Old-Fashioned Sketching

Today we all use cell phones to do exactly what our grand- and great grandparents did back in the day with sketchbooks. Sure, there are differences. With our high-rez cameras we do much more than sketch, but the ethos is not dissimilar. Instagram and all the other social photo tech is an instantaneous way of making pictures, often without the skill of trained photographers. You didn’t have to have training to draw in a sketchbook, just desire. Nonetheless, drawing was a skill taught in many classes and at home, so sketchbooks were journals for jotting down impressions of things. And yes, I know that sketching is still a big deal. Indeed, go to any art supply store and the fashionable branded sketchbooks are in abundance—and they’re costly, too. But once upon a time, it was de rigeur just to carry one around like a cell phone.

This book from 1891 could be the Moleskine of its day. But I prefer to think of it as the iPhone of its day, only without the annoying junk calls, emails and texts.

I don’t know who owned it. Whoever it was had a modicum of facility. Certainly more than I do. But the drawings are less interesting than the fact that they were done in the first place. The sketchbook was a companion as well as a confidant.












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2 thoughts on “Old-Fashioned Sketching

  1. Van Howell

    From the same era, maybe 1887-89, there was a very similar sketchbook that turned up in my attic. One of the guests at my great-grandfather’s summer-resort hotel filled about 50 pages with pencil drawings, many of them genuinely funny cartoons showing relatives who died before I was born (in 1948)—a great-great-grandmother who was born around 1812 with an ancient bonnet, an uncle born 1879 or so cavorting on the hotel roof with a speech balloon hurling epithets at the viewer, a pretty girl playing in the surf (the hotel had a beach 1/2 mile away, now the Westhampton Beach village beach), in her corseted Victorian grandeur (many redundant layers of striped fabric), crying out Help Help to a cute little lifeguard in hope of a cuddly rescue, etc etc…. The artist turned out to be one of the Bouvier clan, Jacqueline’s grandfather, who was there for a few summers. (An aunt who later took over the hotel told me the Bouviers were a bad lot, but I think she was remembering Black Jack, Jackie’s father)…

    1. Van Howell

      Several PS’s: The outside of the book is almost identical (a little more elongated, maybe 5″ high and 8″ wide)-, and so is the style of the pencil sketches (like the one here showing the log cabin in the hills).

      A huge scrapbook kept by my grandmother (1869-1919) when she was about 11-13 year old was another attic treasure. She was following the career of Jumbo the elephant (she had a passionate adolescent crush on Jumbo, as some girls might have felt for Black Beauty, Lassie, or Frank Sinatra 50-60 years later), lovingly preserving every picture and article she could find. She was also wild about Adelina Patti, the great soprano, who she heard at a concert in Boston, where she grew up, scrawling Patti!! Patti!!! Patti!!!!!! in the margins by her picture. (My grandmother later studied to be an opera singer herself, which didn’t work out, but she did eventually serve as piano accompanist at a Caruso recital and was a professional voice teacher, also left many brilliant, fascinating letters in a wildly spontaneous musical-looking script that grew, shrank, scurried, exploded or settled down to a semblance of normal, depending on what she was writing about.) There was also a caricature drawn by Caruso (he was slightly famous for his quick sketches) of my grandmother’s brother, an amateur singer (with musical notes pouring out of his mouth); they met in the waiting room of their doctors’ office, where my grandfather had his nose & throat practice.

      The stories go on and on, but the Bouvier sketchbook, grandmother’s scrapbook and letters, and the Caruso caricature are the attic treasures with a graphic-arts appeal. At one point I was accidentally in possession of some eastern Long Island deeds dating back to the 1600s, with marvelously ornate post-Elizabethan (Jacobian??) handlettering, and a couple had a big, painful-looking X whereby the Shinnecocks (or their white-appointed representatives?) signed away their birthright. But those came my way due to a mix-up at the local historical society (they belonged to our cousins the Halseys) and I made the mistake of lending them to an elderly lady I knew at the Reservation, who thanked me very much and never returned them (understandably enough, from her perspective).

      All those treasures (except the deeds) are back home on Long Island, safely packed away, and I’m far away, so I can’t send you any scans. But if we’re both still alive when I return, I’d be happy to scan and share some of that stuff with you (and with your loyal readers if you find it worthy of their attention).