I love surprises from the Archives! Recently I pulled out several old German books that my father gave me after my grandmother passed away. As the only family member who spoke German (much better then than now) I was the logical recipient. I thought I remembered a Bible in the collection, but alas, the book was a German language hymnal.
Making a Digital Copy
First, I wanted to digitize the book so I could work with the images rather than the fragile old book. It’s poor condition and thickness made it a good candidate for my digital camera. I set up my copy stand outdoors under natural light and used a remote shutter release to achieve the best photo. Then I tried both a white and a black background.
I think the white works best for the cover and the black works best for the inside pages. the contrast makes the book itself stand out better. What do you think?
The cover is made of inexpensive embossed cover-stock cardboard similar to the covers of popular photo albums and scrapbooks so many of us find in our family collections. Overall the book is 3 3/4-inches wide and 5 3/8-inches high. Someone (Grandma May?) added a strip of modern tape to keep the spine in place with the cover. The pages are edged in gilt.
The title page reads:
darin des sel. Dr. Martin Luthers und anderer geistreichen
Lehrer gebräuchlichste Kirchen-lieder enthalten sind.
St. Louis, Mo.
Concordia Publishing House.
The book is in fair to poor condition. The pages appear to be intact but the covers have started to pull away from the binding. There are scattered stains and blotches throughout. There is no handwriting other than a notation on the flyleaf in pencil on the flyleaf that looks like “Goldlock 1.20.”
Inside the front cover, I found a newspaper clipping from a German language newspaper of the hymn, “Hochzeitgefang,” translation: Wedding Song. I also found a what looks like a trimmed decoration from a Christmas card between pages 242 and 243.
Of course, to me the real treasure is the cover embossed with my grandfather’s name and a date. The fact that the book is a German Lutheran songbook confirms his association with the German community and the Lutheran church in America. A quick Google search for the hymnal shows that it was a popular book at the turn of the century.
Walter G. May was born in July 1894 in Bennet, Nebraska, so I wondered about the significance of the date on the cover of the book, 4 April 1909. The date fell on a Sunday in 1909, one week before Easter, or Palm Sunday. The Easter Season is traditionally a time for welcoming new members into the Catholic Church and I thought the Lutheran Church tradition might be similar. If so, Walter would have been 14 years old at the time, a common age for Confirmation.
Through FindAGrave.com I had previously located the little Lutheran cemetery where Walter’s parents were buried. It was associated with an adjacent church that has a very nice website and a “Contact the Pastor” page. Within 24 hours of my query, the Pastor had responded and kindly looked for a confirmation record for Walter G. May in the church records. Although he did not find a record, he agreed that the date indicated the hymnbook was probably a confirmation gift.
This little book added quite a bit to the very little I know about my grandfather’s early years —
- It confirms his Lutheran religion
- It strongly suggests his membership and confirmation in a local church
- It suggests that he read and spoke German
- It suggests he may have carried the book at his wedding
With further research I might be able to learn more about the kind of congregation that used this particular hymnal and locate the church attended by Walter and his family.