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.
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.
“Part of my quest to scan these little books is to preserve something from the American landscape that will disappear forever once it’s gone,” Aaron says. “Little memo books have just been around forever. The inherent benefit to wearing a promotional hat is you don’t have to look at the sun. The benefit of a memo book is to collect your ideas. Now, you have your stuff on your iPhone, but when my iPhone dies my information is gone.”
In addition to preserving history, Aaron also feels strongly about the connection to the past made possible by the memo books. “We had some with handwriting from little old ladies. So many ghosts: Someone used this thing, someone lived in this thing,” he says. “A lot of people don’t remember, or don’t know, what it’s like to be concerned about what a cup of coffee costs. These books are like little ledgers. With a woman as head of the family, she kept all the finances in check in here. Fixed a flat tire, got this shipment, did this thing, did that thing, all in 40- and 50-cent increments. How often do we keep track of everything we spend in a day?”
Spanning a century, Aaron’s collection covers the gamut of companies that used memo books as promotional material. “Those from the late 1880s and the turn of the century are like little bank ledgers. There are a ton from 1895 to 1902 made for haberdasheries. They’re just simple little books, a little more urban than rural or agrarian,” he says. “The farm stuff – for ointments and medications, farm books, elixirs – the farm stuff starts to take off in the ‘30s, until the big seed guys in the ‘50s and ‘60s got into it to promote the business.”
Aaron’s passion for memo books led to a business venture: In 2006, he and Jim decided to bring back memo books in the form of Field Notes brand notebooks. Paying homage to the farm memo books that started it all, Field Notes introduced National Crop Edition books last spring. The set of six books provides information about corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, cotton and sorghum in a simple way that is reminiscent of the memo books Aaron has in his collection.
The group put together a video of Aaron’s memo books that can be seen alongside the online archive of his collection.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my experience going and looking at antiques and seeing these unscientific values given to glassware and old signs, the American antique landscape. There’s no science to it,” he says. “Then to see some old memo book; I’m not paying $20 for this because they feel it is supposed to be an old relic, I’m paying $20 because I want to share this little love of mine in a way that you don’t have to go and find them in some antique mall. I just undercut anyone who was trying to make them too special. I just wanted to make them accessible. It’s not about making a buck; it’s about getting them out there.”
Three years into the project, the digital archive of memo books stands at 400, with a goal of adding an additional 100 each month. And with more and more publicity, Aaron’s collection continues to grow.
“Now people are seeing the website and then sending them in. They send them in, we scan them and then send them back,” he says. “We have people donating them with notes like ‘From the estate of …’ We have a lot of those up there. Jim and I decided we were just going to show so many, thinking there are only so many years, only so many companies, but they keep coming in, older and weirder.” FC