Friday, January 8, 2021

Locating Ancestor's Commonplace Book

Charles Lamb, Chronically America (LOC)

Let’s begin with What is a Commonplace Book?

Those who study history know that commonplace collections were not unique. It was a book that held tidbits: quotes, observations, information or points from literature or poems; a collection of knowledge for future references. I liken it to this blog. Although it’s questionable if one could call it commonplacing (yes, that’s the verb), it does not rely on my opinion, or hindsight thoughts, it's a collection of knowledge that can be used at anytime in the future (for the most part).  As I learn terms, research places, historical quotes, etc. I want to capture it in an loosely organized, but findable fashion as a reference.  Like a commonplace book, the idea is to capture these tidbits in a central, easily accessible holding place - a "commonplace.".  Whereas some of our ancestors used commonplace books to meet this objective, others used index cards.  Again the idea was the same.

In genealogy we use it most to understand the social impact and confines of one's ancestor; educational level, literary, philosophical, spiritual, and preferences relating to the arts. We learn of the people that influenced our ancestors.

But, let’s be sure not to confuse a commonplace book with that of a journal.  A commonplace book is a collection of other’s works, quotes, passages, etc.  A journal is a collection or capturing of ones’ own thoughts and are introspective and chronological.   

John Locke's Commonplace Book 
 Library of Congress

Researchers may find the mention of a commonplace book in Special Collections, University Libraries, Local Archives or amongst family files.  In the University of North Carolina Collections, the researcher will find a series of Memoranda, Commonplace books and Scrapbooks of Charles Fisher between 1821 – 1845. 

Commonplace books were quite popular in the early 18th century.  Think about the founding fathers.  It is through the commonplace books of Jefferson that we learn most about his daily life and endeavors in law. Jefferson’s Commonplace Book is digitized from 1762-1767 on the Library of Congress website.  But commonplace books were not just for the known and famous, your ancestor may have had one. The Library of Congress website is a great place to begin your research; however. 

Manhood, John Locke Commonplace Book

One actually can find commonplace books back to the 14th century - Renaissance Era - as they were common in Scotland and France and a preferred method of teaching and mentoring young scholars.  Many of the historical tutors required them for the learned. Early commonplace books appear to be filled with quotes and memorized or copied passages of literature. It is in these books that we can follow our ancestors’ interests, their biases in philosophies, and their preferences in the arts. 

Writers have historically maintained commonplace books. It’s great way to capture a quote once stumbled upon, but can retrieve for one’s writing in the future. 

Emerson: Newspapers across America, Sep 1912

A familiar author of a Commonplace Book was the clergy in early America. The a3Genealogy team located Joshua Bowles’1737 commonplace book at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEGHS) in Massachusetts. But they have everything we love!!

And yes, the priority of the family was to educate the men, giving women the basics to accompany domestic duties.  But women, too, had Commonplace books.  We found one useful one penned by Emeline A. Adens at the Kenneth Spence Researcher Library, on the University of Kansas Library. It was most of poems, but it leads descendants to learn more about Emeline and her scholastic learnings. 

Index of Kate Chopin

In the Missouri Historical Society the 214 pages of the 1867-1870 Commonplace book of Kate Chopin, is digitized. It is appeared she used the Locke method, based on her indexing style.

Entry from Kate Chopin

 Know that commonplacing is popular again. Not that it ever went out of style, but the practice has gathered steam in recent years especially among writers. 

May you have a commonplacing 2021.

Be Historically Correct  

Kathleen Brandt 

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