A Brief History of the Smythson Diary

‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train’.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.

An act of self exploration, a memoir, an intimate place of solace in which to inscribe cathartic conclusions of the day, or simply a space to account the agenda for tomorrow. The diary as we know it takes many guises and performs many functions.

1902 catalogue Engagement RemembrancersEarly advertisement, 1902
The origin of the word diary comes from the Latin ‘diarium’, which means ‘daily allowance’, or ‘diurnus’ meaning ‘of the day’. Looking back through history the oldest written (or diarised, if you’ll forgive the pun) records of the humble diary stem back for centuries to Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures, in the form of the pillow book; journals of Japanese ladies at court.  As early as the second century AD, items to the effect of a journal were discovered, in which Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius recounts the story of his empire.
Sei Shonagon’s pillow book

Sei Shonagon’s pillow book

Throughout history personal diaries and journals have been used to discover past cultures, customs and events. One of the most eminent diaries of the restoration period was that of the English Naval Officer, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Pepys moved the diary away from the perfunctory notion of business transactions to the autobiographical realm. Featuring eyewitness accounts of seminal historic moments such as the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague of London has helped British historians unearth critical information about this period.
The Great Fire Of London, Henry WaggonerGreat Fire of London, 1666, Henry Waggoner
More recently prominent diaries of the twentieth century include the posthumously published, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank. This is the poignant account of her time spent in hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most widely read and translated pieces of literature in history. Other diaries of significant historical importance are the diaries of existentialist thinker Franz Kafka and also that of bohemian writer Anais Nin.
The history of the Smythson Diary
The Royal Court Diary was one of the first diaries to be published in 1887. It was publicised in Smythson’s advertisement card as being ‘invented solely by Frank Smythson’. The format was a day per page, with a section of ‘useful information’ (the prelim) at the front, filled with postal rates, foreign currency information and a list of Cabinet members.
Wafer diary front cover Company catalogue, 1930
The world’s first truly portable diary…
Prior to this time diaries were cumbersome objects mostly kept by ladies as daily journals. Smythson revolutionised this concept by introducing the first truly portable diary. The Featherweight Diary was created in 1908 and catapulted Smythson to the forefront of diary publishing.
mere man calendarA Mere Man’s Calendar, 1914
A ladies version of the Featherweight Diary soon followed in 1913, small enough to fit in a handbag, with a miniature pencil and tuck fastening. To stand as a testament to its enduring design the Wafer Diary is still sold today.
Specialist Diaries
By 1911 the Smythson collection had expanded, Frank introduced a portfolio of specialised diaries to cater for niche groups, unlike anything designed before. Early examples include ‘A Woman’s Calendar’ and ‘A Mere Man’s Calendar’, featuring short quotes and musings specifically picked for their intended audience. One of the quotes in the Man’s Calendar was based around ‘how to choose your wife’.
Mere Man's Calendar 1914 AprilInterior pages from A Mere Man’s Calendar, 1914
Whimsical and romantic tiny leather bound Bond Street Calendars were gold stamped with French mottoes on the cover, which added an air of sophistication. Discerning customers could personalise their purchases with a choice of coloured leathers and inscriptions.
Diaries and Organisers2014 Diaries and Organisers
To this day the Featherweight Panama Diary with its unrivalled durability, the Fashion Diary with its lists of a la mode venues and shops and the Sports Diary filled with sporting dates, events and results are some of the most popular in the collection.  Despite being in the throws of the technological era, the continued art of putting pen to paper is an indelible tradition.