The tradition of keeping autograph albums came to America from Europe in the 1820s, gaining popularity throughout the nineteenth century. Known by various names, including forget-me-not album, floral album, and memory book, the album was essentially a blank book, generally bearing the word "album" either on the title page, cover or spine. Albums were made of white or colored paper, often interspersed with engravings or lithographs, designed so that family members, friends, and acquaintances could inscribe the blank pages with verses, prose, or drawings dedicated to the book's owner. The more imaginative contributors added pressed flowers and grasses, watercolors, stencils, and even elaborate Victorian hair wreaths. It is not uncommon for an album to share some of the characteristics of other similar genre, such as the diary, drawing album, photograph album, scrapbook and commonplace book. Fundamentally, however, these highly personal volumes offer an intimate look into the attitudes, social lives, and relationships of nineteenth-century Americans.
Although no documentary evidence of the production and marketing of albums has come to light, it seems clear that commercial publishers probably found them a convenient way to use up various materials left over from other jobs, such as colored papers and illustrated plates. Albums were generally bound quite elaborately in cloth or leather, often embossed or stamped in gold, and demonstrate the superb craftsmanship of the nineteenth-century bookbinder. While there are similarities among the papers, illustrations and bindings used, no two albums (even those produced by the same firm) are identical. In fact, some appear obviously to have been custom-made, perhaps individually commissioned for special occasions. Because albums were often given as gifts at Christmas and New Year's, it seems likely that publishers also produced them in some quantity, at least during the holiday season.
The American Antiquarian Society's primary collection of about eighty albums includes many items acquired as part of the bequest of bindings collector Michael Papantonio. One particularly stunning example is Flowers from Cathay, bound by Pawson and Nicholson of Philadelphia in 1864. This specially commissioned volume, which was sold the same year at the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, is bound in cream calf with a complex onlay design in a floral pattern with gold tooling. The collection also includes a handsome molded leather binding in brown morocco, with the presentation inscription stamped in gold on the cover. It was presented to teacher Elihu T. Rowe in 1866 by his students at Appleton Academy, New Ipswich, New Hampshire. One of the more prolific nineteenth-century album producers was commercial publisher John C. Riker of New York, whose imprint may be found in almost half of the items in the Society's collection.
Albums have been fully cataloged online. A simple search using the genre heading "albums" will return records for all items in the collection. In cataloging albums, particular attention has been paid to describing the bindings, and records include both a textual description as well as fully searchable bindings terms (e.g., embossed leather bindings). Similarly, considerable research has been done to uncover the provenance of each item, providing as much information as possible about the albums' owners and other associated names. For access to the small handful of albums that are part of the Society's manuscript collection, consult Manuscript Department staff.
- Carol Fisher-Crosby, Cataloger, North American Imprints Program