My great-great grandfather’s scrapbook is a tattered green thing filled with cartoons, clippings and articles. The book tracks news curios beginning July 2, 1884 (written in rather fanciful hand in black ink, page one), and ending sometime in 1907. The 25 years in between are pasted on thick yellow pages, warped by years in my grandmother’s basement. The pages smell musty, and small bits of edges break off each time I look at it. The whole thing is held together by stretches of white cloth tape along the binding, which are themselves old and tearing. There’s something vaguely mummified about the thing, crumbly and dead.

I’ve always loved this scrapbook, and since I began studying journalism myself, I’ve read it with renewed interest. The pages look, still, like the front page of The New York Times – stretches of tight, grey text in a vaguely antique font. Each column of text has deteriorated to a different shade of brown. There are 206 pages in the book, numbered with a stamp in the top corner, 191 of which are filled with whatever caught my great-great grandfather’s eye.

I know little of him. Finally, one afternoon at lunch, I asked my grandmother what he was like, her grandfather, this relic of an ancestor, whose scrapbook has delighted me for years. “He was a real son of a bitch,” she replied.

His name was Oscar Hudson. He was an accountant. He came with his brother – the first of my family in Canada – from England sometime during the late 19th century. He drank and was abusive. His second marriage (after my great-great grandmother died) was to a very religious woman, who left his considerable wealth to the church. My grandmother, an adamant atheist, is still incensed.

The pages were individually set in, by hand. Scanning through, it is possible to find words with a letter missing, though not as common as you would think. Monstrous typesetting machines were used at Toronto papers up until the 1970s, yet it still boggles the modern mind that anything got produced before computers.

The phrasing is similarly obsolete. It reads like news in a very tight corset. The words all seem quaint now, so unfamiliar to the direct conversational style of today’s papers. One first paragraph reads:

“The Toronto papers are assuming prudish airs of disgust and indignation … we may safely believe that a journal of such character as the Gazette would not publish any statements to pander to low lusts.”

Another:

“The upheaval of mosquitoes on Long Island in New York and the New Jersey coast has attracted the attention of seafaring society.”

Either of these ledes played today would cause spontaneous combustion in a journalism school.

As much as things have changed, a lot remains familiar about these clippings. They sit in narrow columns, have headlines and, where possible, illustrations. There are letters to the editor, although commonly signed in cheeky Latin pseudonyms.

The scrapbook documents my great-great-grandfather’s preoccupations and the civilized debate of the day. Evolution and its place in theology was still controversial, the subject of columns, reported-on lectures on “evolution as applied to theology” and resulting in angry letters to the editor.

In lieu of celebrity gossip, the book is filled with social notices of weddings, clubs and luncheons. “To the number of upwards on a hundred, the friends of Mr. William Hudson, of Philpot-lane, met at the Criterion restaurant yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of presenting him with a testimonial as a mark of their esteem and regard.” They end in long lists of attendees.

Oscar must have taken great pleasure in tobogganing, which would explain the various notices of the “Toronto Toboggan Club.” Yachting appears to have been another hobby. The book’s first article is a news brief, a few hundred words detailing a worrisome event involving his father Mr. W. Hudson’s steam yacht, Dotterel. The ship had a run-in with another yacht, “yielding her fore topmast … to the force of the concussion.” Serious danger was avoided, but in the next page’s text, the Dotterel sank, was raised and brought back to Dover for examination.

There is another oddity. A large number of pages are devoted to Oscar’s terrible sense of humour. Here is an example of an early lawyer joke: “Who are the best men to send to war? Lawyers, because their charges are so great no one can stand them.”

Another is titled LOGIC:

“No, sir, I am not a slave to drink. I don’t need stimulants. I c’n stope whenever I wanter.”

“Well, you’ve been off your base for a week. Why don’t you stop?”

“Whasser use of stoppin’ when you know you can stop? When you can’t – then thesh some use in stoppin’ dontcher see?”

My favourite article is a short account from Fort Wayne, Indiana on the subject of Toronto girls. “The girls of Toronto have a way of looking a fellow square in the face with a fearless ‘howd’y do’ smile that makes him stop and wonder where in the world he got acquainted with them. It is a pleasant novelty and makes the observant stranger feel very much at home.”

Another piece details the “philosophy of the forehead,” including such information as “Foreheads not entirely projecting, but having knotted protuberances give vigor of mind and harsh, oppressive activity and perseverance.”

The later pages become dull, devoted piously to debate over “the single tax” and poetry that is too rigidly metred and insipid for my tastes. The odd book continues to deteriorate, despite my care, a strange heirloom from my accountant ancestor.