Old Memo Books Make Digital Transition

Collection of farm memo books comes to life in digital archive

| January 2013

The next time you find yourself at an antique store or yard sale, go ahead, dig through that old box of random items. With any luck, you’ll find some treasures; not the least of which could be a stack of memo books.

Pocket-sized memo books were given out by all sorts of companies as promotional items starting at the turn of the 20th century. Sometimes referred to as pocket ledgers, memo books came from fertilizer companies, banks, seed companies, fence and twine manufacturers, and even organizations like the FFA. The covers varied based on what was being advertised: A memo book promoting a bank might have just the name and address on a plain background, while one for a seed company could feature a colorful field scene, or a farmer smiling proudly while showing off his bountiful harvest. Most memo books included space for notes or records, and some also included reference sections with pertinent details on planting or harvesting, such as charts, graphs and time tables to get the best yields.

Promoting the past

Memo books have found an advocate in 39-year-old graphic designer Aaron Draplin. Born and raised in Michigan, Aaron left the Midwest when he was 19, moving west to Oregon. Not one to forget his roots, he makes frequent road trips between the two states, and the contrast between these two very different places, and all the states in between, made Aaron start looking at the world differently.

 “Being a graphic artist, I started looking at everything a little further past what is fashionable,” Aaron says. “I could see all the things I’m supposed to look at as a designer, but then I would look at regular stuff and the ‘undesign’ in that, the beauty in that, and became interested in functional things instead of beautiful things. What I’m interested in, the most common denominator, is really simple stuff.”

On his trips, Aaron stopped at antique malls and yard sales to pick up memo books. He would buy a stack of memo books for a dollar, which sometimes included some more than 100 years old. Other times he’d buy 20 books for $12, and on rare occasion he’d spend as much as $15 for a single piece he’d never seen before.

Before long, he had a collection of more than 1,000 memo books dating from the late 1880s to the mid-1980s. So about three years ago Aaron and his friend Jim Coudal began scanning the booklets to create a digital archive of the collection.