The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook - ITS Tactical

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The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook

By ITS Guest Contributor

Editor-in-Chief’s note: This post was written by Brett and Kate McKay and originally ran on  The Art of Manliness.

The idea of carrying around a pocket notebook has become quite popular these last few years, revived by the introduction of the current incarnation of the “Moleskine” into the market. It’s become so popular that I’m afraid it has come to be seen as trendy or faddish, and this is putting some men off to starting this important habit themselves. Some find the Cult of the Moleskine and its faux history understandably distasteful. The company shills their pricey Made in China notebooks as the notebook of Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Matisse, when the company that currently makes them only got into the business in 1997.

But don’t let the pocket notebook’s current image dissuade you from carrying one around. The truth is that you don’t need to use a Moleskine (unless you really like them)-even some note cards clipped together will do. And far from being a modern fad, the pocket notebook has a long, important, and manly history. Pocket notebooks were part of the arsenal of a long list of great men from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Edison (we’re working on an in-depth post of how these men used their notebooks for the future). The repositories of eminent men’s personal effects nearly always includes a pocket notebook full of their ideas and musings.

Memo Book Archive

I spent many hours combing through the google book archives looking for references on the use of pocket notebooks by ordinary men during this past century. The following excerpts I collected show the pocket notebook’s history and demonstrate that far from being the domain of the modern hipster, the pocket notebook has always been used by men from many different walks of life.

The Farmer

“One farmer I know keeps his notebook in his pocket to jot down the tasks which can be performed on a rainy day. This enables him to plan quickly the work for a rainy day. In planning rainy day work, do first the jobs which are in danger of getting in the way of the next dry weather work. The rule is to leave no rainy-day work to be done when it is not raining for in this climate our profits are limited by the amount of outdoor work we get done.” -Circular, Issues 46-105, By Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture , 1914

The Salesman

“There should be a book in your pocket all the while ready for the name of anyone who might be induced to handle your product. A name overheard, a name suggested by a fellow traveling man, a name secured by visiting with someone from a town you do not make, a name seen in a local newspaper–any such name may be that of your prospect.

One salesman I know buys the local newspaper in every town he enters and reads the personal columns as well as the advertisements in search of men who may be or may become possible customers. He studies openings in towns where there is a possible opportunity, and he puts the right men in touch with them. He visits with representatives of the local commercial organizations and advertising clubs and gathers much information that he tabulates in a pocket notebook. He always has at hand information of value to men in his line of trade, and in time they come to realize it and look forward to his coming, saving him some kind of an order even if they are not much in need, because they want a chance to talk with him.” -The Successful Salesman, By Frank Farrington, 1918

The Minister

“Have upon your study table, always accessible, a good-sized substantially bound blank book. Whenever a germinant thought comes seize your pen and write it down. Such thoughts will come out of your special course of literary reading, out of your cursory scanning of current fiction, even out of the five-minute glance given to the morning paper, out of nowhere and from anywhere. Thought-compelling suggestions entirely foreign to the sermon on which you are just now engaged will frequently send you to your treasure book, and without any damage to present preparation you will scribble down a page of matter that will set you on fire at some future day just when you are in need of inspiration and help. Have also a special vest-pocket notebook and let nothing escape you.” -The Methodist Review, 1907

The Boy Scout

“In one of the pockets there should be a lot of bachelor buttons, the sort that you do not have to sew on to your clothes, but which fasten with a snap, something like glove buttons. There should be a pocket made in your shirt or vest to fit your notebook, and a part of it stitched up to hold a pencil and a toothbrush….

No camper, be he hunter, fisherman, scout, naturalist, explorer, prospector, soldier or lumberman, should go into the woods without a notebook and hard lead pencil. Remember that notes made with a hard pencil will last longer than those made with ink, and be readable as long as the paper lasts.

Every scientist and every surveyor knows this and it is only tenderfeet, who use a soft pencil and fountain pen for making field notes, because an upset canoe will blur all ink marks and the constant rubbing of the pages of the book will smudge all soft pencil marks.

Therefore, have a pocket especially made, so that your notebook, pencil and fountain pen, if you insist upon including it–will fit snugly with no chance of dropping out.” -The American Boys’ Handybook of Camp-lore and Woodcraft, By Daniel Carter Beard, 1920

The Doctor

“When I started in practice, I got in the habit of putting many of my spare moments (had plenty of them!) into studying up some of the rarer diseases that we had to deal with. I would read up all I could find on one subject, then I would take some time in thinking it over, then I would formulate a plan of treatment and write it out in a pocket-notebook. In after years, that old notebook helped me out of a good many difficult situations; and some of the best work I have ever done has come from those notes.” -The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Volume 25, 1918

The Architect

“The little pocket notebook, I soon discovered, was not a record book in the accounting sense of the term. Nevertheless, it was a very necessary part of the architect’s business paraphernalia. The rules of the American Institute of Architects do not permit members of the profession to advertise, or go after new business in most of the ways that are current among commercial organizations. Therefore, the successful architect is a man with a wide ‘acquaintance among the classes of persons who are likely to become builders. He quickly learns to take note of projected buildings, in order to follow up the prospective owners, and secure for his own office the work of designing the building.

This is the purpose of the architect’s pocket notebook. Whenever he gets wind from any source of a projected building, he makes a note of it. Sometimes he secures his information from news notes in the daily papers; more frequently he gets advance information from the people he associates with, and from regular commercial agency reports. If the prospect has in mind constructing a building of the class the architect is used to handling, he makes a personal call on the owner.

‘Sometimes,’ says the architect, ‘I don’t need to use my little book so strenuously as at other times. A growing reputation and a ‘come-back’ clientele are gradually making it possible for me to devote less time to getting business and more time to handling the work that is under way. I keep the book up from habit; and occasionally it brings me a job of the kind I particularly want, and might miss if I didn’t have my notebook as a daily reminder.’” -The Magazine of Business, Volume 27, By Arch Wilkinson Shaw, 1915

The Naturalist

“I am often asked to recommend the best kind of notebook and diary to use for nature observations; but I have never seen any that is satisfying. The value of notes depends upon their being taken on the spot. If you think that you can carry the records of a country ramble home in your head and write them down at your leisure in the evenings, you are very much mistaken. You must carry them home, already written, in your pocket; and for that purpose you must have a handy pocket notebook. But the notes hurriedly written on the spot are not, of course, intended to be your permanent record. Indeed, your penciled scrawls on a cold day would often become unintelligible within a week. If, however, you use a good system of abbreviations, you will find that you can get a surprising amount of detailed observation into each small page of the pocket notebook; and if the book is “self-opening,” i.e., if the pencil is always fixed to the page on which the next entry will be made, very little time is spent in taking the notes.” -Country-Side: A Wildlife Magazine, Volume 4, By British Empire Naturalist’s Association, 1928

The Student

“But you may say, “I have already begun wrong with a long list of words; my problem now is how to get them right, and how to avoid similar mistakes with new words in the future. It is too late to take spelling over again. What is the short cut to improvement?”

Improvement may be made to begin at once by following a very simple plan. Buy an indexed pocket notebook and enter in it from day to day words that you find yourself habitually misspelling. Study Appendix IV, section by section, and copy from it into your notebook words that seem to resist mastery. Copy only a few at a time.

From this notebook choose a word at a time, and by a deliberate act of attention, look at it as if you had never seen it before; if practicable, spell it aloud–slowly, so that you have time to realize the presence of each letter. Then write it correctly again and again; cover a page with it, writing without a pause; if you can, spell it aloud as you write. Underline, as you write, the part of the word in which your error occurs. Repeat this process for five minutes at a time, if necessary every day for a week, or until you know that you can never misspell this word again…

If you feel that this is hard to do, remember that the alternative is lifelong exposure to the unjust suspicion of illiteracy.” -The Writing of English, By John Matthews Manly, Edith Rickert,

Carrying a Pocket Notebook

Hopefully the excerpts above inspired you to start carrying a pocket notebook yourself. It’s a manly tradition that ought to be continued today. Along with a pocket knife and handkerchief, a notebook should reside in the pocket of every man.

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. You may get a business idea, an insight into something you or a loved one has been struggling with, or hear a quote you wish to record. Even though you feel sure in the moment that you’ll be able to remember these thoughts when you get home, every one of us has experienced the agony of realizing later that an idea is utterly gone from our minds and that no amount of mental gymnastics can bring it back.

But the pocket notebook has many more uses. I use mine for brainstorming sessions and as a place to write down and review my personal goals and keep track of things I need to get done. I use it for mundane things like grocery lists and people’s phone numbers. And I love to make calculations, keeping track of income and figuring out when I can pay off my debt. And of course I use it doodle and play hangman with Kate when I get bored at church.

What do you use your pocket notebook for? Share your ideas in the comments!


Editor-in-Chief’s Note: The Art of Manliness is a fantastic Website dedicated to uncovering the lost art of being a man. It features articles on helping men be better husbands, better fathers, and better men. Check them out and be sure to subscribe! Since ITS and AoM admire each other’s work, we’ve agreed to swap one article each month to share with our respective readers.

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  • I use my notebook every day. I, personally, carry an APICA (in 1 of 3 different sizes, depending)

    That said, with a modern phone and a strong wireless/4G network, Evernote has become an invaluable part of my note-taking. Online articles have become such a routine part of my day, I find myself sending 10-12 emails to my evernote account daily for reference at a later time.

    When I finish a notebook, I scan it in and create a digital copy to be stored in evernote, should I ever need the notes digitally, and to provide myself a backup should my notebook ever be lost or destroyed.

    Rainy day lists, dope data, ideas, good catchphrases/sayings, addresses/phone numbers, to do lists, shopping lists, workout data, wish list for things I’d like to buy if I had the money, million-dollar ideas, parts numbers, (I do a lot of hunting, so I keep a list of animals killed, date and location) the list goes on and on.

  • I use a moleskine to keep notes, but that is because I work in litigation and take a lot of notes through the course of a day in court. I prefer a moleskine because the paper is acid-free archival quality, and these are notebooks that I hope will be thumbed through by my descendants hundreds of years from now.

    It is remarkable to me the categories chosen, because there is one noted notebook keeper who fit many of them — farmer, architect, naturalist, student. He was Thomas Jefferson, and he kept tons of records. One interesting thing from my visit to Monticello was that he kept a stack of ivory cards as his pocket notebook. He would write on them with pencil while he was out in his fields, and then transfer those notes to a proper notebook in the evening, wiping the cards clean for the next day.

  • S Miller

    I used note cards clipped together as a medical resident, and never lost the habit of having something with me to jot notes in (faster and more tangible than notes on an iPhone). I now carry a Field Notes brand with me everywhere – Made in the USA.

  • MJ

    Many years ago, I went to Japan for the first time and would be there for about two years. I needed to learn the language and always carried a pocket notebook with me everywhere I went. I would jot down words or expressions that I did not understand, and then look them up for study later in the day.

  • xpo172

    I’ve carried a pocket notebook on and off since my days with the Dallas Police Department. Now I use them to record vehicle maintenance, handgun loading data or while on the range.

    I didn’t know ITS carried these, until after I bought a set from the manufacturer. I’m looking forward to trying them.

  • I just bought a moleskine this week. Been reading a little about notebooks and viola found this today. I bought it for th purpose of taking bible notes. As much as I love technology I don’t like studying the bible on a screen. Not sure why. Most of my Sunday school lessons and sermons are in various places and papers. Trying to start keeping them organized. I got the pocket moleskine but may get a bigger one for desk use.

  • Stretch

    Ex-cops always keep notebooks. Use a mechanical pencil. Had to explain “mechanical pencil” to my younger employees. SIGH.

  • Ian Vissers

    I use the ‘Rite in the Rain’ mini notebooks and a pencil for almost everything: workouts, brainstorming, to do lists, goal setting, etc. As a Marine, a notebook and pen/pencil are almost as important as my rifle.

    • Nik Kerry

      Seconded, every Marine should have note taking gear and an ink stick in their cargo pocket.

  • Steve B.

    I dont know what a moleskine is. I stick with my green waterproof notebook in my shoulder pocket. As a new cadet in 2003 the first lesson that our crusty old Infantry training NCO taught us was: Get caught without a notebook and a “writing utinsel” = Discomfort and Embarrasment.
    Good lesson, it has stuck with me and been of benefit since then. If you dont write good ideas and important info down you will probably forget them. I now augment the little green waterproof notebook with the classic GI green cover notebook. Very good article, “you dont need a [note pad] until you really need a [note pad]”. Insert any useful/life saving object in the brackets i.e. knife, fire starter, compass, watch, pistol, bazooka etc…

  • Reddog245

    I started the habit at basic training, and it has carried through to today. When I got out and ready access to the little green field notes books dried up, I moved to a jotter and index cards. I now have almost a decade of 3X5 cards listing daily activities on the front, and ideas, notes, phone numbers, and designs on the back. I recently was sorting through looking for a number from 2 years ago and realized I really must not like a couple activities, as they consistently show up for a week at a time. (If I don’t get something done on the to do list, it carries over to the next day.) I am now more conscious to do these things first.

  • CRAusmus

    Always have one. Currently I’ve been most impressed with the durability of the Moleskine Cashiers. I love the field notes though and find that they are particularly durable if you apply some duct tape to the spine.

  • collander

    A notebook is critical as part of my daily routine at work. Customer information for special orders, random to do’s before i can get it into a task list. I even have a couple of business cards clipped just under the cover. Either goes in the shirt pocket if I have one or in my back pocket. indispensable.

  • Eli Slaminko

    Moleskine has recently been involved in some controversy because they refuse to print the logos of any firearms or defense companies on their notebooks. Decisions like these speak volumes about a company. They won’t get my business.

  • You’ll find a pocket notebook in my back pocket just about any day of the week (if it’s not in my bag).

    This is probably going to sound odd but Field Notes have such character and soul to them that it’s hard for me to deviate from using them. I have tried others but after getting an inside look at Field Notes Brand as a company and Aaron Draplin as a designer, I pretty much fell in love with their products.

  • Nathan

    As a young Soldier, many years ago, I was instructed on two key items to always carry with me: something to write on, and something to write with. 13+ years later, I still carry a notebook and a pencil (or per) with me just about everywhere I go. I sometimes use my iPhone for notes, but go back and write them down in a notebook to have a “hard copy”. This helps me as a memory aid and re-news the thought – perhaps for expansion of detail, and relying on a battery operated notebook (iPhone) as a sole note keeping medium makes me leery, as you may not have a power source to continue to make notes or refer to them.

  • Sjon

    I fold six 3″ x 5″ notecards in half and staple in the middle three times, lined side of the cards on the inside. Lined pages for taking notes, and blank pages for sketching. I can pull it apart and transfer what I want, or throw away what I don’t need anymore.

    I don’t like bulgy pockets, hence this slim design. This is for emergency jotting; otherwise, I have a composition book that makes a great sketchbook (if you duct tape the spine).

  • SaadAhmed2

    Recently, my notebook was used to jot down understanding and advices i give to myself … like policies Why to prefer others over myself. When i dont have a notebook, i write in messages on cell phone and send it to myself on my number, so the notes are saved in my inbox. But now, i think whatever understandings and advices or valuable data, i root it out in my basic policy. Because my basic policy/principle/belief must be so efficient that it contains all the valuables of universe, including embedded valuable data – notes.

  • I can’t take notes fast enough on my phone when I’m talking to people and I don’t want to seem like I’m texting while they are talking to me.  

    It is very easy to pull out my pocket notebook, jot down the important information (which shows the person I’m talking to that it is important to me).

    Later when I have more time I can type it into my electronic devices or scan in the handwritten page.  Then it’s searchable.

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