A proper guestbook is designed to entice. Wider than it is tall, its proportions make it a bit dramatic to open, as if one were starting an alluring storybook.
Increasingly, guestbooks have become a means for preserving memories of the friends and loved ones who complete our lives. Long a way to record the sentiments of guests at weddings and milestone events, guestbooks are also finding their way into less extraordinary, but no less significant, chapters of our lives.
At the conclusion of what has turned into an unusually stressful year, guestbooks for holiday company and family reunions can also provide a written affirmation of sorely needed love and well wishes. "I think it's a way of connecting," says Carole Young, a buyer and department manager at Greetings & Readings in Towson. "People go in and out of our lives so much now. I think we need to remember each other."
Outside of exceptional occasions, guestbooks - with appropriately themed decorative covers - have most notably found a home in vacation getaways, whether it's a place down the ocean or a mountain cabin. They aren't just found in elegant surroundings either; a humble second home on a river that provides weekend solace is reason enough to own a guestbook.
When Beverly Pitts and her husband Harold bought a small home on the Ochlochnee River, an hour's drive from their Tallahassee, Fla., residence, she also bought a guestbook. Pitts likens reading guestbook entries to receiving "a hug with a big smile attached to it."
Guestbook entries also provide a "virtual tour" of her friends and family's visits, long after they've left. "The whole thing comes vividly back to my memory," Pitts says.
Guestbooks can be found as well in private, non-vacation homes. Young recently bought a guestbook for her sister's new condo. "When people drop in, they write a quick little note, sign their name and the dates they've been there, what they had for dinner" and other domestic details, she says.
Not everyone chooses a guestbook for themselves. "They are a good gift item," says Hannah Keys Rodewald, of the Pleasure of Your Company stationers in Greenspring Station.
Elizabeth Bailey, Rodewald's partner in the Hannah Elizabeth Collection, a gift shop and event planning business, also in Greenspring Station, keeps a guestbook at her family's Ocean City condo. "We love getting the notes," Bailey says. "We know that people had a good time and what their experience was," she says. Visitors also leave tips about new restaurants and other attractions for the benefit of future guestbook perusers.
Guestbooks with blank pages are gaining in popularity over those with lined pages. Like scrapbooks, also enjoying widespread appeal, they invite contributors to sketch as well as write, and to include photos and other ephemera
"Many of our customers are creative and actually prefer the blank ones," says Jason Thompson, of Rag &Bone; Bindery in Providence, R.I. "If you were the bride and groom, you don't need to see signatures," he says. It's more fun to see entries created with color markers, glue sticks and photographs, he says. "We took our guestbook on our honeymoon and looked at the funny stuff [contributed by guests]."
Guestbooks are placed in a wide variety of environments these days. There's one located next to the out-door labyrinth, a contemplative path at Govans Presbyterian Church on York Road. Guestbooks can be found at ground zero in New York, where untold visitors to the World Trade Center ruins have expressed their emotions.
Guests at bridal showers and funerals often sign guestbooks, as do visitors to inns, churches, galleries and restaurants. Online guestbooks abound.
Content varies, from cursory comments about a condo's new rug, to long ruminations about a walk on the beach or an adventurous day. Together, the entries reflect a family's life and times. Any given guestbook may disappear into an attic or become relegated to the yard sale pile. Then again, a guestbook may become a treasured heirloom as well as a resource for family historians.
The history of guestbooks appears to merge with that of calling cards, a common currency among the affluent in previous centuries. Cathy Baker, an instructor in the history of the book at the University of Alabama, speculates that in the 19th century, "upper middle-class people and upper-class people probably used guestbooks quite extensively, as a kind of archival record of not only what the family did on a particular day, but who visited them."
Today, "it's kind of funny how society has ... taken up that idea on all levels, not just on special occasions," Baker says.
Sam Ellenport, director of Harcourt Bindery, a high-end hand-binding company in Boston, sees the contemporary penchant for guestbooks as a confluence of the calling card tradition, autograph books, (popular in the 1920s and 30s), and fishing and hunting logs used for recording bounties. From there, guestbooks likely made their way into weekend guest houses and gentlemen's clubs, Ellenport surmises.
While he regards the purpose served by guestbooks as negligible, Ellenport nonetheless knows how to construct them. A well-made guestbook "should open perfectly flat," he says. It should also last a long time. Length varies; he has made a guestbook for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that numbered no more than three pages, and he made one for a social club that was about 400 pages in length.
When Richard and Meg Chisolm planned their 20th wedding anniversary party last summer, they decided to invest in a guestbook. "We knew we were inviting 150 people" and without a way to keep track, they would never know exactly who came and who didn't, says Chisolm, who lives in Baltimore. He and his wife figured the guestbook would keep revelers busy, as well as remain a source of entertainment long after the party was over.
As it turned out, the entries in the Chisolms' guestbook range from the ridiculous to the off color to the obvious. One friend wrote, "Your backyard is 100 times bigger than mine!" Artist friends drew caricatures and cartoons. And Richard Chisolm's mother wrote: "I love you both."
"What a relief," he says, as if he didn't know that already.
At least he has it in writing.
HELP GUEST BE CREATIVE
A guestbook shouldn't be intimidating; yet it's often difficult to think of something to say that will stand the test of time. The best way to disarm visitors unwilling to commit to paper is to appeal to their creative instincts. Here are a few suggestions to launch a guestbook that will prove memorable for years to come.
A brand new guestbook can be particularly threatening to guests who habitually don't like to "go first." Start the guestbook yourself with an invitation for future entries. Encourage short stories, poems and other contributions that go beyond names and brief comments.
Consider establishing a guestbook theme that allows contributors to focus on your family's particular hallmark. Entries might center, for example, on your household's signature meals, brand of humor or quirks. (Guestbook etiquette permits gentle teasing.)
If you want more than names and quick thoughts in your guestbook, consider purchasing one with blank pages.
Provide guestbook writers with watercolor pens, glue sticks and other art supplies to encourage visual as well as written entries. Consider keeping an instant camera close by to further enhance your guestbook's possibilities.
Contributors can glue snapshots into the guestbook and add their own doodles and captions.
When shopping for a guestbook, look for one that captures the spirit you want to preserve. Guestbooks come in an endless array of styles, from leather-bound and formal, to laid-back and beach casual.