Winter 2009, Volume 14, Number 1 PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 21 October 2009 15:27

Using Friendship Books For Genealogical Research

by Jean Nudd, Archivist

 I know I usually write about federal records but while I was doing some filing of my personal genealogy papers last fall, I found two copies of friendship books that my cousin gave me.  One is the friendship book that belonged to my grandmother, Florence Hill Nudd’s, mother, Louise Jones Hill, and dated from the early 1890s.  The other belonged to Mary Hammond Howard Hill, my grandmother Florence’s great-grandmother, and dated from the 1830s.

Now, I know most people aren’t familiar with friendship books – I’ve heard them also called memory books or autograph books.  Some historical digging led me to an interesting book, In the New England Fashion; Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century, by Catherine E. Kelly.  She discusses these books in her chapter on women’s friendships to examine the inner workings of those relationships.  She describes them as,

Friendship books, which contained girls’ tributes to their dearest friends as well as meditations on friendship itself . . . [a] common part of both male and female student culture in antebellum New England, were regularly circulated among close friends for an inscription and signature.  In script that ranged from the plain to baroque, girls carefully transcribed epigrams, poems, and extracts from improving essays, each chosen to describe and celebrate the virtues of the album’s owner:  piety, sincerity, loyalty, innocence, and beauty were especially prized.  Writers sought to capture not only the essence of their friends but something of their friendships as well.  Girls understood that the collected inscriptions simultaneously fixed and preserved precious connections.1

An interesting element of the beginnings of friendship books occurred because of the growth of educational opportunities for middle-class girls in the 1800s. Both Kelly and Nancy Cott discuss how these educational opportunities were tied to their religious beliefs and often focused on strengthening those ideals and encouraging their wider development among these teenaged females. In her book, The Bonds of Womanhood, Cott discusses how “. . . the clergymen urged women into Christian benevolence.  In fact, a unified set of assumptions about women’s qualities of “heart” structured all their exhortations regarding women’s religious duties.”2  The opportunity to travel to a regional school gave these girls the chance to form friendships with girls who would usually have been out of their “neighborhood” of friends and exchange ideas.  The religious structure of the early 1800s focused these ideas around piety and devotion.

Perhaps the best analogy today would be our high school yearbooks that we have friends and classmates sign.  But those don’t really even come close to the information you can find in these “friendship” books. 


Mary Hammond was born October 24, 1812, in Swanzey, New Hampshire, to Joseph and Mary [Richardson] Hammond.  She was their third child, having two older brothers, Joseph Jr. born in 1809 and Joel born in 1811.3  Mary, as far as my research could uncover, spent her entire life in Swanzey, a small town in southwestern New Hampshire, about 15 miles south of Keene in Cheshire County, close to the Vermont border.  She married, first, Thomas W. Howard, around 1836 but he died in early 1837.  She then married Joseph Hill, Jr. on January 18, 1841 and she died in Swanzey on February 3, 1853.  She gave Joseph Hill two children, Florence’s grandfather, Algernon Howard Hill, born January 20, 1846 in Swanzey, and Elvira J. Hill, born March 29, 1842, who died September 2, 1849.  She also had an infant who died January 14, 1853 so it’s likely that she died of childbirth complications.4

Mary’s friendship book is very elaborate.  Her friends not only wrote her inscriptions but drew geometric designs, flowers and hearts in her book.  And, what’s most interesting about her book, are the inscriptions from her family.  The most moving inscription is signed “From your husband Thomas W. Howard,” written January 1st, 1837, with a notation of his death March 17, 1837.  He starts his inscription with a poem,

The old year is passed and gone
No more to us will it return
The New Year we have begun
And twill as soon with us be done.

His inscription is moving; he starts it with “My friend,” rather than my wife, and notes that the New Year may be the last that they will enjoy together.  By today’s standards, and perhaps even by the standards of their time, it’s extremely morbid and not a pleasant read but definitely showed how someone who knew he was dying was dealing with that knowledge.  The full text of this inscription can be found in the “Letters” column of the next issue.


In 1835, her brother Joseph Jr., inscribed his sister’s book with thoughts of future happiness tempered with ideas of how life actually often throws curve balls – “But the sublumary [sic] nature of all things here below teach us far otherwise for how frequently has experience shown us that where roses were supposed to bloom nothing but briars and thorns grew. . .”

Several of Mary’s inscriptions have the notation Lowell, Massachusetts.  This was news to me – who knew she’d traveled to Lowell from Swanzey.  As far as I know, there were no relatives in Lowell so why was she there?  According to Kelly, the early 1800s sparked a growth in schools for young ladies and many middle-class households sent their teenaged girls to these facilities where they could not only study literature but form friendships beyond their normal scope of reference.5  Her sister was one of the signers that noted Lowell as the place where she was at the time.  In 1835, Mary was 23 years old and her sister Huldah was 20.  Perhaps Mary was visiting her younger sister at school or the two of them, as unmarried women, were visiting friends from school in Lowell.  Whatever the circumstances, it will take more digging on my part to uncover the reason. 

Mary’s father also inscribed a short paragraph in his first daughter’s book.  His words reflect his hopes for his daughter’s future, which, considering the time period, are mostly connected to her future husband.

To Mary Hammond
There My Child I would on thy young mind inspire
One rule to onward path of life to bless –
Ne’er be thy soft and sweet affections given
To him who scoffs at piety and heaven.
But when they are bestowed on any friend
Let them always be constant and true
That your pathway may be peace to the end
And your joys in heaven always be new

Perhaps the most interesting inscription, from a genealogical perspective, is that of her son, Algernon, who wrote in his mother’s book on Sunday, July 21st, 1867, “I took this precious book from my trunk, read it through for the first time and now do wish I were half as good as my mother was.  I will keep this book forever.  A.H. Hill”

Unlike Mary Hammond whose life centered in Swanzey, New Hampshire, Louise Jones Hill’s life was one of constant motion. Louise Jones was born February 18, 1877 in Rockingham, Vermont located a few miles north of Brattleboro.  She married Joseph Algernon Hill (the son of Algernon Howard Hill, son of Mary Hammond) of Keene, New Hampshire on January 30, 1895 and she died in Unity, New Hampshire on March 9, 1937.  She was the third daughter of Franklin Jones and Lorinda Murdock Atherton (I’m sure you all remember my stories about the Atherton line!).  Her two older sisters were Anna and Lizzie.  Since I’ve been unable to uncover any information on Anna, the second daughter, she may have died young.  I also don’t know anything about Lizzie except that she signed her sister’s book in 1892.  Between 1877 when Louise was born (her full name was actually Mary Louise), and 1880 when her sister Grace was born, the family moved from Rockingham to Bellows Falls, Vermont.6  And, during her married life, as seen from their census reports, the Joseph Hill family moved frequently.  In 1900, they were in Swanzey, N.H. By 1910, the family was in Manchester, NH and by 1920 they were in Sunapee which would become their home base according to Eva Avery, their youngest daughter.7  The family summered in Sunapee where her father worked as a photographer and wintered in Charlestown where he worked in the shoe factory.8

By comparison, Louise Jones’ book is similar to our yearbooks and what today pass for friendship books.  Most of the inscriptions in her book are just brief items such as, “Your friend & schoolmate, Darmie R. Campbell, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Feb. 11, 1892.”  The smaller book is now prefabricated, with decorated spaces already available where friends can simply sign their names or write short notes.  Gone are the hand-drawn illustrations and the elaborate inscriptions that suggest their piety and devotion not only to their friendships but to their basic religious beliefs.


Once again, many of the signatures belong to those closest to Louise.  Her sister, Lizzie Jones signed her book in 1892, her future husband Joseph A. Hill didn’t bother to date his signature while his sister Mary Hill signed her book in 1895 and his brother Ernie in 1887.9

It’s clear that the piety and devotion shown in Mary Hammond’s book have been replaced by the Victorian era with cute and humorous sayings.  Life changed between the 1830s and the 1890s and these books are an excellent reflection on how the advancements of the Industrial Revolution impacted human relationships so they can give us clues not only to relationships without our family lines but also into how those families, their customs and their beliefs changed during the nineteenth century.


This article was printed in Archival Anecdotes, Winter 2009, Volume 14, Number 1. It is republished online with permission of the editor, but it may not be republished or redistributed without permission of the editor and The Friends of The National Archives – Pittsfield.





1 Kelly, Catherine E., In the New England Fashion; Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century. [Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1999], p. 77.

2 Cott, Nancy F., The Bonds of Womanhood; Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835. [New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1977], p. 160.

3 Read, Benjamin, The History of Swanzey, New Hampshire, from 1734 to 1890. [Salem, MA:  Salem Press Publishing and Printing Co., 1892], p. 358 and Frederick Stam Hammond, History and Genealogies of the Hammond Families in America, Volume 1. [Oneida, NY:  Ryan & Burkhart Printers, 1902], pp. 527-528.

4 ibid., Hammond, p. 309.

5 op.cit., Kelly, pp. 70-76.

6 Frank Jones household, 1880 U.S. Census, Windham County, Vermont, population schedule, Bellows Falls town, enumeration district 235, page 2, dwelling 8, family 11, National Archives microfilm publication T9, roll 1349.   I have the birth and marriage papers for Mary Louise from the Rockingham town clerk; I find it interesting that she filed her marriage license in Rockingham when he was from Keene, NH and she was living in Bellows Falls at the time of their marriage. 

7 Joseph Hill household, 1900 U.S. Census, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, population schedule, Swanzey town, enumeration district 41, page 14B, household 336, family 355, National Archives microfilm publication T623, roll 945.  Joseph Hill household, 1910 U.S. Census, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, population schedules, Manchester city, enumeration district 157, page 18A, household 225, family 349, National Archives microfilm publication T624, roll 863.  Joseph Hill household, 1920 U.S. Census, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, population schedules, Sunapee town, enumeration district 169, page 3B, household 68, family 70, National Archives microfilm publication T625, roll 1012.  Mary L. Hill household, 1930 U.S. Census, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, population schedules, Sunapee town, enumeration district 19, page 5B, household 115, family 137, National Archives microfilm publication T626, roll 1307.

8 Jean Nudd, oral interview with Eva Hill Avery, June 2008.

9 I find it very interesting that Joseph A. Hill didn’t have a brother Ernie A., as signed in the book, but he did have a brother Floyd Albion.  Perhaps Floyd didn’t particularly like his name?  Or was it perhaps a cousin who signed the book, not Joseph’s brother? ◄

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