Yearbooks are a staple of American high school tradition, embedded into the pomp and circumstance of graduation for decades. Where did this tradition come from? Let’s take a look at the history of yearbooks to discover how the construction and distribution of this piece of memorabilia developed in American schools and became a repository for awkward teenage photos across the country.

Origins of the yearbook

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The first yearbooks in America can be traced all the way back to the 1600s. Since these yearbooks preceded the invention of photography, classmates used different keepsakes to remember one another. Signatures were still common, but they were accompanied by other, more physical preservations, such as dried flowers, simple drawings, and even locks of hair!

The yearbook as we know it was first seen in 1806 when Yale University published what is regarded to be the first college yearbook. However, Yale University’s yearbook was published erratically, and in 1823 the Massachusetts college of Pharma would publish the first edition of the longest continuing yearbook, the “Signa.” It would be another 22 years before the first high school yearbook, known as “The Evergreen,” was published in 1845.

These early yearbooks were still very different from those of today, despite the fact that they were the direct predecessors to modern yearbooks. Often, these early yearbooks still lacked images, and if a representation of a student was included, it was likely to be only a silhouette, not a full portrait.

George K. Warren puts a face on the yearbook

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This all began to change when Boston photographer George K. Warren started looking for a new source of income. Warren specialized in producing daguerreotypes, which were the first available photos. Daguerreotypes used iodized and silvered plates with a mercury dusting to capture images. The process of taking a photograph was quick considering the alternative of sitting for a hand-painted portrait, but the plates were easily damaged, and the resultant images often had an ethereal and ghostly appearance.

Daguerreotypes were falling out of style by the mid-1800s, and George K. Warren wanted to find another way to make money from his photography. He wondered if there was a way to capitalize on the ability of a single negative to produce multiple photos when he hit on the idea to sell multiple pictures of college students to both the individual whose portrait it was as well as his or her classmates.

These early yearbooks resembled something more like fancy photo albums with pictures distributed by classmates to one another, but it paved the way for modern yearbooks.

Development of modern yearbooks

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Advances in printing during the 1880s allowed for the mass production of books so that yearbooks could be printed and sold to students in large numbers. In urban areas, professional photographers would visit schools to take pictures of individual students, entire classes and important events, such as dances or football games to accompany portraits in the yearbook. In rural areas, one photographer might canvass an entire region, providing group photos to be collected at the end of the year.

In the 1920s, professional yearbook printing services began selling packages to schools, which allowed students to gather the material they wished to see in the yearbook and then send it to be professionally printed. This led to the yearbook committees that form every year in high schools across America.

In the 1980s, the rise of personal computers changed the yearbook industry once again. Where the yearbooks of the 1900s had to be set by hand, digital editing software made the process much quicker and accessible to students.

Yearbooks of the future

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As social media continues to change the way we interact with education and each other, yearbooks will change with them. Do you have any predictions for the yearbooks of the future? Let us know.