It’s a specialized sort of reference book: local history and genealogy and poetry. These books are masterful examples of folk art and vernacular photography and commercial mass production. They’re all alike and all different, and if only there were a library with the space and budget for a complete collection, there are hundreds of thousands of examples just waiting for preservation. (Since they were liable to personalization—in fact, designed for it—the library would need to preserve multiple copies, too. A building roughly the size of Ottawa, Illinois is required.)
What we’ve got is a modest collection, perhaps four boxes’ worth, of examples dating between about 1895 and 1974. A batch of state and local history—especially for Minnesota—has come in, and we are replete with marvelous high school and college yearbooks. Most of these are from Minnesota, though it’s often difficult to be sure: the one thing you will frequently NOT find in a yearbook is any really specific geographical information. And when the school has a name like Central; High School, it’s even more of a challenge.
But look at the wonders! We’ve got the Shattuck Shad, the Harding Saga, the Proviso Township Provi, the Summit Flame, the State Teachers College Talahi, the Marshall Magistrate, the West High School Hesperian, and the Northwestern Pilot. (This is not the local Northwestern, as it seems to be in Minnesota. It does prove what cynical critics have said about Midwestern high schools, how in nearly every county, you can find a North County High School, a South, a West, and East, as well as a Central, a Northwest, a Southeast…if anyone in the reading audience attended a South By Southwest High School, I’d like to know about it.)
I was especially impressed by the Cretin Cretinite (Cretin High School, named for the first Bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota) and the Cehisean (published by the aforementioned Central High School, and titled through a pronunciation of the letter CHS.)
For those who are not thrilled at the excitement of seeing yet another group of young men and women who write poetry and sneak cigarettes and plan pep rallies and just generally living through what they hope are NOT the best years of their lives, the main monetary appeal of old yearbooks are the pictures of people who became famous later. We actually do have a yearbook where one member of the junior class was one Edith Sondergaard, who changed her name to Gale to go off to Hollywood and win an Oscar. (There’s no index, and only the Seniors get much space, so it’s hardly worth charging extra for that one.) The University of Minnesota yearbooks held promise, since not one or two but three unsuccessful Presidential candidates (Humphrey, McCarthy, and Mondale) all graduated there, but we have the wrong years.
Cretin High School offered the most possible excitement, but again, we have the wrong years, and I’m not sure young Adelard Cunin would have shown up for his senior picture anyhow. He was busy making a new name for himself. That new name was Bugs Moran, and we’d have had to post guards if we had had the right Cretinite.
Especially if he signed it. All these books are filled with exactly the same slightly depressing humor: “to a fellow slide rule abuser in Mr. Hoover’s class” or “Remember when your bubble gum popped under the oxygen hood and made Mr. Rasmus leap over the chairs”. The intimate glimpses into school life are provided because the inscriber is so convinced the inscribee (or inscriband) is going to forget. Remarkable insight, these teenagers, assuming the great adventure is yet to come and the name of the kid who sat in front of you in Typing I is likely to slip from your mind in the excitement.
These wonders (you should SEE the one from 1932, where a kid has filled one entire page with his sketch of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop) will be found in Reference (except for those which originated in Chicago.) The price on each is not so high that you couldn’t pick up half a dozen and enjoy someone else’s fond memories. (What was he doing with the slide rule, anyhow? Calculating Betty Boop’s dimensions?)