Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70

November 7, 2007:

Our back pages
Long before yearbooks, the Senior Autograph Book spoke volumes

By Gregg Lange ’70

On May 5 of his senior year Isaac Hiram Condit 1873 acquired a generic autograph book – the cagey, experienced historian can identify it because it was a fine leather-bound volume of blank pages with the helpful gold lettering “Autographs” on the spine – to fill a shameful marketing gap in the college experience of his day. There was no Nassau Herald, there was no Bric-a-Brac. [For that matter, there was no Quipfire either, but that’s a story for another time.] Nothing substantial in which a poor ex-student-to-be could gather real-time reminiscences of the Best Damn Place of All. Oh, the humanity!

Anyway, “I.H.,” as he was known for obvious reasons, or “H” to his intimates, set about to gather thoughts from the denizens of the campus as a keepsake, as was the rage through the 1870s and ’80s. There were already well-established Autograph Book norms: friends cited their hometowns and all their clubs, such as “Clio,” “Choir,” and “Class Com.” Not to mention inscrutable nuggets like “Sphinx Crowd,” “Fossil etc. etc.” Acquaintances, noting H’s proclivity toward the ministry like his father, said things like “There are many ties that bind us together, although you are more of a student than I, and I am more of a gymnast than you. Perhaps it would have been better for both of us, if we had made a trade with the surplus on each side. My mind recalls with pleasure the many talks we have had in your room.” But as always, close friends wrote more in the line of “With sad regrets for your lost past, and melancholy anticipations of your unhappy future. With tears on my brow & the thermometer at 110 degrees in the shade. I am, Reproachfully yours, Henry Van Dyke Jr. of Brooklyn.”


Fast forward to 2007, as we say here in the virtual world of digital media. The Alumni Council’s Committee on Princetoniana, in one of its more fixated activities (which is saying something, let me tell you), is on the prowl. P-bay, the volunteer subcommittee that spends time trolling online for memorabilia, has published its weekly list of Tiger trinkets and treasures. Dave Cleaves ’78, the devoted if not maniacal chief of this operation, notes the following among the 24 new items for the week:

“1873 Princeton Autograph Book” A fascinating and very personal view of history. Beautiful penmanship, thoughtful and stirring sentiments (and these were college kids!) Very good shape; clean pages, none torn, leather bound. Some wear on cover, but given its age ... Currently bid at $75. Auction closes 7/19.

University Archivist and P-bay lurker Dan Linke notes in quick response that these books are always of interest to the archives because they’re so individual. But he has essentially no budget for such niche acquisitions. Almost instantly, Don Farren ’58, Scott Clemons ’90, and Sev Onyshkevych ’83 (let’s call them the Three Amigos) volunteer to bid and split the cost of the book as a donation to the archives. With Onyshkevych in the lead, they wade into the untamed jungle of eBay [hey, thanks again for the College, Meg!] and emerge triumphant four days later – H’s book is coming home, to Mudd Library.


Until you’ve held it and felt the impact of the fine penmanship and some of the thoughts – many antiquated now, but some as fresh as the Class of ’08, or the Class of 2058 – you can’t grasp the real meaning of one of these Autograph Books. But I would note two telling facets of Condit’s that impress me.

The book smells strongly, but pleasantly, of fine cigar smoke. It takes no imagination to picture the retired Rev. H in his twilight years gathered around the library fireplace with classmates and stogies, toasting departed friends and rereading entries from 1873. Or Mrs. Rev. H bringing in a couple of pounds of potpourri the next morning and fumigating the place for days.

Finally, the precise decorum of the Senior Autograph Book included penciling in the Big Names on Campus you wanted to sign the beginning pages of your book. H’s volume carefully sets aside a page for each faculty member and other notables, some of whom he never successfully chased down. The great James McCosh, Scottish reviver of Princeton and at the time its president for five years, was of course most prominent; however, his autograph intriguingly only rated page two. Up top, number one on your Professor Parade, was … the retired president John Maclean 1816, who was 73 years old and revered even then as the man who had saved Princeton in the lean years of the mid-19th century. He wrote “May the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, Gal 3:16,” along with his neat signature.

So in the end, what really ties H and the Three Amigos together is not a book, but a respect for history, in all its emotional and personal immediacy. May it always be so. P


If you’d like to joins the dozens of intrepid Princeton excavators on P-bay, e-mail Dave Cleave ’78 at Oldbooks78@aol.com.

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.



To our readers: PAW’s online column on Princeton history, called Under the Ivy since 2002, begins the fall 2007 term with a new name: Rally ’Round the Cannon.