Collecting yearbooks offers an instant time capsule

Just about everyone has at least one yearbook from their old high school tucked away on a shelf or in a box, seldom looked at, all but forgotten. After I moved away from home, I didn’t even bother to take my yearbooks with me. It wasn’t until several years later, on a visit to my parents, that I decided to bring the couple I had home with me. I guess a few years have to pass before such things become nostalgic enough to be of interest. Like most people, I don’t thumb through the pages of my old annuals often, but when I do, it brings back memories of my high-school years.

Few of us tend to think of high-school yearbooks as collectibles. Even those of us who frequently gaze at our own yearbooks seldom give thought to actually collecting them. Most of us would certainly grab up a yearbook we didn’t have from our high-school years, but that’s about as far as it goes. The thought simply never occurs to most of us that collecting yearbooks from other years and high schools might be fun. I must admit that the thought of collecting yearbooks never dawned on me until I bought a few of them at an auction. I bought five different yearbooks from three different schools, dating to the 1940s and ’50s. They cost me all of $3 each. I took them home and picked out the “Shield” for 1948, put out by Harper High School in Chicago.

As I began to flip through the pages, I found it filled with photos of everyday life in a high school in the middle of the 20th century. There were photos of students in the cafeteria, the classrooms, the grounds. Of course there were photos of the football, track, swimming and other teams, as well as class, individual and club photos. Looking through the “Shield” of 1948 was like looking through the contents of a time capsule. Here was what school life was like not long after the end of World War II.

One of the things I like best about old yearbooks is that they are dated. Dates are important to collectors, and knowing the exact date of any piece is rather unusual. Most of us are thrilled if we can narrow down to the date of a piece in our collection to even a broad range of years. No other collectible, with a few notable exceptions such as coins, are so precisely dated as yearbooks. Opening up an old school annual is an opportunity to observe the events of a single year.

The books I purchased were filled with autographs of classmates of the owner. In many ways, these are more interesting than the book itself. The messages are a product of their time, too. One simply read “Best Wishes to a swell guy.” I can’t imagine that being written in any yearbook today. Many of the messages tend to be humorous. I found this one on the inside back cover:

“I thought, I thought, I thought, in vain. So I thought I’d write my name.” Another inside the book read “Roses are red, violets are blue. That’s all I can think of.”

One wonderful thing about the autographs is that it’s usually possible to find the photos of the signers in the book itself. I often think about who signed the book all those years ago and where they are today.

I’ve had my best luck with purchasing high-school yearbooks at auctions. This is where the best prices are to be found. I’ve actually purchased them for as little as $1, and a yearbook that sells for more than $10 is a rarity. I have noted several in antique malls as well, but they tend to be a bit more expensive. Even here they are fairly affordable, often running $12 to $18, which isn’t bad for a nostalgic piece of the past. Online auctions have much to offer. On the day I wrote this column, hundreds of high-school yearbooks were up for bid on eBay, but the minimum bid on many was about $15. Add shipping to this, and the cost is no bargain. Online auctions are a great source for tracking down a specific yearbook from a specific school, but the best bargains are found elsewhere.

A collector seeking a yearbook for a specific high school will find the greatest supply, and the highest prices, near the old school. Yearbooks tend to travel around the country, but the greatest concentration is usually to be found right in the town where the high school is, or was, located.

Unfortunately, this is where the demand is at its highest, too, so the prices will not be cheap. This makes sense as local high-school yearbooks have more meaning than those of schools far away. Most people aren’t interested in yearbooks at all if they aren’t from their old school. That’s the very reason that out-of-place yearbooks are such a bargain for collectors.

Be prepared to come across some price tags that are much higher than those I’ve noted here. Most old yearbooks are inexpensive, but by no means all. They can sell for $25, $35 and much more. I’ve seen many yearbooks on eBay with starting bids of $80 and more. Any yearbooks that have a famous person pictured in them are especially valuable and costly. Such yearbooks can sell for $100, $200 and even more. Often one finds other pieces of nostalgic memorabilia stuffed between the pages of a yearbook. In the 1948 “Shield,” I found the program from the 25th reunion, the name tag the owner wore, and even the receipt from the Holiday Inn where he stayed for the reunion (the price was only $18 for a room in 1973!). Little pieces like this add interest to the book and give it a more poignant connection to the past. Not much is written about old high-school yearbooks.

There are no price guides, and very few are even mentioned in general guides. Common sense is your best bet when determining what a particular yearbook is worth to you. Old yearbooks have much to offer. Even those who aren’t interested in starting a collection will find that there is much to enjoy within their pages. If you get a chance, snag one of those old books that sell for a song at auction and thumb through the pages. You’ll find yourself carried away into the past.

Mark Roeder is a collector, author and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at