Thursday, July 18, 2013

Treasure Chest Thursday -- New Year's Resolution booklets?

We have all heard of the "New Year's Resolution," that promise we make to ourselves to do something during the coming year.  Such resolutions are usually some improvement we wish to make in our lives by stopping some undesirable behavior or to begin some new activity to enhance our self-image or to be perceived as a better person by others.  Many of us have probably made resolutions at one time or another -- even if it is only, "Resolved -- I will NOT make any New Year's resolutions this year!"

Wikipedia tells us that resolutions at the beginning of a new year have been with us for a very long time.  Ancient Babylonians promised their gods they would pay their debts and return borrowed items.  Romans made promises to their god Janus [1], for whom the month January is named.  Knights in the age of chivalry used to renew the "peacock vow" at the end of the Christmas season to recommit to the code of conduct involving the virtues of gallantry, courtesy, honor, courtly love, and service to others.  Watchnight services by some Christians are an opportunity at the close of the year to make confession and prepare for a new year by praying and making resolutions to do better.

Like many traditions, the practice of making New Year's resolutions has probably waxed and waned over the centuries.  We are told at the same source cited above, that in this new century about 40% of Americans make some kind of resolutions for a coming new year -- and this is up dramatically from the roughly 25% of Americans that took such steps in the period of the late 1930s to mid 1940s.

It also appears from the brief examples noted above, that historically resolutions for a new year mainly took the form of oral vows made before a deity, to one's liege, or perhaps simply to oneself.  I have not been able to uncover any definite historical tradition or fad for committing New Year's resolutions to writing -- although Googling "writing down New Year's resolutions" results in myriad links (83,500,000 hits) with advice about writing down resolutions to increase the likelihood of having them stick.

All of which brings me to the item shown above.  

The item depicted above is an old family artifact in my collection.  It is very fragile and obviously handmade using common lined writing paper and a ribbon top binding.  The writing is precise and beautiful in the style often learned by dedicated writers in the 19th century; an idea of the internal script can be grasped from the small sample shown on the cover of this five-page resolution book intended to cover the year 1881.  The paper -- and especially the ribbon -- are too delicate to risk scanning the internal pages, but a transcription of the resolutions contained within is provided below.  

I do not know if personally constructed "resolution ribbon booklets" [my coined term for this artifact] such as the one shown were traditional and usual at one time, or perhaps were merely a local, regional or ephemeral fad in and around Cumberland, Rhode Island where the author lived at the end of the 19th century.  It could be it was just idiosyncratic.  I would welcome additional insight and information about written New Year's resolution booklets such as this if anyone else has come across them. I'd be especially interested if there is evidence that use of such written resolution booklets was similar to the May Basket tradition I wrote about earlier this year at this link.   

The author of this resolution book is my great grandmother, Sarah Etta Freeman.  Sarah was born in East Douglas, Massachusetts on March 27, 1858, so she was not quite 23 years old when she committed these resolutions to writing at the close of the year 1880.  She was still a little over six years away from her June 15, 1887 marriage to my great grandfather, Samuel Eber Carpenter.

Transcription of Sarah Etta Freeman's
 New Year's Resolutions for 1881

      Jan. 1, 1881,
      Dec. 31, 1881.

               I am resolved: -
               have respect for my own
               word.  To be careful in
               making promises, and when
               made to keep them.

               To read at least one chapter
               in the Bible every week.

               To be unselfish.
               Always ready to extend a
               helping hand to one who
               needs it.  To be especially
               watchful among my companions
               for any good that I may do.

               To perform the various duties
               of the year as they come,in a
               cheerful and thorough manner.

                    Signed --
                        S.E. Freeman.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Photograph of a New Year's resolution ribbon booklet from 1881 -- original in the personal collection of the author.

[1] Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions and so also of gates, doors, passages, endings and time.  He is usually depicted as having two faces -- one to look forward to the future and one to look backward to the past.  See,
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


  1. What a special and lovely family heirloom. And Sarah's resolutions are so wonderful. They really give us a glimpse of the loving woman that she was.

  2. She is one of my ancestors that I really wish I could have known. My mother knew her and said she was a "hard woman" but it might be the recollection of a granddaughter who lived in a multi-generational home with her grandmother and who probably saw herself at one point as head of the household (as she was listed in a Census) and entitled to discipline her granddaughter for that and other reasons. ;-) BUT, Sarah is also the first ancestor where I have proof positive she was very much into genealogy and spent a lot of time corresponding with public records custodians, etc. gathering proof documents. I suspect she is a large reason why I have become the custodian for so many old family documents and artifacts!