, compiled while he was a young law clerk. And here is the late 19th c. commonplace book of Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, sister-in-law and close friend to poet Emily Dickinson, that includes wedding notices and postcards.
But one my favorite commonplace books can be read here. It consists of two volumes, and is the work of Melisinda Munbee between 1749-1750. Dedicated to the author's father, Valentine Munbee, it's a collection of poetry, written out in impossibly perfect penmanship supported by faint, neatly hand-ruled lines. There are a few endearing glitches: on page 22, right, there's a correction: "The following six lines should have been inserted at ye asterism [asterisks]."
What makes this particular commonplace book so special? Miss Munbee completed it at the very tender age of five years, five months - as she proudly states on the title page, above.
Thanks to John Overholt, curator of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts, Houghton Library, Harvard University, for sharing Miss Munbee's commonplace book on twitter. Above: A collection of various kinds of poetry, by Melesinda Munbee.manuscript, 1749-1750. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.