The tradition of keeping a commonplace book is one that goes back for a number of centuries. Essentially a scrapbook that is used to organize and keep memorabilia that is devoted to a particular subject, a commonplace book often served as a means of family members passing on valuable information from one generation to another. Here is some background on the origins of the commonplace book, some of its historical uses, and the types of applications that take place with commonplace books today.
During the 15th century, the invention of affordable means of producing paper made the ability to preserve records much more cost efficient for persons of just about every economic class. Cheap paper meant that is was now very easy to compile and maintain a number of home created books that could be preserved from one generation to the next. The subject matter of the commonplace book would vary from one situation to another. In some cases, the commonplace book served the special function of a memory book; that is, the book would be filled with mementos that had to do with special moments in the life of the family, such as births, deaths, marriages, christenings, and other major life events.
Along with memory books, there was also the preservation of practical knowledge. The scrapbooks would be filled with recipes that could be passed on from mother to daughter, keeping secret and special recipes in the family. A commonplace book of home remedies in like manner could be compiled and consulted when someone in the immediate vicinity was ill. Persons who wanted to keep up with valuable correspondence could post letters in a commonplace book, often arranging them in chronological order, or by the name of the sender.
Persons with a literary bent would often compile a commonplace book that contained poems, short stories, and other writings. In fact, this practice was so popular that many of the great writers of the 18th and 19th centuries would often base some of their best ideas on a small snippet that had been recorded in his or her commonplace book. Such notable authors as Emerson and Thoreau both learned the value of keeping a commonplace book while attending Harvard. Mark Twain is another example of a famous author who was known to maintain a commonplace book of literary ideas and thoughts.
Today, the commonplace book is enjoying a renewed interest. The sheer genius of a commonplace book is that the subject matter can be anything the compiler desires. Writers today still employ the use of a commonplace book as a way to record potential ideas for writing projects. As a means of preserving family histories and traditions, as well as creating a repository for cherished reminders of days gone by, the commonplace book is an excellent way to crate a family heirloom. Another common application today is to create a commonplace book for a loved one, with the book containing recipes, poems, or illustrations that are of interest to the recipient.