Used most commonly in the Victorian era, the Aide Memoire (French for ‘Memory Aid’) is one of the quirkiest antiques that you could find today. Most people who come across them have no idea what they are, and frankly I’m not surprised. So, here we go…
Aide memoires were riveted booklets made of very thin slices of ivory, usually numbering between five to eight pages in length, and usually having the days of the week on the pages (usually Monday through to Saturday, and sometimes Sunday).
More elaborate versions had covers of pierced silver, mother-of-pearl, or tortoise-shell as decoration, while others had simple ivory covers, sometimes with silver edgings or cartouches riveted on.
Aide memoires were popular during the 1700s and 1800s, slowly dying out in the early 20th century, and their existence is directly linked to the evolution of writing instruments during this period.
The Function of an Aide Memoire
In an age when the dip-pen ruled supreme, and the only portable writing instrument was the propelling pencil made of sterling silver, or the humble, wood-cased pencil which more often than not, was sharpened with the blade of a pocket-knife, writing notes on the move was a tricky and messy process. Paper was expensive, ink was prone to leaks, and small, pocket notepads had not yet been conceived. So how did you keep reminders of what you needed to do that week?
You bought an aide memoire.
On an aide memoire, you wrote in pencil the things you needed to remember for that week. The dates of doctor’s appointments, nights at the theatre, dinner with friends, shopping that had to be done, and so on. At the end of each week, the ivory sheets were wiped clean with a damp cloth, and the details for the next week’s engagements were written down.
Like an iPad or personal organiser today, the original expenditure on an aide memoire was likely to be fairly high, but the money saved in paper was probably considered to be worth the expense.
Aide memoires varied in size and intricacy, from tiny little ones not much larger than matchboxes, to significantly larger ones almost the size of a modern iPhone (which is about as big as they get).
They usually resided in a gentleman’s coat pocket, on a watch-chain, in a lady’s handbag, or else hung from a chain on her chatelaine. Aide memoires designed for chatelaines and pocketwatch chains came with a ring, swing-toggle or hook on the end so that they could be clipped on safely without fear of loss or breakage.
Due to their extremely thin sheets of ivory, aide memoires are pretty fragile. They need to be handled with care, and cleaned gently. Any old marks or stains can generally be polished off with warm water. If there are heavier stains, then a microscopic amount of Brasso metal-polish will also do the trick; a drop will suffice.
Aide memoires did exist in other formats; versions of them were included in higher-quality writing boxes, and these ranged from cheap waxed cardboard, to ivory, to the new wonder-material of the 1800s: Celluloid. Portable, pocket aide memoires were also made of celluloid, but ivory was always the preferred material.