Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, scrapbook makers preserve on the pages of their books a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Highly subjective and rich in emotional content, the scrapbook is a unique and often quirky form of expression in which a person gathers and arranges meaningful materials to create a personal narrative. This lavishly illustrated book is the first to focus attention on the history of American scrapbooks—their origins, their makers, their diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.
Jessica Helfand, a graphic designer and scrapbook collector, examines the evolution of scrapbooks from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present, concentrating on the first half of the twentieth century. She includes color photographs from more than two hundred scrapbooks, some made by private individuals and others by the famous, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Anne Sexton, Hilda Doolittle, and Carl Van Vechten. Scrapbooks, while generally made by amateurs, represent a striking and authoritative form of visual autobiography, Helfand finds, and when viewed collectively they offer a unique perspective on the changing pulses of American cultural life.
Published with assistance from Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund
Author Jessica Helfand Describes the Scrapbooks ProjectRich or poor, celebrity or civilian, men, women, and children of all ages kept scrapbooks. Some were ornate, with gilded covers and carefully composed pages of decoupage. Others were retrofitted from secondhand books, with chromolithographs glued sloppily on top of existing texts. Many consisted entirely of clippings, rigorously aligned and chronologically arranged, often around a central theme—pigeons, for instance, or movie stars or, not infrequently, obituaries. There were scrapbooks filled with babies, birds, and baseball statistics; scrapbooks about ice skating, dog breeding, and the intricacies of boy watching. Fragments of cloth from wedding gowns were included in bridal books, while new mothers included gentle locks from their baby’s first haircut. Debutantes saved news clippings, farmers saved weather reports, high school girls saved gum wrappers, and everyone, it seemed, saved greeting cards. Even soldiers kept scrapbooks, pasting in furlough requests, ration cards, and the tattered, beloved photos of their faraway sweethearts. Clumsily folded, haphazardly pasted, randomly annotated with fascinating afterthoughts, the material presence of these personal repositories offers a long-overlooked glimpse into the American spirit. Why did people feel compelled to save the things they did? What did they value, and question, and believe about themselves and the world around them? And how did the things they saved express what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not say in words?
Over time, the scrapbook came to mirror the changing pulse of American cultural life—a life of episodic moments, randomly reflected in a news clipping or a silhouetted photograph, a lock of baby hair or a Western Union telegram. As a genre unto themselves, scrapbooks represent a fascinating, yet virtually unexplored visual vernacular, a world of makeshift means and primitive methods, of gestural madness and unruly visions, of piety and poetry and a million private plagiarisms. As author, editor, photographer, curator, and inevitable protagonist, the scrapbook maker engaged in what seems today, in retrospect, a comparatively crude exercise in graphic design. Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, the resulting works represent amateur yet stunningly authoritative examples of a particular strain of visual autobiography, a genre rich in emotional, pictorial, and sensory detail. --Jessica Helfand
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