Commonplace Books, Then and Now 1


When paper became more accessible in the 15th and 16th centuries, people began keeping little books full of recipes, psalms, quotes, and prose called commonplace books, in an attempt to organize and filter what they felt was a barrage of information raining down upon them after the introduction of the printing press. (Imagine what they’d think of the internet?) They became, like their name, quite common, and the method–commonplacing– was even taught in universities. What probably began as a private practice grew into a hobby intended to be shared with any willing reader, to help them navigate a large amount of text– like a cross between CliffsNotes, Reader’s Digest, and Tumblr.

commonplace book beinecke

Commonplace Book ca. early 17th century at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Of course, like most other things, the practice was still limited to those who could afford blank books or paper (which were still quite pricey for the average person) and who had the time and education to dedicate to it. Women, therefore, were largely excluded–most early commonplace books, especially those still extant, were made by men, scholars mostly, though merchants and artisans kept them as well. There are more recent exceptions to this–for example, Kate Chopin’s 19thc commonplace book survives as published in Kate Chopin’s Private Papers  and Milcah Martha Moore’s Revolutionary War era commonplace book is also in print. But the farther back in history you go, the rarer women’s commonplace books become.

elizabeth lyttleton commonplace book

A page from Elizabeth Lyttleton’s commonplace book, ca. late 17th/early18th century

Women were more likely to have books of household recipes and maybe herbal cures for common illnesses, like Jane Baber’s 17th century book of recipes below:

jane baber recipe book jane baber recipe book2

 

Another example of a woman’s recipe (called “receipt” back then) book from the 1600s:

Copyright Lydiard House / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705)

johanna st john recipe book 1600s

Johanna St. Johns’ recipe book

 

A stickler would say that housewives’ collections of recipes, cures, and the occasional prayer or personal musing aren’t commonplace books, but they serve the same purpose for the early modern woman as a philosopher’s notes on Biblical passages or the budding poet’s collection of bits of prose and quotes. (These books were also called miscellanies.)

Over time, commonplacing became something of an art, with great care spent in choosing passages and organizing them for an audience. They were often given as gifts and some were published and studied, like John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706) and Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible (1725).

If you’d like to see one in person, plenty of old commonplace books can be found in research libraries and universities, as long as you qualify for a reader’s card. For instance, the Newberry Library in Chicago requires a valid photo I.D. (age 16+) and a relevant research interest to access their collection and some universities may allow non-students to use theirs.

john hancock commonplace booke 1687

John Hancock’s commonplace book, ca.1687, housed at Harvard (not the John Hancock)

Commonplace books are often referred to as antique blogs (and what are blogs, but an attempt to organize a barrage of text and information?), though technically blogs are often are more like diaries or newspapers. Tumblr and Pinterest are probably the closest thing in the blogosphere to commonplace books.

But even before the internet was widely available, I had my own scrapbooks, and I know a lot of people did the same. I realized recently that they were pretty much commonplace books, in that I collected various poems, quotes, and images that appealed to me, and that I wanted to remember. Unlike my diary, there were no personal passages, just clips from articles, pictures from magazines, and a lot of poetry cut from Sassy magazine. But there was no rhyme or reason to the order, and it wasn’t intended to be particularly pretty. Nor was it organized with any theme in mind other than “things that caught the eye of a 1990s teenage girl”:

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pages from my scrapbook, ca. mid-90s

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My grandmother handmade these blank scrapbooks using a technique she learned at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts

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annabel lee

Copied Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” ca.1994

This fabulous modern commonplace book was created by DeviantArt user Madelei in honor of the movie 9:

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Commonplace Book by Madelei at DeviantArt, ca. 2012

Do a quick search and you’ll find that commonplacing is having a bit of a comeback. If you would like to start your own commonplace book, website Self-Made Scholar has an introduction and tutorial here. Or you could go the digital route and start a Tumblr account, if you haven’t already.

Leave your mark for future historians studying everyday life in the 21st century. Who knows? Your work could be immortalized in Harvard’s special collections.

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Lit lover, history aficionado, baked goods enthusiast, INTP, writer of many things, mom to three.

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One thought on “Commonplace Books, Then and Now

  • Michele Gardner

    You might like Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. She uses a commonplace book as a linking strategy for her female protagonist across time, and has some interesting (and accurate) things to say about Elizabethan women and commonplacing. Long live this most ancient of human memory storage devices!!