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Scrapbooks: An American History
Synopses & Reviews
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
"Scrapbooks were 'the original open-source technology,' says graphic designer Helfand, who teaches at Yale, in this appreciative and analytical tour through a century's worth of visual historical record books. This 'eclectic, yet inclusive genre provide[s] a cross section of the range and pluralism of more than a century of modern American experience.' The scrapbook compiles artifacts that illustrate their times, ranging from photographs of Rita Hayworth to ration cards, yet also render psychological portraits of their makers, whether young Victorian school girls, the mother of F. Scott Fitzgerald or WWII soldiers. A scrapbook's historical lessons can be gleaned by studying its content, form, commentary and even the wear of included items, and its intended viewers. Tracing the evolution of the scrapbook from a documentary record through manifestation of fantasy to nostalgic rendering or compendium of loved things, Helfand roughly sketches American history through creating her own scrapbook of scrapbooks. This book is colored at times by her privileging of older forms, which she sees as more personal and authentic expressions than the products of today's craft-oriented scrapbookers. But like any good scrapbook, this is a personal collage of a collective experience." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A few months ago, I wandered into Michael's craft superstore in search of a poster board for my son's school project and found myself lost in the jumbo "Scrapbooking" section. Four entire aisles were devoted to boldly colored albums, patterned pages, glues, stickers and letter stencils to document every holiday and human activity from baby's first step to enlistment in the Marines. There was even a... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) section of Martha Stewart scrapbook supplies in uber-tasteful shades like bisque and sage green. It turns out that "scrapbooking" is not only a verb but also a multibillion dollar industry. "Scrappers" are a clannish group with their own social rituals: weekend workshops, "scrap-and-spa" retreats and "cropping cruises." But America's love affair with the scrapbook is hardly new. In "Scrapbooks," Jessica Helfand, a graphic designer and senior critic at Yale University School of Art, explores the 200-year history of the scrapbook, which she describes as a uniquely personal and idiosyncratic form of visual biography. One of the earliest scrappers was Thomas Jefferson, who assembled volumes of poems and songs. Frustrated with dried-out glue pots, Mark Twain patented a self-pasting scrapbook that earned him $50,000, far more than most of his novels. During the golden age of scrapbooks in the early 20th century, there were scrapbooks tailored for debutantes, brides, babies, soldiers, movie-star fans, boy-crazy high school girls and automobile enthusiasts. Heavy and oblong, with over 400 color illustrations that range in size from full-page to postage-stamp, "Scrapbooks" has the heft and eye appeal of an ornate scrapbook. Helfand found a wacky assortment of stuff glued in scrapbooks that goes well beyond the usual clippings and photographs: locks of hair, twigs, cigarette butts, dance cards, candy wrappers, ration cards, a coonskin tail, a smashed watch and even the top of someone's blister. Helfand explains that she chose scrapbooks that, above all, "tell a story worth telling." Take, for example, the one kept by a 19-year-old girl who eloped from her Boston home. On one page is a faded color photograph of the achingly young couple lounging on beach chairs with the caption "us," along with the taped-in key to their Virginia Beach hotel room. Two pages later comes a telegram from her forgiving parents: "Two such sweet young people should make a fine combination." The young bride pastes in laundry lists, gin rummy tallies, her husband's apology note after their first fight. She also starts to write poetry: romantic rhyming couplets and letters, ripped from a magazine, that spell "Bleat, Bleat." The sunny scrapbook belonged to Anne Sexton, years before she found fame as a poet, her marriage imploded in abuse and infidelity, and she committed suicide. The prime example of the Jazz Age scrapbook is, of course, Zelda Fitzgerald's, which mirrored "the volatile rhythm of life between 1917 and 1926." Her scrapbook pages, with drawings and photos of boys and high-jinx pasted in — and in some cases violently torn out — have an "almost Dada-esque quality," says Helfand. The "incomplete, fragmented nature of scraps" seemed the perfect medium to capture the inner turmoil of the quintessential new woman, who was "essentially dwarfed by her husband's career." But most of the scrapbook authors in this book are not celebrities; in fact, we know little more about many of them than the chock-a-block scrapbook they left behind, which recorded the heyday of an otherwise ordinary life. Christine Dobbs from Marietta, Ga., pasted down every flower, love letter and dress-fabric swatch from her wedding. Francis Johnson of Waterbury, Conn., kept an elegant scrapbook of his service with the Second Air force in China and Burma with collages of dog tags, medals and ribbons. When he died divorced and childless 40 years later, this precious keepsake was discarded; it turned up on eBay. Helfand's broadminded and inclusive attitude towards a populist art form falls short in her final chapter, on the current scrapbook craze. She finds the prepackaged scrapbook supplies "homogenized and culturally neutral" and the final products "primitive by objective standards." "Veiled by embellishments, drenched in die cuts and ribbons, won't scrapbooks all look alike?" she asks. Probably not. Scrapbook keepers, as we have learned in this sumptuous book, tend to ignore prescribed formulas and create their own stories, original and true. Caroline Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl." Reviewed by Caroline Preston, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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This lavishly illustrated book focuses its attention on the history of American scrapbooks--their origins, makers, diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.
About the Author
Jessica Helfand is a partner at Winterhouse, a design collaborative in New England, and a founding editor of Design Observer. She is senior critic in the Yale School of Art and has written several books on design and cultural criticism. She lives in Falls Village, CT.
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