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Commonplace Book, She Wrote

In our first post, “Real Commonplace Books,” we shared our experiences diving into the world of commonplace books — journals or textual objects with structured collections of curated quotes and thoughts — and explored the sometimes-loose boundaries of that definition.  


In this post, we’ll focus on commonplace books created by women. We know women kept commonplace books, but do we know how to find them in the archives?


The UW-Madison Libraries catalog describes the book pictured here,  a collection of quotes and poems from friends,  as a commonplace book.  


A red leather book cover with gold inscription.
The cover page of Hayes' book.


But it’s also not quite a commonplace book — a  journal or textual object with structured collections of quotes and thoughts curated by an individual — in the way we first learned to commonplace as part of a class assignment.

We know women kept commonplace books, but do we know how to find them in the archives?

The book’s owner, Emily Hayes (1830-1913), was an upstate New Yorker who collected poems from her companions on the subjects of friendship and loss in a journal she might have called a friendship album, not a commonplace book. Florid calligraphy and ornate inscriptions adorn the pages of her journal and add aesthetic appeal. 


A page in a leather-bound book with ornate calligraphy.
A page from Hayes' book.


The first time we saw Hayes’ notebook was in UW-Madison’s Special Collections. It was laid down on a table alongside centuries-old copies of Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene. Despite having the two much older and more familiar books before us, Hayes’ book captured our attention. With our classmates, we attempted to decipher the elegant handwriting and to understand the quotes Hayes included — what might a particular friend be suggesting in one phrase, or how are they thinking of Hayes in another?


But Hayes’ method of sourcing quotes runs against the commonplace tradition. She’s not selecting quotes from her reading as much as she’s soliciting her companions to create them for her.


Even if it’s not quite a commonplace book, the piece belies a world in which Americans — and increasingly, American women — were becoming more literate and more likely to journal their day-to-day thoughts. Manufacturers quickly picked up on the trend and sold prefabricated, mass-market diaries and planners, the same kind of notebook that Hayes used.


Evidence detailing women’s literacy in the colonial period and beyond is less carefully recorded than that for men, so despite a wealth of scholarship on men’s commonplace books, it’s harder to find similarly robust studies of commonplace books compiled by women. 

Even if it’s not quite a commonplace book, the piece belies a world in which Americans — and increasingly, American women — were becoming more literate and more likely to journal their day-to-day thoughts.

Susan Barribeau, a former curator for the William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers at UW-Madison Special Collections, made a career out of tracking down the hard-to-find records that help us better understand the history of women’s writing. 


A woman, Susan Barribeau, holding up a green book at an event.
Susan Barribeau, the former curator of the William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers.

“I started to look at the places you look when you start to buy stuff for the library or special collections. Dealer catalogs, you know, rare books, antiquarian book dealers,” Barribeau said. “That's just a relationship you build up over the years once you get to know the dealers and know what they have.”


The distinction between commonplace book and diary becomes blurry, Barribeau said. That lack of distinction can show up in cataloging procedures: given the similarities of the genres, what one librarian might catalog as a “commonplace book” could be cataloged by a different librarian as a “diary” or “journal.”


Barribeau resisted a clear delineation between the two during her time as curator, preferring to “keep it loose.” 


“I guess the boundary for me [was that] if they were literate, and they were putting quotes — [from other] people as well as their own personal observations — like E.M. Forster, for example, [it’s a] commonplace book,” Barribeau said.


Emily Hayes’ friendship album

Hayes’ style of commonplacing is an example of a “friendship album,” a type of anthology that, according to Barribeau, contained effusive, often sappy descriptions of the value of friendships between individuals. 


There aren’t topical headers (sections devoted to certain ideas or concepts), and there aren’t concrete rules for structuring. Hayes simply included poems as she saw fit.


A page from Hayes' commonplace book.

In her notebook, Hayes’ friends often describe their mutual friendship in images and metaphors related to nature and God. 


“Long years may roll by and distance 

may sever

the land and spot where I was 

bound by the spell 

but cease to heat my heart 

it will never

 tho’ I bid my friends farewell.” G.M. Parish, 1860 


Hayes’ book is also multimodal. J.C. Riker, the New York-based binder and bookseller who made the album, included engraved images like this one, “The Flower.Such features draw attention to the paratextual elements which adorned these prefabricated friendship albums. 


An inscription page at the start of Hayes' friendship album.

Though the work is unarguably Hayes’, the friendship album format is inextricably linked to the active participation of outsiders: the bookmakers who create its format and bind its pages and the individuals who inscribe it with dedicatory poems.

 

Daisy’s commonplace book

More than half a century later, Daisy, a woman from Maine, wrote her commonplace book around 1905 (according to a date on the book’s spine). It’s a flip book in which she wrote one entry per page, and one page for every day of the year, rarely missing a day. 


She used myriad types of media in her book: newspaper clippings, pictures, drawings, poetry, and excerpts from her own childhood diary. 



A page with a joke and drawings of vultures.
A page from Daisy's commonplace book.


While reading Daisy’s piece, we became acquainted with her sardonic sense of humor; the authors, literature, and comedy she indulged in and her doting relationship with her son, Ellie. In cataloging, Barribeau said, one has to read through the lines — to pour through pages of minute details and uncover new information about an author’s life.


A page with a joke and picture of a woman, dog and child.
Daisy alongside her son, Ellie, in an Aug. 17 entry of her commonplace book.

“Who is this author?” was a question she struggled with while cataloging. 


“There just wasn’t a whole lot of information on these [writers], so you just had to piece together their lives,” Barribeau explained. “It's like a puzzle to put together and figure out: Who are these people? What were their families? What were they doing?” 


Barribeau said gender, wealth, and educational levels become apparent in those commonplace books and journals. “Were they educated? Did they talk about being educated?,” Barribeau mused. “Or were they kind of [educated] up to eighth grade and then now you're baking pies and doing laundry?”


But you can figure out a lot by reading between the lines. Even though Daisy’s identity remains largely unknown, through her commonplace book, we are able to discern the kind of woman she was, the people she loved, and the jokes she laughed at. 


Conclusion

As we searched UW-Madison's Special Collections and scoured the expanses of the internet, we were met with a frustrating reality: finding women's commonplace books was hard. Whether due to overlapping terminology or scarcity in library search catalogs, these books seemed to elude our grasp.


Why?

In a world where women's voices have often been silenced or sidelined, the scarcity of their commonplace books serves as a reminder of the systemic barriers they faced in pursuing education and intellectual expression.

As a practice, commonplacing was tied to formal education in churches or universities, and scholarship on commonplacing has largely focused on the men who historically attended those institutions. Adam Smyth, an English professor at Oxford,  notes how broadening the definition of commonplacing can bring womens’ voices to the table.


“I wish, also, to think about the role of women in this culture: while critics have tended to assert that women had little place or agency within the commonplace milieu, I propose that by considering a broader commonplace book culture, we can find significant evidence of women’s activity.”


In a world where women's voices have often been silenced or sidelined, the scarcity of their commonplace books serves as a reminder of the systemic barriers they faced in pursuing education and intellectual expression. Yet, in uncovering the stories of Emily Hayes, Daisy, and countless other women, we reclaim these lost narratives and hope to amplify their contributions’ significance to literature.


One practical way to do that: know the terminology. Though acquisitions staff may give an item one label, that’s not necessarily all there is to it — by “keeping it loose” with your search terms and definitions, you’ll enrich your archival escapades and dust off those undervalued corners of history.


If you’d like to see these items, you can make appointments to view them at UW-Madison’s Special Collections. 


About the Authors & the Project


“Real Commonplace Books: A Series” is a Spring 2024 Independent Study on commonplace books — many of which are contained in UW-Madison Special Collections.


Liam Beran, a fourth-year English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a passion for language and is seeking a certificate in French. Outside of school, he spends much of his time editing articles for UW-Madison’s oldest student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, and is an active distance runner with the Wisconsin Track Club. 


Libby Markgraf is a senior majoring in Economics with certificates in History and Data Science. Her interest in history began during a papermaking event on Library Mall with Holding History, and she further explored the field through Professor Calhoun's English courses, "Shakespeare, Sort Of" and "Spenser" which introduced her to Special Collections. 


Thanks to UW-Madison's Professor Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about Commonplace Books.

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