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Autograph Books

Author John Cech
Air Date 3/6/2000

Autograph Books Transcript

This is National Autograph Collecting Week, and as we know the hunting of celebrity autographs–on every conceivable surface from baseballs to the backs of hands has never been more frenzied. Back in the late 1800s, one of the fads among young people was the autograph book, and with it came the art of writing tokens of affection for one’s friends in these small, cherished volumes that have all but disappeared unless one has fortunately survived in your family.

Today, of course, this craze has long passed, though its spirit is kept alive on the side covers of school yearbooks and in the gossipy “slam books” that pre-adolescent girls circulate among themselves to dish the latest middle school romantic and society news. Boys certainly aren’t expected any longer to sign their names with a rhyme, unless they’re rapping. But a hundred years ago, a young man had to have a flair for the quatrain, and a good steady hand with a fountain pen. In my then teen-aged grandmother Mary’s autograph album from 1894, for example, Charlie Cklecatsky wrote in his flowing script:

Dear Mary.
A line of my writing
Oh what shall it be
A token of friendship
From Charlie to thee.

Many of her other friends inscribed their rhymes in the Czech that they all grew up learning how to speak and write along with English in their ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. Oh, how I wish I’d listened more to the lessons she tried to give me so that I could decipher these bohemian hieroglyphics. But many are in English, and they open a window back in time through these small, oblong yellowed pages.

A good number of the rhymes are serious, like this one from Charlie’s sister, Josie Klecatsky:

Act well thy part
there all the honor lies

or Annie Smolik’s cautionary admonition:

Beauty may win, but virtue must retain
That happiness which we do wish to gain.

And then there are old chestnuts like Omma Sindelar’s:

Leaves may wither,
Flowers may die,
Friends may forget you
But never will I.

Others teased and joshed, like this from her pal Annie Suchan:

The door is locked
The key is in the cellar
No one is home
But Mary and her feller.

Evidently, something was in the air, because, tucked away in the album, next to a comic post card from the young man who would later become her husband and my grandfather, was this rhyme, from her “loving friend” Mary Kaspar:

Apples are good
Peaches are better
When you get married
Send me a letter.

Not too many years later, Mary would have gotten that note.


Posted in Holidays