As scholars, remembering the historical past in one's area of study provides a foundation for purposefully pursuing knowledge. As individuals, remembering our personal past provides direction and purpose in everyday life. Taken together, these percepts provide the impetus for the current paper, which traces the contributions of six early pioneers who wrote about how humans remember their personal past. Analysis demonstrates how their historical ideas support current literatures focused on the personal past: reminiscence-based mental health interventions, the adaptive psychosocial functions of autobiographical remembering, and the construction of identity as a life story. Three future research directions are also briefly presented: the human ability for mental ‘time travel’, a lifespan approach to remembering the personal past, and reflection on one's past as a route to wisdom. Understanding the human phenomenon of remembering the personal past has long-standing historical roots that continue to stimulate basic and applied research. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.