Still Life, with Scissors and Glue

Reviewed by Caroline Preston
Sunday, February 1, 2009; Page BW08


An American History

By Jessica Helfand

Yale Univ. 190 pp. $45

A few months ago, I wandered into Michael's craft superstore in search of a poster board for my son's school project and found myself lost in the jumbo "Scrapbooking" section. Four aisles were devoted to colored albums, patterned pages, glues, stickers and letter stencils to document every holiday and human activity from baby's first step to enlistment in the Marines. There was a section of Martha Stewart supplies in uber-tasteful shades like bisque and sage green. It turns out that "scrapbooking" is not only a verb but also a multi-billion dollar industry. "Scrappers" are a clannish group with their own social rituals: weekend workshops, "scrap-and-spa" retreats and "cropping cruises."

But America's love affair with the scrapbook is hardly new. In Scrapbooks, Jessica Helfand, a graphic designer and critic at Yale University School of Art, explores the 200-year history of the scrapbook, which she describes as an idiosyncratic form of visual biography. One of the earliest scrappers was Thomas Jefferson, who assembled volumes of poems and songs. Frustrated with dried-out glue pots, Mark Twain patented a self-pasting scrapbook that earned him $50,000, more than most of his novels. During the golden age of scrapbooks in the early 20th century, there were scrapbooks tailored for debutantes, brides, soldiers, movie-star fans, high school girls and automobile enthusiasts.

Heavy and oblong, with over 400 color illustrations that range in size from full-page to postage-stamp, Scrapbooks has the heft and eye appeal of an ornate scrapbook. Helfand found a wacky assortment of stuff glued in scrapbooks that goes well beyond the usual clippings and photographs: locks of hair, twigs, cigarette butts, dance cards, candy wrappers, ration cards, a coonskin tail, a smashed watch and even the top of someone's blister.

Helfand explains that she chose scrapbooks that, above all, "tell a story worth telling." Take, for example, the one kept by a 19-year-old girl who eloped from her Boston home. On one page is a faded color photograph of the achingly young couple lounging on beach chairs with the caption "us," along with the taped-in key to their Virginia Beach hotel room. Two pages later comes a telegram from her forgiving parents: "Two such sweet young people should make a fine combination." The young bride pastes in laundry lists, gin rummy tallies, her husband's apology note after their first fight. She also starts to write poetry: romantic rhyming couplets and letters, ripped from a magazine, that spell "Bleat, Bleat." The sunny scrapbook belonged to Anne Sexton, years before she found fame as a poet, her marriage imploded in abuse and infidelity, and she committed suicide.

The prime example of the Jazz Age scrapbook is Zelda Fitzgerald's, which mirrored "the volatile rhythm of life between 1917 and 1926." Her pages, with drawings and photos of boys and high-jinx pasted in -- and in some case violently torn out -- have an "almost Dada-esque quality," says Helfand. The "incomplete, fragmented nature of scraps" seemed the perfect medium to capture the turmoil of the quintessential new woman, who was "essentially dwarfed by her husband's career."

But most of the scrapbook authors in this book are not celebrities; in fact, we know little more about many of them than the chock-a-block scrapbook they left behind, which recorded the heyday of an otherwise ordinary life. Christine Dobbs from Marietta, Ga., pasted down every flower, love letter and dress-fabric swatch from her wedding. Francis Johnson of Waterbury, Conn., kept an elegant scrapbook of his service with the Second Air Force in China and Burma. When he died divorced and childless 40 years later, this precious keepsake was discarded; it turned up on eBay.

Helfand's inclusive attitude towards a populist art form falls short in her last chapter. She finds today's prepackaged scrapbook supplies "homogenized and culturally neutral" and the final products "primitive by objective standards." "Veiled by embellishments, drenched in die cuts and ribbons, won't scrapbooks all look alike?" she asks.

Probably not. Scrapbook keepers, as we have learned in this sumptuous book, tend to ignore prescribed formulas and create their own stories, original and true. ยท

Caroline Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."

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