Bound Memories & Scraps of Ephemera
by Maxine Carter-Lome
This album I’ve made is much more than a book. It’s worth even more than the time that it took. – Kimberly Rinehart, A Scrapbooker’s Verse
Collecting and preserving information, thoughts, images, and mementos, whether for prosperity, education, personal reflection or enjoyment, is a pastime as old as the written word. As early as the Middle Ages it was common for well-educated people to keep personal diaries or journals that recorded their thoughts on life’s activities and events around them. During the Renaissance (the 14th to 17th centuries), it became popular for noble and educated Europeans to keep what was called “commonplace books.”
The commonplace book, usually a bound journal of blank pages, typically contained an assemblage of notes from various sources on various topics, rather than a book that is filled with glued-in paper items. Students and scholars would copy down key passages from materials studied in libraries into their commonplace books. Scientists, writers, and philosophers used their commonplace books to record inspiration and the progress of their work. Ladies would record their favorite religious passages, recipes, and quotes from the books that they read. Commonplace books were not personal diaries or even a way of recording the owner’s inner thoughts, but rather a way of collecting and organizing a variety of information and material that came to the person from a variety of sources – a gathering of informational “scraps,” if you will.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a scrap-book as a “blank book in which pictures, newspaper cuttings, and the like are pasted for preservation,” suggests that 1854 is the earliest known date of the word “scrap book” being used in print, although an Internet search for the answer shows evidence that dates back to 1821. Originally the term was seen as two words or hyphenated as “scrap-book.” Over time, however, the two words morphed into one and the accepted and preferred spelling today is one word – “scrapbook.”
The Victorian Era of Scrapbooking
Scrapbooks can be an extremely authentic and creative form of storytelling, and as such, scrapbooks—particularly from the Victorian Era, when the hobby was all the craze by women and children—are today highly valued by collectors and historians, not only for the stories they tell about the maker as a complete assemblage, but for the individual elements of ephemera often found within.
For adults, nineteenth-century scrapbooks were created for a variety of reasons: as a craft project, as a way to preserve letters or photos, and as a way to document a family history or special event.
College women around the turn of the century used scrapbooks extensively to construct representations of their everyday life as students. Without photograph albums to provide images of these life events, students created unique representations through scrapbooks to illustrate their lives using ephemera and memorabilia. A guest list or group of visiting cards might represent a young woman’s visit to a party. A playbill and ticket stub might serve as reminders of a trip to New York to see a Broadway show. Solid objects such as plants,silverware, or small trinkets were also used when further visual representation was needed.
Scrapbooks were also an indispensable method of teaching children illustration in the Victorian Era. Women’s magazines from the 1800s often describe the making of a scrapbook as an essential “rainy-day occupation” for children and included a list of scrapbooking supplies to be kept on hand for such a day. It was thought that “children should be taught the art and beauty as well as the value of scrapbooks. The helter-skelter scrapbook made without rhyme or reason, with facts and fictions and poetry all pasted in just as they came to hand, is an unsightly affair and offends any well-ordered mind.”
A nineteenth-century school-girl scrapbook often displayed portraits of her favorite authors, with little sketches of their lives and quotations from their works. As the student’s literary taste changed as the years went by and she cared for other authors, the old scrapbooks were interesting as milestones to indicate her progress.
During an era when who you visited, and who visited you, mattered, “calling cards” (also known as “visiting cards”) were social currency. Calling cards were often sent in advance to request a visit or left behind if the recipient wasn’t home, typically on a silver tray placed visibly in the entrance hall for other visitors to see. A tray full of calling cards was like social media for the Victorian era, a way to advertise who was in one’s extended social circle. Early Victorian cards bore only a person’s title and name, including at times the name of their house or district.
Trade card collections were another popular scrapbook theme for Victorian women. Popularized at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition to show off new printing techniques, these vividly colored cards with interesting typography featured product categories such as medicine, food, tobacco, clothing, household items, sewing goods, stoves, and farm equipment, and images of general interest such as adorable children, pretty women, and popular sports figures. Exhibitors at the Exposition handed out thousands of these trade cards as a marketing ploy to entice people to their booth.
Card collecting quickly became a Victorian craze and soon companies and popular tourist attractions of the day such as Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty began offering collector cards, as well; category cards to start but quickly as a way to promote a specific product, place, or brand. Trade cards were collected and scrapbooked well into the 1890s when they were replaced by their later turn of the century cousin, the postcard.
Scrapbooking was so popular and covered so many different subjects in the Victorian Era that families often created small libraries devoted to their scrapbooks, methodically arranged by categories and topics with richly embellished and ornately designed covers.
For the ordinary Victorian housewife, however, a scrapbook was not always so ambitious or richly embellished. Recipes, poems, photos, and recorded family events were typical scrapbook topics, containing information that today might only make sense to its owner. Scrapbooks made from newspaper clippings often focused on obituaries of not only family members but those whose interests included chronicling weird or gruesome deaths, popular celebrities of the day, and current events.
And Then Came Photography
The invention of photography changed scrapbooking forever. By the late 1850s, a form of photography called carte de visite (visit card) started to spread across the United States from Europe. These small photos were about the size of a calling card and were especially popular during the Civil War era. Cartes de visite were printed on sheets containing eight photographs, and it was common to trade them with friends and family or to purchase prints of celebrities. This led to the desire to preserve the collected photos in albums – creating the first true scrapbooks!
As the 20th century dawned, another invention forever changed the scrapbook: the Brownie camera. Until the introduction of the Brownie camera in 1900, photography was something that was done professionally and mostly in studios, which made it time-sensitive and expensive. The Brownie made photography more affordable to the average family and moved it out of studios and into families’ homes. Instead of having their photo taken a few times over the course of their lives, people began to have their photos taken regularly.
With the snapshot came a more modern concept of creating the family photo album. In contrast to the previous formal albums of staged portraits, these new snapshot albums were much more casual. The current model of scrapbooking is essentially an embellished version of this family photo album that was born from the invention of the Brownie.
By the early 1900s, some people began combining casual photos with scraps of important memorabilia, letters, and decorative die-cuts and printed images into the same book in a decorative manner. This practice was uncommon and these scrapbooks combining all of these elements in the same book are quite rare.
In the late 1800s, with the rising interest in scrapbooks, companies began selling blank scrapbook albums and glue. Mark Twain, more widely known as a writer than an inventor, created and patented a self-pasting scrapbook in 1872. The book contained adhesive in a grid pattern that was already on each page. The album owner need only wet the adhesive ever-so-slightly and then place clippings, pictures, and other items inside where they would adhere. Twain’s scrapbook was wildly successful and varying accounts report Twain earning as much as $100,000 from sales of it – a fortune in those days. That number is even more remarkable considering Twain earned $200,000 from all of his other books combined.
Some scrapbooks also came prefabricated with illustrations and questions or suggestions for photos or stories. The most common types of prefabricated scrapbooks were baby books and wedding books, but these were more about documenting an event than preserving tangible mementos. Over the years, pre-packaged and theme-based scrapbook kits evolved to make the hobby easy for anyone to turn a photo album, clip book, travelog, autograph collection, memory book, and other collected information, items, and mementos, into a creative art form with templates, custom-themed paper, cut-outs, and other supplies to personalize and embellish a finished project. More recently, computer software and online sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Shutterfly, Pinterest, and scrapbook.com have taken scrapbooking off the printed page and to a whole new level.
Today, scrapbooking is still a popular pastime, hobby, and creative outlet for an estimated 25 million scrapbook enthusiasts, in this country alone! According to the Hobby and Craft Association, the trade association for the craft industry, scrapbooking is now a $2.5 Billion industry with more than 3,000 scrapbooking stores nationwide (2018). While the hobby may have moved beyond paper and pen, the desire to document the things that are important to us remains as strong as ever; scraps of our history for future generations of collectors and historians to study and enjoy.