Book Review: The Scrapbook in American Life

The Scrapbook in American Life Cover.jpg

The Scrapbook in American Life, edited by Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, and Patricia P. Buckler. (2006). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-592-13478-6

Contributions by: Katherine Ott, Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClerq, Patricia P. Buckler, Jennifer A. Jolly, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Beverly Gordon, Melissa A. Johnson, Carol Bowers, Jennifer L. Bradley, Meredith Eliassen, Sarah McNair Vosmeier, Susan Tucker, James Kelley, Elizabeth E. Siegel, and L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin

The Scrapbook in American life is a discussion of the history of scrapbook making through a series of essays. Some of the essays focus on individuals' lives and their personal scrapbooks, others take a broader view, exploring categories of scrapbook making influential to the development of the practice of making books from scraps of paper, fabric, photographs, hair, and other ephemera. Like any study into the development of scrapbooks, the story is incomplete. Scrapbooks are anecdotal, rather than confessional, incomplete, rather than full accounts of events. Some accuracy and meaning is lost to time and memory. However, a lot can be learned by taking a look at these objects as art, personal memorabilia, and cultural artifacts. Ott, Tucker, and Buckler write in their introduction:

"Scrapbooks, then, are a material manifestation of memory—the memory of the compiler and the memory of the cultural moment in which they were made. Scrapbooks represent individual and group identity in cultures increasingly dependent on reading, visual literacy, and consumption of mass-produced goods. They display artifacts and ephemera that track the migration of ideas and commodities up and down the cultural hierarchy of capitalism. They hold historical accounts in print and images that tell how events and lives were understood and told to others, how individuality spars with the public and the commercial. At the time, they are but partial, coded accounts—very small tellings of memory. Scrapbooks contain abundant hieroglyphics for the researcher who can decipher them, yet their often enigmatic contents can stymie even the most patient scholars." (p. 3)

The Scrapbook in American Life is divided into two major categories. Part 1: Manuscripts of Learning and Knowledge provides an overview of life around the nineteenth century as scrapbook makers collected newspaper clippings, recipes, medical journal articles, trading cards, quotes and other memorabilia that reflected the concerns of their times. Part 2: Books of the Self provides a more intimate look into individuals' scrapbooks to gain a deeper understanding into personal and professional relationships, triumphs and struggles.

As a mixed media artist, perhaps the most interesting section of the book for me was the essay by Beverly Gordon on scrapbook houses, which she claims pre-dated the collage work of Picasso, Braque and the like (and heavily influenced the artist Joseph Cornell, who was a collector of scrapbooks). These books were designed by women and girls, mostly, with each page representing a room in the house. Design and color choices included the contradictions in scale, material, and perspective that later appeared in popular collage artwork.

Another chapter that captured my imagination, written by Melissa A. Johnson, explores the scrapbooks of Hannah Hoch, one of the few women artists to be mentioned regularly in articles about collage art. These help demonstrate that the invention of collage did not happen in a vacuum and was not invented by one person (which, if you have followed along with my book reviews on this blog, is a pet peeve of mine).

I liked this book a lot. I think scrapbooks hold a special place in documenting the human experience. It seems they struggle to find a place in the archives—mostly because they are made from material that was not meant to last and they, literally, fall apart. Still, I appreciate the work these educators and archivists have undergone to champion the scrapbook's legitimate place in history as art, as craft, as keeper of memory.

Have you read this book? Tell me what I've got wrong (or right!).

Follow me on Facebook and Instagram.