Remembrances have been around for centuries in the form of scrapbooks containing special things – ribbons, drawings, handwritten stories, dried flowers, even hair. Bound together, these items have a way of keeping memories alive.
A new way of commemorating personal experiences was introduced in 1806 with the publication of the first college yearbook. It was produced by Yale and titled “Profiles of the Class Graduated at Yale College.” There are no known surviving copies of the book. The “Signia,” a yearbook from the 1823 graduating class of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, is believed to be the oldest extant college yearbook. As for the oldest high school yearbook, that honor goes to the 1814 edition of “The Cue,” from Albany Academy in Albany, New York.
It’s not certain what each of these yearbooks contained, but a best guess is that they might have been formatted in scrapbook style and focused only on the graduates.
Photography would change how yearbooks looked. As early as 1826 or so, a practical image was made from a camera obscura by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. His View from the Window at Le Gras is considered the earliest surviving photograph. Since yearbooks are all about visuals, Niépce’s invention would change and define the yearbook over time.
The 1845 edition of “The Evergreen” is the oldest surviving high school yearbook issued by Waterville Academy in New York City. Highlighting its academic and other activities, the yearbook also allowed daguerreotype images to be tipped in by hand.
When the daguerreotype fizzled out by the end of the 1850s, George K. Warren, a photographer specializing in portraits in and around Boston, moved on to the more useful tintypes where more copies could be produced from a single negative – a useful breakthrough. Concentrating on college portraits, patrons bought several copies of their image and passed them around to their friends. Your friends then gave you a copy of their photographs, and after amassing a selection, you could have them bound in a book of your own.
However, yearbooks were only for seniors at college and high school and were quite expensive to produce. This remained the case until the 1870s, when the albumin process made it easier to mass-produce photos.
By 1880 or so, printing by the offset process made mass production of books, newspapers, and advertising more economical and commercially available. Utilizing an intaglio process, photographs could be more easily reproduced and rendered in higher quality using a photogravure process. Because such images were produced by hand, it was limited to fine prints.
However, it is the rotogravure process that enabled photographs and images to be printed using a rotary printing press. With this process, yearbooks became more widely available, with images and photographs using the half-tone printing process. By 1920, all yearbooks included more than just the graduating class; they also included club activities, sports teams and individual graduate poses.
Beginning in the 1930s, high school and college yearbooks became much more affordable for the average family thanks to offset lithography. They began to be produced for graduating classes everywhere.
Availability to Collectors
It isn’t difficult to find 19th-century scrapbooks at auction. Most are filled with clips of newspapers and other items of personal interest, but they contain virtually no photographs or advertising to tell a more compelling story.
Almost all vintage yearbooks that show up at auction are from the beginning of the mass-production movement, which started around 1920. They include individual images, sports activities, clubs, histories, personalities and even advertising.
Collecting yearbooks, particularly those from high schools, is a favorite pastime for fans looking for early photographic depictions of current celebrities. Having an insight on stars and public figures at a time when their personalities were not fully formed adds an interesting dynamic to the individuals we now know.
For example, Neil Armstrong, who, in 1969, became the first man to set foot on the moon was something of a recluse later in life, choosing privacy over the trappings of celebrity. His autograph became harder to obtain, as he refused all requests for his signature. A 1947 high school yearbook that recently sold for $2,050 shows a handwritten signature in capital letters. Very unusual.
Yearbooks provide a snapshot in time that goes beyond the embarrassing senior photo. The advertising in yearbooks, for example, provides a frame of reference for local histories. The activities or clubs that were important at that time may have disappeared, and athletic achievements may have been forgotten.
Yearbooks are plentiful; in fact, the supply is overwhelming. There are about 17,000 to 25,000 or so high schools in the United States. If each school produces a yearbook with an average of about 500 students or so per graduating class, that could mean about 8.5 million to 12.5 million yearbooks published per year and that’s not including colleges and universities. Most yearbooks continue to sell at auction in the $10 to $30 range. A premium is paid for any that contain a student who later became famous, whether an actor, politician, athlete or other public figure.
Additionally, yearbooks now encompass more than just colleges and high schools. Military graduating classes such as boot camp, specialized training, and naval tours all have their individual yearbooks commemorating the class or event. Businesses also have created yearbooks for anniversaries and yearly conferences, and so do sports teams. The New York Mets have issued a yearbook annually since 1962.
Lastly, unlike other collectible categories, there are no specific price guides for yearbooks or organized collecting associations. However, there is no shortage of collecting opportunities with yearbooks. They encompass art, culture, language, advertising, and personalities. They also tell the story of printing and photography. That’s what makes collecting yearbooks a fascinating and long-lasting avocation – one year at a time.
Konkle, Bruce E., A Preliminary Overview of the Early History of High School Journalism in the U.S.: 1775-1925, University of South Carolina-Columbia, 2013
About George K. Warren, J. Paul Getty Museum: