05 December 2013

The Autograph Album of a Tobacco Farmer



Six years.

Hundreds of hours of researching and trying to uncover the remnants of a forgotten life.

She has been my challenge and my motivation.

And now I have a picture.

I can finally say I've seen her face.



I still don't know where she came from or who her parents were. But having a picture is a nice intermediate victory on the way to that knowledge. Now I have a face attached to my search. I feel like it gives me a clearer destination. I'm not looking for more information about Annie Fenity, born somewhere in Virginia in 1885 and buried in some approximate location in 1924. I'm looking for this woman.




She was married on December 28, 1904 to Pomp Fenity. They had a felicitous relationship worthy of love poetry. And I don't know that because of this (although it did finally give me the date I didn't have.)




I know it because of this.




This is my great great grandfather's personal memo book/autograph album. Autograph albums are a Victorian custom, similar to a yearbook. A person would keep a small notebook, which they would pass to dear friends or new acquaintances to sign their name. The friend would also accompany their signature with a proverbial sayings or a verse of poetry. After some research, I also discovered that newspapers and periodicals would publish small columns of sayings specifically to aid the masses with things to write in autograph albums.

Pomp's has a lot of blank pages, and is also interspersed with personal brief entries on the weather or appointments he had. He also has sums written on a page or two, no doubt for the leaf tobacco he sold to wholesalers throughout Virginia. He also appears to have copied quite a few phrases and poems to use, because they don't have signatures at the bottom.

One is quite clever, and I liked it a lot.

The Rose

I sent a white Rose
and a Red to her I
Loved and wrote if I
may hope I pray you wear
tonight the Rose that
pure and sweet and white
an' if you wish my Love
to die and if you Love
another Wear the
Red Rose that I send
and Let me know my
Sorrow and forget
and try to Love again
Somewhere that night 
she smiled I hoped
to see the white
Rose I had called my
own and Looked as she
was passing me she
wore a yellow Rose alone


But it wasn't until I had been looking at the copied pages for some time that I started to recognize what I was seeing. Many of these pages are dated between 1900 and 1902. It's just before Pomp and Annie get married in 1904. How long have they known each other? When did Pomp meet her? Is one of these from her?

And I start to see evidence that their interaction with each other has already begun because there's a note of some kind dated January 1st, 1901 regarding Mr. Nance, who was Annie's uncle and guardian. And recognizing this, I was able to see one of the longest entries for what it was: Annie's signature.




When years and months
Have glided by and
On this page you change
to look perhaps in some
successful year then
stop and kindly think
of the one
Who in Friendship
wrote this here

When in this Book you
Look to see close the
Book and think of me

Remember I say and
Bear in mind a good
true friend is hard to find
But when you find
one good and true
Don't forsake the old
one for the new

When you get married
and washing dishes
Think of me with your
Best wishes

June 9, 1901
A. L. G. R.

Remember me when
life is sweet Remember
me and if my grave
is first bed
Remember when I am
dead


A. L. G. R. is for Annie Gertrude Rorer, and this is her autograph in Pomp's book.

When you recall that Annie did die in 1924 at the age of 38, this signature takes on an eerily prophetic tone. Her husband lived for many more decades after her and never remarried. How often did he look back on these words with tender affection? How many times throughout his life did he do exactly as his love had asked, and remembered her?

If you think about it, this custom is the original Facebook--leaving notes and pithy sayings on people's walls. There must be something inherent in us that feels a need for that connection. Today we have social media, back then they had autograph albums.

There truly is nothing new under the sun.