The Family Tree or, the Hoax-o-Graph

July 30, 2019

The Family Tree or, the Hoax-o-Graph

This is one of the strangest items we've ever had in stock, The Family Tree or, The Hoax-o-Graph, published around 1913 by Dow and Lester, the firm that was also responsible for Cecil Henland's famous novelty album The Ghosts of My Friends.

This unusual little book is based on the album amicorum, or friendship album, in which friends and family write their signatures or meaningful inscriptions - a bit like signing your high school yearbook. The practice originated with European academics in the 16th century, and was popular among the middle classes during the late Georgian and Victorian periods. You can see examples online: the Cambridge Digital Library has made available the album amicorum of 16th-century mapmaker Abraham Ortelius, which includes the signature of court astrologer John Dee.

The Family Tree is a novelty or satire version of the album amicorum, probably produced for the Christmas shopping season. Participants are instructed to place a drop of ink in a small circle printed on the page and then blow across it, so that the ink creates random, tree-like patterns.

It's such a strange idea, even for a novelty, that I can't imagine it proved popular, or that many people who purchased copies used them extensively. Indeed, we can locate only one institutional copy, at Princeton, and no records of sales at auction or online. It seems likely that very few were kept, even in comparison with similar novelty albums from the same period, which appear on the market more regularly.

This copy, though, seems to have had a remarkably long life. The first six entries were made on Christmas Day, 1913, mainly by members of the Chichester family; it must have been presented during a family gathering for the holiday. An additional twenty-eight were added over the next three years, with the final two in February 1917.

As you'd expect, every entry in The Family Tree is different  some are simple lines with only a few branches, while others (seemingly produced by the more enthusiastic participants, or perhaps those with the greatest lung capacity) exuberantly fill an entire page with jagged branches.

The publishers Dow & Lester had a sideline in novelty books, also publishing The Faces of My Friends and Secret Signatures of My Friends, as well as the much more popular The Ghosts of My Friends by the female compiler of albums and novelty books, Cecil Henland. (It's unclear whether Henland was also responsible for The Family Tree or any of the other anonymous albums published by Dow and Lester.)

The Ghosts of My Friends asked that participants sign their name along the gutter and then close the book, creating an interesting blotted pattern across the two pages. The album created a sensation — as author Julia Rothenstein explained to Atlas Obscura, Mark Twain mentioned the fad in a letter to his daughter; it may have influenced Hermann Rorschach; and a few copies are known to contain the signatures of celebrities and political figures. Wright State University has posted some images of their copy, and a few of the signatures were collected while the owner was sailing aboard the Lusitania. 

Unfortunately, The Family Tree didn't make quite as large a splash, but it's an unusual and fascinating example of the long-term interest in autograph books, friendship albums, and printed novelties.

  • You can see more photos and purchase of our copy of The Family Tree, or the Hoax-o-Graph on its page in our shop.
  • You might also be interested in our other items in women's history, which include a variety of albums and a hairwork memorial.