If you are browsing through someone's personal library, it is pretty common to come across at least a few books that have a nameplate, a signature, or a personal inscription scrawled on the first pages. You may have even written some of those in your own books or in gifts to others. But when you are signing or inscribing a page, do you think about the lasting impression that you are making to the book? I was digging around in the archives recently and came across a handwritten orderly's book from 1775 that had been inscribed by the author. This got me thinking about other items in our collection that have personal inscriptions. Bibles, pamphlets, newspapers, and books - these are items commonly found around a home or office that someone has laid claim to by signing their name on it. I feel that these inscriptions add a personal connection to the items in our archives, and decided to take a closer look at some of them.
I started with the orderly's book; the inscription reads, "James Bennett is my name and that is enought [sic] for you whoever you be that ownes [sic] this book. Ashby." I noted that the book's catalog entry doesn't include an author listing and he is not identified by name within the text of the book, so without the inscription on the first page his identity would have remained a mystery. This orderly book provides information about the men and supplies in Capt. Abijah Wyman's company in Col. Prescott's regiment, and lists the company's general orders from June 20 through August 29, 1775. I also found James in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War and learned that he was from Ashby, Massachusetts and marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775. While informative, James'smilitary listing and the contents of the orderly book don't give much insight into his personality, whereas I think his inscription does- he seems a little bit cheeky! Faded names can also be seen elsewhere on the page and on the front and back covers, presumably they are signatures of the other men in the company.
Another example that I found was in the Friendly Fire Society rules, regulations, and membership lists, 1774. This pamphlet lists the rules and orders of the Society, as well as a membership listing of each individual’s home and business address, details that Society members were required to know so that they could assist each other in the event of a fire. We know which member owned this pamphlet because written on the title page is the name Wm. Dawes, Junior. William is best remembered as one of the men who rode from Boston to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775 to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were coming. Curiously, on the opposite page, William seems to have written "Freedom" but provided no further explanation. While we can assume that he was commenting on his feelings of living in Boston in the turbulent years leading up to the Revolution, we don't really know for certain - it's important to remember that an inscription that might make sense or have meaning to you could be a mystery for future generations!
I've written about the John Hancock family bible before, but it includes one of my favorite inscriptions in our collection. John Hancock not only signed his full name with an apostrophe "s" to indicate that he was the book's owner, but he also wrote "thou shalt not steal, saith the Lord" perhaps as a warning to keep someone from walking off with an item from his personal library. That saying seems to be one of his favorites, as he wrote the same inscription in a psalm book also in our collection.
These inscriptions were all written in the late 1700s and remain boldly visible almost 250 years later. I'm sure that the next time I inscribe a book, I'll pause and think about the message that I am recording for posterity!