I’m asking if you saved your high school yearbooks. Many may think they are a waste of time and space but I’m here to tell you that they are important pieces of history. History, you say? Don’t be preposterous! Ah, let me unravel the threads of time for you naysayers.
As some of you know I am engaged in writing the history or my local school district. Thankfully many of the high school yearbooks are accessible online through our local library. The first yearbook was published in 1929. How is it historical? Its age? Well, yes. The photos? Affirmative. One also has to be willing to look beyond the printed page. Look at the language, how it is used, what they’ve chosen to document, etc.
I’ve spent hours looking through these yearbooks. From the early decades where the editorial staff wrote a few lines about each graduate to when the pictures transitioned to color and each graduate had a choice to supply his or her own accompanying quote, each publication is a moment frozen in time. The graduation portraits allow us to glimpse at the faces of so many young people on the cusp of adulthood. We can also see the trends of the particular time period: hair fashions, makeup, clothing.
Look through the candid photographs included in each book. Time periods continue to be represented by the obvious hair and fashion trends, but look also at what is in the background of the pictures. What do the cars look like? What does the landscape look like? What has changed over the years? What hasn’t?
It’s interesting to note what was important to each class. Oh yes, each yearbook chronicles the usual teenage stuff and it’s fun to look at the sports teams and activities. The advertising section is a treasure trove of businesses past and present. Many of the older yearbooks feature a “Class Prophecy” section which depicts the future. The clever part is to see how they weave each student into it.
Delve beneath the surface of paper and ink. Look at the artwork and illustrations. Look in the backgrounds of the photographs. Look at the examples of meaningful writing in the earlier books. Colorful and jazzy is nice but so is substance. Pick a year and scroll through it. Familiarize yourself with what is on each page. You’ll be a better person for the experience.
The photo collage depicts title pages from 1934, 1974, and 2014. I chose 1934 as a starting point because it’s often the date used as the beginning of the school district. In truth it’s the first graduation year for students in the Bethlehem Central School District because the district centralized in 1930. I’m not a purist so I count the prior years when it was Delmar High. Note the differences in just those pages. In our modern time there isn’t a true title page, it skips right to the Table of Contents. Rather indicative of the present society, n’est-ce pas?