Images from Field Notes
The idea of carrying around a pocket notebook has become quite popular these last few years, revived by the introduction of the current incarnation of the “Moleskine” into the market. It’s become so popular that I’m afraid it has come to be seen as trendy or faddish, and this is putting some men off to starting this important habit themselves. Some find the Cult of the Moleskine and its faux history understandably distasteful. The company shills their pricey Made in China notebooks as the notebook of Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Matisse, when the company that currently makes them only got into the business in 1997.
But don’t let the pocket notebook’s current image dissuade you from carrying one around. The truth is that you don’t need to use a Moleskine (unless you really like them)-even some note cards clipped together will do. And far from being a modern fad, the pocket notebook has a long, important, and manly history. Pocket notebooks were part of the arsenal of a long list of great men from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Edison (we’re working on an in-depth post of how these men used their notebooks for the future). The repositories of eminent men’s personal effects nearly always includes a pocket notebook full of their ideas and musings.
I spent many hours combing through the google book archives looking for references on the use of pocket notebooks by ordinary men during this past century. The following excerpts I collected show the pocket notebook’s history and demonstrate that far from being the domain of the modern hipster, the pocket notebook has always been used by men from many different walks of life.
“One farmer I know keeps his notebook in his pocket to jot down the tasks which can be performed on a rainy day. This enables him to plan quickly the work for a rainy day. In planning rainy day work, do first the jobs which are in danger of getting in the way of the next dry weather work. The rule is to leave no rainy-day work to be done when it is not raining for in this climate our profits are limited by the amount of outdoor work we get done.” –Circular, Issues 46-105, By Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture , 1914
“There should be a book in your pocket all the while ready for the name of anyone who might be induced to handle your product. A name overheard, a name suggested by a fellow traveling man, a name secured by visiting with someone from a town you do not make, a name seen in a local newspaper—any such name may be that of your prospect.
One salesman I know buys the local newspaper in every town he enters and reads the personal columns as well as the advertisements in search of men who may be or may become possible customers. He studies openings in towns where there is a possible opportunity, and he puts the right men in touch with them. He visits with representatives of the local commercial organizations and advertising clubs and gathers much information that he tabulates in a pocket notebook. He always has at hand information of value to men in his line of trade, and in time they come to realize it and look forward to his coming, saving him some kind of an order even if they are not much in need, because they want a chance to talk with him.” –The Successful Salesman, By Frank Farrington, 1918
“Have upon your study table, always accessible, a good-sized substantially bound blank book. Whenever a germinant thought comes seize your pen and write it down. Such thoughts will come out of your special course of literary reading, out of your cursory scanning of current fiction, even out of the five-minute glance given to the morning paper, out of nowhere and from anywhere. Thought-compelling suggestions entirely foreign to the sermon on which you are just now engaged will frequently send you to your treasure book, and without any damage to present preparation you will scribble down a page of matter that will set you on fire at some future day just when you are in need of inspiration and help. Have also a special vest-pocket notebook and let nothing escape you.” –The Methodist Review, 1907
The Boy Scout
“In one of the pockets there should be a lot of bachelor buttons, the sort that you do not have to sew on to your clothes, but which fasten with a snap, something like glove buttons. There should be a pocket made in your shirt or vest to fit your notebook, and a part of it stitched up to hold a pencil and a toothbrush….
No camper, be he hunter, fisherman, scout, naturalist, explorer, prospector, soldier or lumberman, should go into the woods without a notebook and hard lead pencil. Remember that notes made with a hard pencil will last longer than those made with ink, and be readable as long as the paper lasts.
Every scientist and every surveyor knows this and it is only tenderfeet, who use a soft pencil and fountain pen for making field notes, because an upset canoe will blur all ink marks and the constant rubbing of the pages of the book will smudge all soft pencil marks.
Therefore, have a pocket especially made, so that your notebook, pencil and fountain pen, if you insist upon including it—will fit snugly with no chance of dropping out.” –The American Boys’ Handybook of Camp-lore and Woodcraft, By Daniel Carter Beard, 1920
“When I started in practice, I got in the habit of putting many of my spare moments (had plenty of them!) into studying up some of the rarer diseases that we had to deal with. I would read up all I could find on one subject, then I would take some time in thinking it over, then I would formulate a plan of treatment and write it out in a pocket-notebook. In after years, that old notebook helped me out of a good many difficult situations; and some of the best work I have ever done has come from those notes.” –The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Volume 25, 1918
“The little pocket notebook, I soon discovered, was not a record book in the accounting sense of the term. Nevertheless, it was a very necessary part of the architect’s business paraphernalia. The rules of the American Institute of Architects do not permit members of the profession to advertise, or go after new business in most of the ways that are current among commercial organizations. Therefore, the successful architect is a man with a wide ‘acquaintance among the classes of persons who are likely to become builders. He quickly learns to take note of projected buildings, in order to follow up the prospective owners, and secure for his own office the work of designing the building.
This is the purpose of the architect’s pocket notebook. Whenever he gets wind from any source of a projected building, he makes a note of it. Sometimes he secures his information from news notes in the daily papers; more frequently he gets advance information from the people he associates with, and from regular commercial agency reports. If the prospect has in mind constructing a building of the class the architect is used to handling, he makes a personal call on the owner.
‘Sometimes,’ says the architect, ‘I don’t need to use my little book so strenuously as at other times. A growing reputation and a ‘come-back’ clientele are gradually making it possible for me to devote less time to getting business and more time to handling the work that is under way. I keep the book up from habit; and occasionally it brings me a job of the kind I particularly want, and might miss if I didn’t have my notebook as a daily reminder.'” –The Magazine of Business, Volume 27, By Arch Wilkinson Shaw, 1915
“I am often asked to recommend the best kind of notebook and diary to use for nature observations; but I have never seen any that is satisfying. The value of notes depends upon their being taken on the spot. If you think that you can carry the records of a country ramble home in your head and write them down at your leisure in the evenings, you are very much mistaken. You must carry them home, already written, in your pocket; and for that purpose you must have a handy pocket notebook. But the notes hurriedly written on the spot are not, of course, intended to be your permanent record. Indeed, your penciled scrawls on a cold day would often become unintelligible within a week. If, however, you use a good system of abbreviations, you will find that you can get a surprising amount of detailed observation into each small page of the pocket notebook; and if the book is “self-opening,” i.e., if the pencil is always fixed to the page on which the next entry will be made, very little time is spent in taking the notes.” –Country-Side: A Wildlife Magazine, Volume 4, By British Empire Naturalist’s Association, 1928
“But you may say, “I have already begun wrong with a long list of words; my problem now is how to get them right, and how to avoid similar mistakes with new words in the future. It is too late to take spelling over again. What is the short cut to improvement?”
Improvement may be made to begin at once by following a very simple plan. Buy an indexed pocket notebook and enter in it from day to day words that you find yourself habitually misspelling. Study Appendix IV, section by section, and copy from it into your notebook words that seem to resist mastery. Copy only a few at a time.
From this notebook choose a word at a time, and by a deliberate act of attention, look at it as if you had never seen it before; if practicable, spell it aloud—slowly, so that you have time to realize the presence of each letter. Then write it correctly again and again; cover a page with it, writing without a pause; if you can, spell it aloud as you write. Underline, as you write, the part of the word in which your error occurs. Repeat this process for five minutes at a time, if necessary every day for a week, or until you know that you can never misspell this word again…
If you feel that this is hard to do, remember that the alternative is lifelong exposure to the unjust suspicion of illiteracy.” –The Writing of English, By John Matthews Manly, Edith Rickert,
Carrying a Pocket Notebook
Hopefully the excerpts above inspired you to start carrying a pocket notebook yourself. It’s a manly tradition that ought to be continued today. Along with a pocket knife and handkerchief, a notebook should reside in the pocket of every man.
No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. You may get a business idea, an insight into something you or a loved one has been struggling with, or hear a quote you wish to record. Even though you feel sure in the moment that you’ll be able to remember these thoughts when you get home, every one of us has experienced the agony of realizing later that an idea is utterly gone from our minds and that no amount of mental gymnastics can bring it back.
But the pocket notebook has many more uses. I use mine for brainstorming sessions and as a place to write down and review my personal goals and keep track of things I need to get done. I use it for mundane things like grocery lists and people’s phone numbers. And I love to make calculations, keeping track of income and figuring out when I can pay off my debt. And of course I use it doodle and play hangman with Kate when I get bored at church.
What do you use your pocket notebook for? Share your ideas in the comments!
Last updated: December 14, 2015