January 28, 2013

Commonplace Books

A commonplace book is a scrapbook where the author can record various important pieces of information that they want to remember. They were popular throughout the ages and were especially popular in early America, as paper and books were much scarcer than they are today.




Many commonplace books held facts, recipes, thoughts, weight conversions, important dates,letters and newspaper clippings. The act of keeping a commonplace book was called "commonplacing" and the technique was taught at Harvard so the students there would remember more. In a time before quick and easy information access, these commonplace books could be a lifesaver when a certain address, medicinal recipe or quote was needed for oneself or to share with a friend.

These weren't so much journals or scrapbooks but a mixture of both. Unlike journals, they contained some information copied from other sources. Their main value was to aid the memory of the author but are particularly interesting to historians because it gives a glimpse into what a particular author found interesting or thought was important.  

Commonplace books exist for many historical figures such as Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson,  Even as books became more prevalent and cheaper, many people still kept commonplace books because of their advantages. 

Commonplace books facilitated memory and the sharing of ideas. In modern times, the use of a commonplace book has been compared to sites like Pinterest, where users can "clip" different websites, pin them on a virtual pin board and share them with their friends.


Even in modern times, a commonplace book is an interesting idea because you can see how your interests change over the years. It's harder to keep track of the changes that occur in ones interests using the internet and it is also not something you can keep in the family. Commonplace books are one of those things that have value to the people close to you but would be seen as pointless to anyone who didn't know the author. I think it is still important to create physical records especially as we create more and more digital records. Digital records are great but there is something special about being able to to hold a family keepsake.  

11 comments:

  1. Ghaaaa! You always post the most interesting ideas. When I do a new post, I'm going to link this. You are a very interesting person, Steph. I'm glad I know you.

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    1. I think exactly that every time I think of you. :) I'll be ecstatic if I turn out to be 1/10 of the super awesome woman you are.

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  2. I have a "commonplace" binder for Civil War reenacting :)

    Instructions on caring for leather, brass, wool and steel, how to field clean and strip a musket, your instructions on making the dog tent, how to build ammo boxes, how to bleach tent fabric, how to bake hardtack, how to pack a knapsack/blanket roll, how to fold my great coat, how to wash uniforms, basic Casey's manual of arms, table of organization of a US Army division, receipts from sutler purchases and trip expenses, names 7 phone numbers of the company, trip directions etc etc....

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    1. I keep a bunch. I have a binder for colonial stuff but I still find that I remember more if I hand write it out. I do have two "everything" books that have a bit of everything. I can typically find stuff in them even if it seems like it would get out of hand.

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  3. I have what I would call scrapbooks, in an original sense - I guess; books where I put clippings, mostly pictures, but also one for tips and tricks... No writing, though. I write a recipe book, separately. I guess I'm just too organised, even in my disorganisement, to put everything into one book!

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    1. I have a separate recipe book too. I have one rule, I don't put a recipe in it unless I've tried it and liked it. My grandmom has stacks of recipes she's never tried and I'm trying very hard to avoid it. So untried recipes get clipped and stuck in the book but good ones get written in. :)

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  4. For years keeping a commonplace book has been essential to the way I read. I've written quite a bit about on my websites and as a chapter in "In the Country of Books.

    Have a look: www.the-essayist.com; www.marksinthe margin.com

    I enjoyed your blog on the topic, one sadly neglected by most reader.

    Richard Katzev
    rkatzev@gmail.com

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    1. Very cool. Thanks for commenting. I like how you use your commonplace book.

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  5. Many thanks for such an informative post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Greetings from London.

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