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What is a Commonplace Book?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated: May 23, 2024

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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Mar 03, 2014

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer there was a commonplace book for my village that had been kept by other volunteers. It was pretty cool, although you could tell that some people were better at keeping notes than others.

It would have little suggestions about who to talk to in the marketplace or which woman was the best cook in town, or where the cleanest water was sold. There were a few scraps of herbs and things as well, but mostly it was just words.

By MrsPramm — On Mar 02, 2014

@browncoat - I keep a kind of writer's journal for the same reason. Every time I have a little scrap of an idea that doesn't fit into my current project, I'll write it down or draw it so that I've got it there for when I do want it. I find reading through the journal to be a really good experience when I need to jog my creativity as well.

It's amazing how many things you might forget if you don't write them down.

By browncoat — On Mar 02, 2014

This is something like what I do to record my travels. I realized that I would keep all my ticket stubs and various other momentos, but that they would just get put into a bag and I would never remember what I did when and what it was like when I did look at them.

So, I started to put them into an exercise book, just gluing in bits and pieces right after the trip and making a few notes about what happened. It's actually a really good way to consolidate what I did. I don't think anyone else would be interested in looking at it except me but maybe one day one of my grandchildren will find it and think it's kind of cool.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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