Remembering Poetry Albums

Around the end of my elementary school days and 5th and 6th grade I used to have a poetry album. It was a square textile bound hardcover book with blank pages. I used to give it to friends, relatives, teachers, people I liked and who had an impact on me. They would write a few words of poetry, wisdom, encouragement, good luck or draw something into this book and return it to me again later. This book would grow to become a documentation of these years and a keepsake of all the people who meant something to me during that time.

When I saw somebody’s album of collected autographs a few weeks ago I remembered this poetry album again and was wondering if this old tradition does still exist today in Germany, and if it ever existed in the United States? Next time I visit home in Germany I have to try and find this old album. I am afraid it may not exist anymore. I have a vague memory of giving it to somebody who never returned it to me. But I am not sure…it has been more than 20 years since I used to keep this album.

I think it was a very beautiful tradition not only because of its value as a keepsake, but also because it helped to connect with people more than one would generally allow to happen in day-to-day life. All the thoughts, words, poetry or drawings showed a side of the person one may have never learned about before. This book was in many ways invaluable as a key to friendship and appreciation.

To find out more about today’s poetry albums and how common they are in other parts of the world I looked them up on Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia confirms my own memories of the poetry album and adds some interesting facts on their historical background.

At the end of the 16th century it was a tradition to write name, emblem and a motto into a friend’s family book. In the 18th century people added a lot of personal dedications, endearments and drawings, so eventually they turned from a family registry to more general remembrance albums. They experienced the peak of popularity in the 19th century when members of literary circles shared poetry and artistic contributions with each other in dedicated poetry booklets. This was mostly a tradition among adults at that time.

In Europe, this more than 300 year-old tradition is passed down from one generation to another only in German-speaking countries and the Netherlands. It is unknown in Scandinavia, Ireland, Great Britain and the Romanic countries.

The English Wikipedia describes friendship books which unlike the German poetry albums are not kept to yourself, but passed from one penpal to another, sometimes also becoming a way to meet new penpals. Sometimes they are also made for someone else rather than themselves.

Interesting… I would like to revive this old tradition. But I wonder if I just handed a book to somebody, would people know or understand what to do with a poetry album? I briefly thought about a digital version of the old poetry album, but it would never be the same, and I suppose today’s social web already serves as a sort of virtual album.