Scrapbooks: An American History

By Jessica Helfand
Yale University Press. 224 pp. $45
Jan. 18, 2008

Chapter One


IN 1870, A PROMINENT NEW YORK SOCIETY couple sued one another for divorce on nearly identical grounds of adultery, insanity, and cruelty. General Egbert Ludovickus Vielé and his wife, Teresa, accused each other of adulterous affairs, and their scandalous accusations were further sensationalized by an extremely public custody battle over their five children.

Throughout this unusually protracted ordeal, Mrs. Vielé kept scrapbooks. In them, she saved correspondence, clippings, and telegrams from attorneys and detectives. She hoarded citations in the press. She even rescued a torn-up letter, placing its fragments in an envelope, which she later glued into her book with an apologetic caption. Finally, she went to considerable effort to include evidence of sympathetic support for her own case, procuring calling cards from her society friends and thereby suggesting that the scrapbook may well have been entered as evidence (as a sort of silent character witness), in support of her own testimony, in court.

To look at Teresa Vielé's scrapbooks today, well over a century after they were compiled, is to gain particular perspective on the social and cultural customs of urban upper-middle-class life at the end of the nineteenth century. The books themselves originate with a certain formal hand, in which elegant stationery and engraved calling cards are all glued down in neat, straight rows. Precise penmanship graces every letter, note, and invitation. The range of material, too, is abundant, spanning both business and personal items: there are bills and banknotes, receipts from insurance companies, poems and dried plant specimens. And then, gradually-as life itself becomes rapidly unhinged-there are the subtlest visual hints of disorder. Entries become uneven and sloppy, dog-eared or torn up altogether. Over time, Teresa Vielé's scrapbooks come to illuminate the rupture that characterizes her life in general-and her identity in particular. In its stunning shifts of voice, tone, and comparative cultural perspective, hers may just be the one of the earliest "modern" scrapbooks.

A product of the waning antebellum culture in which she had no doubt been raised, Mrs. Vielé was likely to have been deeply preoccupied with the notion of carpe diem ("seize the day"), which translated to leaving one's mark upon the earth. Her scrapbook, great repository of evidence that it was, did precisely this: substantiate her claims, affirm her position, and serve to materially reinforce her presence over time. While her record was somewhat exaggerated (at times even histrionic) in its overall tone, Mrs. Vielé was not alone in her desire to record her life in scrapbook form-nor does her book differ, in many ways, from countless others of its era. A cursory glance reveals the detritus of everyday life, folded and pasted in in a vaguely orderly fashion. But a closer look reveals something quite different-a more open-ended and forgiving canvas upon which to record her own first-person history. Liberated from the obedient formalities which had long framed the conventions of so much Victorian culture, she came to find that her scrapbook held no rules. Here, recollections of time's passage could be rendered as she wished them to be.

At turns boldly outspoken and shell-shocked by fear, hers is a story of full-frontal rupture-the breakdown of a marriage, the implosion of a family, the irrevocable loss of what she had perhaps long imagined to be her implicit destiny. (Teresa Vielé's was by all accounts a temperamental personality: she was described by at least one biographer as "a young woman of beauty, intelligence, fortune, but also an indomitable character.") Yet the recasting of her story in scrapbook form both obliges and enables her to perceive things differently, because at its core, scrapbook time, unmoored to the demands of the everyday, is characterized perhaps not so much by decorum as by a kind of tacit dislocation. The nature, scope, and relative placement of that information are entirely self-determined, requiring no external approval process-indeed, no apparent formal logic at all-and therein lies its strangely captivating beauty.

It soon appears, too, as if Teresa Vielé's shifting identity benefits greatly from the fragmented language of scraps, the bits and pieces of her everyday life lyrically recombined to craft a highly personalized narrative. As time passes and she documents the tragic breakdown of her marriage, her scrapbook becomes the ideal vehicle for what emerges as a fairly turbulent emotional journey. For her, the tensions between reality and memory are almost playfully expressed as both timekeeping and truth telling are filtered through her own highly subjective perspective. "Scrapbooks shuffle and recombine the coordinates of time, space, location, voice and memory," observes historian Katherine Ott. "What could be more emblematic of the fractured narratives of modernity than scrapbooks?"

Curiously, the capacity to edit the implicit chronologies of one's own daily life may have been one of the most compelling reasons to keep a scrapbook at the turn of the century-and not only for women. As early as 1895, an article in the Boston Daily Globe touted the family scrapbook as a potential "narrative of family skeletons" and urged all public men to keep one. ("How easy to look up the lunacy there has been in the family," it advised, "and perhaps get some degenerate family member therefore quietly put away in a retreat.") Newspapers across the country published articles with suggestions on scrapbook composition, production, and manufacture. The elderly were advised to compile albums of clippings for their families, while volunteers were encouraged to create scrapbooks for the infirm. During both world wars, scrapbook-making volunteers would provide a similar service to soldiers. Collecting and classifying printed matter became a popular pastime for people of all ages, with clippings bureaus available for those too pressed for time to make scrapbooks themselves.

For anyone at the end of the nineteenth century, keeping a scrapbook required little more than a paste pot and a pair of scissors. The popular press lauded scrapbook making as a wholesome occupation for children, offering suggestions on easier, more cost-effective ways to produce memorable albums. There were suggestions for inscriptions ("Dedicate [it] to your best chum," advised a 1903 article in the Boston Daily Globe, "in loving memory of the jolly past") and optimistic endorsements ("Women will always be creatures of fads," opined one 1897 editorial in the Atlanta Constitution, "and it is well, for any harmless engagement of the mind keeps one out of mischief").

Nineteenth-century scrapbooks are frequently identified by their excessive inclusion of colored scraps, as if the very access to non-black-and-white ephemera were itself ample cause for celebration. Many nineteenth-century albums were a virtual ode to chromolithography, consisting of pages that basically celebrated the thrill of the colored fragment. Many examples contained trade cards, token-of-affection cards, chromolithographs, and embossed prints, exemplifying the Victorian propensity to create decorative, non-narrative pages. Compared to their predecessors-those staid volumes of black-and-white clippings, poems, and prayers that dominated in the earlier part of the century-books like these are equally notable for their absence of writing.

The scrapbook could also be useful for the politician, for whom it could be "a strong weapon, for in it he can keep a record of his friends and foes." Apparently, however, not all public servants were capable of such shrewd strategy: when Connecticut Selectman Halsey P. Philbrick lost his precious scrapbook in 1904-a scrapbook, it should be noted, consisting exclusively of poems-such was the state of his desperation that the Hartford Courant saw fit to report on it on at least two separate occasions.

Throughout this period, journalists covered scrapbooks and scrapbook making as an occasional feature in their cultural reportage. The New York Times published a story in 1885 on the ex-president's deathwatch (which had been impeccably chronicled in the scrapbook of the late Mrs. Millard Filmore), while a stoic 1900 editorial in the New York Observer praised one album's cathartic appeal as "a consoling refuge many a time when the heart was sorely aching, or the eyes seemed blinded to the 'silver lining behind the cloud.'" There was even a philanthropic appeal to making scrapbooks, with at least one newspaper claiming they made excellent gifts and were "a real boon to the little ones of the very poor." As early as 1884, a regular column entitled "Mother's Department" featured in Arthur's Home Magazine endorsed them as instructional tools and offered suggestions on scrapbook making as a way to teach reading to children. The Christian Science Monitor included instructions on teaching the little folks how to make their own paste, while the Ladies' Home Journal ran a story proposing a "Sunday" scrapbook, which required nothing more than a blank book, a brush and glue, a Bible, and a Concordance. Just as Teresa Vielé's scrapbook became the preferred space for documenting her legal battles, so too was the Sunday scrapbook made all the more special by restricting its use to one day a week.

Many newspapers across the country covered scrapbooks in their cultural pages. Such public sanctions advocated the value of the scrapbook as a repository of useful reference, appealing to those who perceived organization as a core domestic conceit. Many journalists wrote about the manufacture of the scrapbook-how best to compile found materials, for instance-while more targeted editorials praised their economic, artistic, and historical benefits. An article in the New York Times in 1930 shared details of "a mysterious scrapbook" kept by the mistress of a prominent financier, which the defense unsuccessfully attempted to introduce as evidence at trial. A few years later, the Los Angeles Times ran a story proving that the urge to record personal history was so great that a new mother carted her infant twins down to police headquarters merely to be fingerprinted. "It's for their memory book," she pleaded, whereupon the "great big policemen" blushed-and happily complied.

Unable to vote until 1920, women played a role during the Great War that was largely symbolic. Wartime propaganda portrayed women as peacekeeping icons-oversized heroines cradling flags or apron-clad domestic goddesses keeping the home fires burning. Far from the front lines, many women participated in local efforts to compile news clippings for their sons, spouses, and brothers overseas. (The Red Cross was one of several organizations that mobilized women as wartime volunteers.) By midcentury, such statistics would change radically: no longer passive observers, more than 150,000 American women served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Interestingly, by then, scrapbooks were a popular pastime for both men and women.

What is perhaps most striking is the degree to which the scrapbook's focus, purpose, and ultimate form would soon begin to diversify. Scrapbooks could be almost anything, and were: heralded as pragmatic repositories of organization one day, stockpiles of filial devotion the next; as useful for documenting funeral notices for the bereaved as for logging wedding gifts for the newlywed. Yet gradually, such duty-bound fidelity to timekeeping would start to shift, and while a market for producing chronologically ordered books would long remain, there emerged a more idiosyncratic sort of scrapbook, one that allowed for more experimental kinds of personal and visual authorship.

It bears mention, too, that toward the end of the nineteenth century, notions of womanhood and identity were undergoing tremendous shifts. Questions regarding how a woman should dress, behave, and even express herself were subject to extraordinary public scrutiny-and not infrequently, they encountered a fair amount of dissent. (Albert Morrow's illustration of a bespectacled working woman was created in 1894-the same year that the United Council for Women's Suffrage was founded in the United States.) At her best, the so-called New Woman was a free thinker, independent of mind and spirit, quite a departure from her previous incarnation as "a tedious echo, or a rigid puppet of propriety." But a more commonly held view, particularly early on, led to more judgmental questions about a woman's place in society. ("As she acquires fresh interest, will she neglect the Church?") That scrapbooks would, during this period, begin to provide opportunities for exploring this newly minted model of womanhood was evident in a number of albums produced in the years before World War I.

An inside front cover from a 1914 college scrapbook presents a whimsical variation on this theme of picture-only collage. Elizabeth Hildreth's book begins with a blurry snapshot of a kewpie doll surrounded by a whirling constellation of monograms, which were themselves highly collectible by both men and women during this period. (The English writer Evelyn Waugh kept several scrapbooks filled with similar compositions of monograms, fastidiously-and densely-arranged on the page.) Indeed, while many collectors pasted their specimens into an alphabetical taxonomy, young Hildreth operated under no such apparent editorial constraints. Her principal interest seems to have been the creation of pleasing compositions. But at the same time, her pages display none of the polite placements that characterize so many scrapbooks produced during this period. Collaged elements in Hildreth's book are more playful, and include loose fragments of letterheads and other typographic miscellany.

Many compositions like these operate from a central image, around which an orbit of smaller images seem to radiate, like a quiet explosion on the page. As picture books, they are almost defiantly decorative: free of personal anecdote and almost predictably symmetrical, they are pretty-and generic. Such books are, from an aesthetic standpoint, the pictorial equivalent of their clippings-only counterparts: both tell us something about the age in which they were produced, but precious little about the person who produced them. But by the turn of the century, books began to contain more than simple collections of pictures, and included more inventive pairings of found matter. With the introduction of chromolithography (color printing), scrapbooks quickly became more colorful and pictorially dense. Collecting images from disparate venues, scrapbookers began to experiment with their own, often fictionalized accounts of their own lives-and even the lives of others.

While many scrapbook makers focused on the family, others considered the broader domestic sphere. During this period, many young girls cut out pictures of home furnishings and people to create scrapbooks of interior settings. Children enjoyed the grown-up posturing of "playing house," while many young women appreciated the chance to "practice" housekeeping and experiment with decor. Others saved pictures of babies, children, and adults and sequenced them in the pages of blank books to create their own stories. Indeed, by adding captions in their own handwriting, they created personalized versions of what were essentially makeshift romance novels. These scrapbooks, sometimes called Peter and Polly books, followed a fairly formulaic pattern: boy and girl meet, play as schoolmates, and eventually fall in love and marry. Not infrequently, the last page in a typical Peter and Polly book shows the blissful couple at the altar, or sailing away on their honeymoon, or happily cradling their newborn infant. These sorts of experiments in picture-driven narrative unequivocally privileged romance over conflict and rarely, if ever, challenged the players (let alone the plot). Their significance lay not in exercising dramatic skill so much as in expressing what was, at the time, a fairly radical editorial conceit: rather than focusing on single-page compositions, they relied on page turning to create a kind of sequential yet willfully reconstituted episodic time. Anchored by cheerful milestones (birth, marriage, babies) and impervious to melancholy (death, divorce, war), such books are endearingly primitive as works of composite fiction. And much like their progeny, the serialized dramas on the radio and television that would primarily captivate women in subsequent generations, Peter and Polly books are likely to have provided hours of entertainment for their audiences. True, rhyming couplets and metered prose may have been lifted from other sources, but what was different was the fact that the pictures themselves became a kind of natural catalyst for storytelling. Here, editorial decision making followed a fairly simple trajectory, yet the scrapbook maker had to make the key determination about when to turn the page. Such experiments in sequencing demanded a kind of conscientious devotion to shaping a story, and while somewhat obvious, the denouement was further dramatized by the simple and comparatively novel act of page turning.


Excerpted from SCRAPBOOKS: AN AMERICAN HISTORY by JESSICA HELFAND Copyright © 2008 by Jessica Helfand. Excerpted by permission.
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