Book Review: Scrapbooks: An American History

Scrapbooks Book Cover.jpg

Scrapbooks: An American History by Jessica Helfand. 2008. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-12635-8
 

Scrapbooks: An American History is a charming book by Jessica Helfand on the progression of scrapbooks starting from the early nineteenth-century. Scrapbooks, according to Helfand, have their roots in the Renaissance and were the original "open-source technology," allowing its practitioners to express themselves with "visual sampling, cultural mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media." (p. xvii).

 Left: Dobbs Scrapbook (1916) in Scrapbooks: An American History

Left: Dobbs Scrapbook (1916) in Scrapbooks: An American History

Scrapbooks are both fascinating and frustrating to an outsider looking in. The books are often made up of the "detritus of every day life" and are incomplete, sometimes depersonalized glimpses of life. Still, someone, at one time, found value in a ticket stub, candy wrapper, or whatever piece of memorabilia chosen to put in the book and, taking a long view, these items say something about cultural norms and values. Scrapbookers exploit this personal space to develop their own sense of rhythm, time, and space. Ephemera are placed in these books with no apparent sense of formal logic and reality takes on its own meaning as important things (particularly bad or negative) are left out and insignificant things are aggrandized within the scrapbook pages. 

 Left: Harn Scrapbook (1920s) in Scrapbooks: An American History

Left: Harn Scrapbook (1920s) in Scrapbooks: An American History

Scrapbooks: An American History is laid out beautifully, with full color spreads of old scrapbooks. It is impossible to look at this book and not wonder at all the individual items of memorabilia: pieces of hair, keys, scraps of cloth, photographs, stamps, cards, letters, medals, newspaper clippings, pins, dried flowers and so much more. Many of the scrapbooks featured are older books; books made before corporate interests figured out how large the market was for scrapbooks and began manufacturing books that, essentially, told people what to collect and where to put it within the pages of the books.

 Left: Johnson Scrapbook (1942-1945) in Scrapbooks: An American History

Left: Johnson Scrapbook (1942-1945) in Scrapbooks: An American History

I really enjoyed this book, perhaps, in part, because my grandmother kept scrapbooks. I am sure I missed the importance of these books when I was younger, but I do remember pouring through them. I liked the texture of the pages, the randomness, as much as anything else.

Scrapbooks: An American History reminded me that scrapbooks have a place in a digitized world. To cut something from a newspaper or magazine, to glue it to a page, or to write a hand-written message beside a photo takes time and a bit of reverence for the process. And while, by their nature, scrapbooks do not tell us everything about the people making them, they do preserve moments of importance and meaning, if only vaguely understood from a distance.

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Cheers!--Janyce