A Different Kind of History

The Wah Hoo, Highlander, The Piper, The Flame. What are these names? Bygone dances? Restaurants?

If you guessed local yearbook titles, you’re correct. Can you now guess which of the following are also names of Western Pennsylvania yearbooks: The Shaleresque, The Evening Peabody, The Stargazer, The Carrickter, and Poor Allegheny’s Almanack? If you answered, “All of them,” right again! Volumes of all these yearbooks and more can be found in the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Our records currently list over 1,200 volumes of regional high school and college yearbooks, ranging from 1888 to 2011, with the bulk dating pre-1960. This collection contains ample material to entertain a casual browser and reward a more dedicated researcher. Each volume allows readers to consider how a specific school community chose to represent itself and honor its graduating class and also provides glimpses into the history of our region. When taken as a whole, the collection reflects the development of photographic and print technologies, and displays gradual changes in the priorities, customs, styles, fads, and rhythms of over a century’s worth of “the good old school days.”

Before even opening the books, their outer appearance evokes a sense of the schools and the times. The publications range from hardcover to paperback, spiral-bound, and pamphlet styles. Some are even covered in suede. Cover designs range from one solid color accented only by a title to fireworks of metallic-gold or silver accompanied by a striking photograph or artwork.

Allegheny College 1899
Allegheny College “Kaldron,” 1899.
Carnegie Tech 1940
Carnegie Tech “Thistle,” 1940.
Taylor Allderdice High School 1944
Taylor Allderdice High School “The Allderdice,” 1944.
Carrick High School
Carrick High School “Carrickter,” 1961.

Opening each volume brings its own distinct parade of faces, fashions, and activities. Featured photographs of graduates are sometimes accompanied by short clever rhymes, descriptions of personality, or prophecies. Some volumes include short stories, essays, or real-life reports depicting what ‘we’ did ‘when’ and the news that matters most ‘to us.’ Sometimes there are cartoons or more serious sketches. At times, even the ads from yearbook sponsors can be noteworthy. And occasionally one comes across a memento, tucked into a volume long ago by its original owner.

Comparing photographs of the same activity in yearbooks from the same school, yet decades apart, often highlights interesting differences:

Allegheny College “Kaldron” year book: 1899 Literary Committee
Literary Committee, Allegheny College’s “Kaldron,” 1899.
From Allegheny College “Kaldron” year book: 1941 Literary Magazine staff
Literary Magazine staff, Allegheny College’s “Kaldron,” 1941.

It’s also fun to compare diverse schools’ approaches to the same activity or topic; to look for pre-fame photos of celebrities who attended regional schools; or to contemplate yearbook perspectives on major national events and social changes. But even mere browsing can easily lead to engaging discoveries such as a 1927 yearbook page from Oliver High School featuring the “pioneer club of Nutrition” whose outreach statement is “All ye aspiring male and female athletes come forth and take up good ‘eats.’”

David B. Oliver High School
David B. Oliver High School “Omicron,” 1927.

To encourage exploration of our collection, the Library & Archives has recently completed a spreadsheet project that facilitates searches by title, school name, location, and date.

Understandably, not every yearbook for every area school is represented in our collection. We would welcome help to fill in the gaps and hope this blog post has inspired you to visit the collection and to check your attics, closets, and storage spaces to see if you might donate one of the missing volumes. [See what we have: Yearbooks at HHC. If your yearbook isn’t on this list and you’d like to donate it, please let us know by filling out our online form.]

What better time than the beginning of a new academic year to focus on yearbooks as the slice-of-life history resource they truly can be!

Rosemary Kovacs is a volunteer archivist at the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Date September 15, 2015
  • Rosemary Kovacs