Before there was Facebook: autograph albums as social networks
On Facebook, the popular social networking website, people can view each other's friends and social connections as well as their activities, such what movies one has seen and what music one has heard. One can scribble messages to each other, send virtual flowers and gifts, and generally interact with a wide variety of people, some of whom you may not even know very well. What did people do before Facebook? They had an equivalent: autograph albums. Although not as technologically complex as today's web applications, autograph albums can offer an intimate glimpse into a person's life. The New York Public Library has many autograph albums that originally belonged to individuals (try searching the Catalog under "autograph albums"). Some time ago, the Music Division received a donation of an autograph album.
Its pages reveal nearly as much about the owners as it does about those who made entries. The album was first owned by Henrietta Schwill. Thanks to Ancestry.com (available within all branches of The New York Public Library as AncestryLibrary), we learn that Henreitta was born approximately 1870 to Albert and Carrie Schwill. Albert was head of a malt company in Chicago, IL that bore his name. With other relatives taking jobs within the company, this enabled his family to live quite comfortably. The earliest entries in the book appear in the 1880s. Though Henrietta would have been just a teenager, she was within enough society circles to have contact with notable musicians of the day. Perhaps the most interesting of these early entries is that of Richard Strauss. Strauss in 1884 was just an emerging composer, and had not yet written any of the tone poems or operas for which he is best known.
Louis Arsene Delaunay (1826-1903) was a noted French actor. He signed Henrietta's album more than once, and sent her a few carte de visites. This page has the remains of a a flower, pasted in more than a century ago.
Here's a page signed with a musical incipit by the violini virtuoso and composer Pablo de Sarasate (composer of the well-known violin virtuoso piece Zigeunerweisen):
Another violinist brought about a major change in Henrietta's life. This was Carl Heinzen, who would marry Henrietta.
From this point, entries in the album are address to either Carl, or Henrietta or both of them. Through his connections, Carl was able to get quite a number of well-known musicians to sign. I can't tell who's the acquaintance who wrote the following page, but he or she headed it with an excerpt from Paganini's virtuoso caprice for violin "La Campanella" and concluded it with an image of a dog, apparently named after the Belgian violin virtuoso Charles de Bériot.
One of the last entries in the album shows a new addition to the family: Carla, the Heinzens' daughter. This album leaf, addressed to Carla, is interesting because of the cartoons of the "three stars" (apparently of the Chicago Opera): Gustav Mahler, conductor Alfred Hertz, and baritone Otto Goritz. (I've not been able to identify the signee, Robert Blass.)
Carl seems to have given up music around 1912 and went to work in his father-in-law's factory, where he became a vice-president; he passed away in 1927. There is one letter from 1934, but otherwise the book appears to have fallen out of use by 1910, at a time when music was playing less of a role in the lives of the Heinzens. The Carl and Henrietta Heinzen autograph album (call number JOB 07-16) provides a unique and personal view of the social activities of their owners from more than a century ago. One hundred years from now, will Facebook be able to do the same?