Aunt Edie’s Commonplace Book, 1917-1947
“It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary,
in which to put down any striking thought in your author,
or your own impression of the work, or of any part of it; but not summaries of facts.
Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer;
besides, we never forget the book that we have made extracts from,
and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review.”
I was poking around in my mother’s bookshelf this past summer, and I found a treasure — our Aunt Edie’s handmade commonplace book. It’s not a very big book, and after many years of love, is a bit faded and shabby, but it was full of all manner of things, written and pasted in between 1917 and 1947. The selections reflect Aunt Edie’s life and values, and I thought you might enjoy seeing her book and a few of the things she recorded.
Aunt Edie: A Rural Schoolteacher
Edith Armstrong Hanes taught at the one-room Grapevine School in northern California — I think it was in what is now Stony Creek School District. This little school drew students from nearby communities and Indian reservations. It was so rural that during the years my mother and her little brother attended school here, they lived with Aunt Edie all through the school year, so they would be able to get there in spite of snow or bad roads. Needless to say, Aunt Edie was one of the most influential people in my mother’s life.
Like many commonplace books of the time, Aunt Edie’s book is a bit like a scrapbook, containing both written notes and longer items pasted in. This is a change from the very early commonplace books I’ve seen, perhaps because in the early days of the printing press, people were more likely to copy by hand, rather than damage a printed item by cutting an article from it. My own commonplace books have only hand-written excerpts because copying slows me down enough to absorb and meditate on a meaningful passage. I keep clippings in a folder, which isn’t ideal — they would be easier to enjoy in a scrapbook.
Pages from Aunt Edie’s commonplace book
In the photos below, you can see several poems from various sources, plus the program for Grapevine School’s 1940 graduation. The poems include “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” “Opportunity,” “Keep Sweet,” “Gossip Town,” A Morning Prayer,” and “Keep Me From Turning Back.” Normally, all entries would be handwritten in a commonplace book, but Aunt Edie clearly felt that the book could also be used for good things she clipped and saved.
Here is an invitation to the 1941 graduation exercises of Grapevine School, the “Monday’s child is fair of face” rhyme, plus three stanzas of a poem, “Why the Twisting Way.” A bit of research for the source of the poem led me to the old Springs in the Valley devotional by a Mrs. Cowman.
If you are as curious as I was to know what might be included in a 1940 graduation, here is a peek at the music and recitations listed in the program.
For 1941, there is a copy of the handwritten invitation to graduation exercises. There is a crayon-drawn flower on the front of the invitation that looks as if it may have been drawn and colored by a student.
Practical things go into a commonplace book, too. Here are the students who graduated from Grapevine School during the years Aunt Edie taught there. The first page shows graduates from 1919-1930, and the second page shows 1930-1947. In the second photo, you can see the construction threads of the book. Signatures are sewn in small groups, then linked and attached to a binding made of cloth over stiff cardboard covers. Bookbinding is another good thing for students to learn — creating a commonplace book can be part of educating head, heart, and hand together.
The poem “Self-Respect” (also known as “Myself”) is carefully printed. The poetic voice in this one sounded familiar, and I was able to identify the author as Edgar A. Guest. It is interesting to notice that the penmanship style is very simple — almost child-like. My grandmother told me that when she was in school, printing was not taught as a subject — students began to write by learning cursive. If students wanted to learn printing, they did so by copying letterforms from books. Since Aunt Edie belongs to the same generation and was educated in the same geographic area, I would guess that is the reason for the very simple printing.
Here is a reading of the poem “Myself” by Edgar A. Guest in this nicely produced video by Young Director’s Productions. Oral recitations were part of most student’s education for centuries, even in one-room schoolhouses like Aunt Edie’s and larger schools such as Charlotte Mason’s school in Ambleside. If you have read the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you probably read how students would prepare recitations and the community would gather to hear them. Note that doing a video reading of a poem is a wonderful school project for any young person interested in film, or as an alternative to a live poetry recitation.
Finally, here is a look at the structure of the book, looking down from the top. From the even marks at the top of the pages, I am guessing that the paper was originally part of a perforated notepad.
I found this old book so inspiring — not just the content, but also the simple creativity of making a book from materials at hand, then adding to it year after year. I loved the way the selected poems reflected what Aunt Edie valued and thought about. Here are a few ways you might use these ideas for yourself or for a homeschooling teacher or student.
- After you copy a poem into your commonplace book, record a recitation, and make a blog post with a photo of the handwritten poem and an audio or video of the recording.
- Create a hardbound book to use as a commonplace book or to hold a year’s worth of compositions.
- If you don’t have time to write things out by hand (please try it!), you can still keep a commonplace book by pasting in the things you find meaningful. Mixing it up is just fine, too. It’s your book!