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Paste and Future

Scrapbooks: An American History
By Jessica Helfand
(Yale University Press, 244 pp., $45)

Mark Twain had one. So did Anne Sexton, Lillian Hellman, Harry Wolfson of Harvard, and little Hattie Briggs of rural Michigan. I also had one, and I suspect that you did, too. I am referring to the scrapbook--that odd assemblage of memorabilia and mucilage that once ruled the roost when it came to recording the details of one's life and one's sentimental education. By the interwar years, rare was the American household without its own copy of Our Baby's Biography, Alma Mater Days, or Him Book, in which moony teenage girls compiled notes and stored away confidences on prospective beaux. Even the devout sang its praises. Following church and Sunday dinner, there was no better way for children to observe the Lord's Day than to create a "Sunday Scrap-Book," or so the Ladies' Home Journal advised in May 1891. "Select a picture and cut it carefully from the paper; paste it neatly into the scrap-book, somewhat above the centre of the page. Then, by aid of the Concordance, select a verse which the picture suggests, and write it neatly below the picture, adding the chapter and verse from which it is taken." This exercise, counseled the popular magazine, "cultivates the imagination, the hand gains skill. Great facility is obtained in finding Scripture references."

A domestic artifact made possible by the invention of chromolithography and the Brownie Camera, the scrapbook was both a book and an object, print medium and canvas. Within its pages, text combined with image and penmanship colluded with fabric and flowers, dog tags, ticket stubs, and the wrapper on an Oh, Johnnie! Milk Nut Roll to yield an amateur but truthful document of private historiography. The scrapbook exuded physicality, to say nothing of idiosyncrasy; it was a kind of cabinet of personal wonders. Though mass-produced versions abounded in rules and carefully demarcated boundaries ("paste here"), consumers gleefully defied these strictures. Whether pasting outside the lines, or layering a photograph atop a clipping, or substituting the details of a circumcision for those of a baptism on the page reserved for that Christian rite of passage, the owner--or more precisely, the author--of a scrapbook made it his or her own.

And yet, for all their willed fancifulness and fierce individuality, scrapbooks reflected more than the limited universes of their creators. They also engaged the wider world. It is tempting to read these decidedly quirky compilations as little more than the musings of a would-be siren from Sarasota or an aspiring linebacker from Dubuque; to dismiss them out of hand as exercises in subjectivity, the exclusive purview of the psychologist. But this would be a big mistake. Scrapbooks, on closer reflection, turn out to be a veritable gold mine of historical material, a primary source of the highest order--the historian's bread and butter. Embedded in the culture of their day (how could it be otherwise?), they drew on and made manifest a common core of cultural assumptions and references, from notions about racial purity to a preoccupation with Hollywood celebrities and commemorations of war.

Consider, for instance, the 1941 edition of Our Baby's First Seven Years, which encouraged parents to take painstaking note of their baby's development, for the good of the nation as well as that of the family. When carefully filled out, this compendium, its authors insisted, "will guide the teacher, the physical culturists, the eugenist, and the statesman, in their broad efforts to improve the race." Elsewhere within the realm of scrapbooking enthusiasts, Kitty Baker of Norfolk, Virginia, filled her scrapbook with images of Irene Castle and Charlie Chaplin, while Francis Johnson of Waterbury, Connecticut, filled his with published obituaries of his buddies killed in action. In doing so, they were not just listening to the hammering of their own hearts. They were also closely attuned to what America held dear. Taken together, this simultaneity of interests, this blurring of the line between the precincts of the self and the collective, this union of the quirky and the commonplace, gives the scrapbook its special charge.

No one knows this better, I suppose, than Jessica Helfand, who has produced a visually arresting and intellectually engaging salute to the delightful old genre. She has made her way through hundreds of scrapbooks and also through the extant scholarly literature, seeking to account for the widespread appeal of these things. Has their long-standing, trans-generational popularity to do with the human imperative to take stock? To memorialize the past? To freeze time? To celebrate the self? "To steel oneself against the inevitable tide of vulnerability," as Helfand puts it?

She is right that there is something primary and profound at work here. Noting that the scrapbook received a new lease on life in the wake of September 11, when sales soared, Helfand goes to great lengths to plumb the meaning of this exercise in visual autobiography. "There's something remarkably gratifying about simply pasting something in a book and calling it your own," she writes. "That basic act endures because it mirrors our own human frailties, our own endearing, perpetual, and timeless incompleteness." Scrapbooks, she ringingly declares, are "gestures of permanence."

Buoyed by these and other finely wrought insights, her book fully does them justice. Taking its cue (as well as its shape) from the traditional scrapbook, Helfand alerts us to, and sustains our interest in, the visual ingenuity, the ocular delights, of the genre. Thanks to her skillful reading of the ways in which photographs, newspaper clippings, and odds and ends were variously plastered onto the plane of the page or tilted this way and that, we come to understand that the fashioning of a scrapbook entailed far more than a pair of scissors and a roll of scotch tape at the ready. It was a "unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media," she observes, making this "visual vernacular" sound much like an adumbration of postmodernism. (But without a trace of theory, of course. The scrapbook is pure practice.) Elsewhere Helfand relates infectiously how words, detached from their context and "disenfranchised," took up the "language of collage," becoming a "visual component in its own right." Fuddy-duddy no more, the scrapbook emerges from its anthropological chrysalis as a modern American art form--and a pliant one, too.

Its stock-in-trade has always been "pretty pictures" and a "million private plagiarisms"--and yet the scrapbook repeatedly changed its stripes over time. Much like the culture from which it stemmed, this artifact was, and continues to be, anything but static. Charting these internal developments, which she seems to rue, Helfand chronicles the scrapbook's migration from a free-flowing enterprise to one controlled increasingly by rules, or what she calls "editorial shoves," from above; from an activity predicated on the use of found objects to those purchased at Target or your neighborhood outpost of Martha Stewart Crafts. Today's scrapbooks, she notes, holding her nose, trade polish for soul. As for digital scrapbooks, Helfand deplores them; she is even reluctant to classify them as bona fide instances of the form. With their reliance on Photoshop filters and a speed of production measured in nanoseconds rather than years, these newfangled narratives of the self, she insists, "drive a more significant wedge between human experience and the human hand, resulting in scrapbooks that quickly become formally neutral. Public, shared and community reinforcing though they may be, such projects exist in their own separate orbit."

Still, whatever form the scrapbook takes, digitized, commercialized, or homespun, the reader comes away from Helfand's splendid book with a heightened appreciation for this humble (but in its way ambitious) avatar of Americana. Though some of its detractors were apt to characterize the startling array of stuff that ended up within the scrapbook's dominion--swizzle sticks, ferns, hotel keys, ticket stubs, cigar bands--as "rejectimenta," Helfand prefers to see these things as "shards of a life." This strikes me as a more useful and evocative designation, one that generates interest and analysis instead of foreclosing it, or condemning the scrapbook to a world of kitsch.

But you don't have to take her word--or mine--for it. Scrapbooks: An American History actually reproduces a number of scrapbooks in full, so that we can see their studied artfulness with our own eyes. Here, in all its glory, is Christine Dobbs's version, which dates from 1913 to 1916. Dainty and feminine, it focuses on the creation of her wedding trousseau, featuring fabric swatches alongside photographs of the garments in question and detailed, handwritten descriptions. By contrast, Marybelle Harn's contribution of 1923-1927 is a bold riot of typography, each page chockablock with different fonts culled from the likes of Listerine, Ivory Soap, and Snow Flake Sanitary Powder Puff advertisements. More somber, and more masculine by far, is Francis Johnson's wartime scrapbook. As neat and tidy as a bed in a barracks, a testament to discipline and restraint, its only flash of color is a page filled with military decorations.

Keenly sensitive to the formal properties of these and other scrapbooks, Helfand is equally alive to their cultural properties: how they frame time, and give voice to sentimentality, and ritualize memory. In deft and supple prose that sometimes turns lyrical, she writes about the tension between the "fidelity to time-keeping," which lies at the heart of the scrapbook, and the "glimmers of uncertainty" that mark it. "There remains, in so many scrapbooks, the persistent hope that life will always be like this, full of fun and jokes and frolics ... a blanket disregard for time's inevitable progression." Helfand is also right to maintain that the popularity of memory books is bound up with the "anticipation of memory as a core emotional need," and, with it, a "more conscious approach to timekeeping through events." During moments of war, the keeping of a scrapbook, she notes, even became something of a therapeutic activity: "Preformatted pages guided the user, and reframed the act of worry into a hopefully and arguably creative activity. It is likely, too, that the culture of rationing that pervaded American society during World War II led to a feeling of patriotic duty where scraps were concerned: rescuing and preserving them were considered prudent and wise."

These are fresh and vivid and even affecting observations, but often they read too much like quick bursts, snippets of critical acuity. It is almost as if Helfand has so fully internalized the workings of the scrapbook and its celebration of the intermittent and the episodic that its style has become hers as well. Much like her subject, she takes hold of an idea, shakes it just a bit, then quickly moves on to something else. This might be prized in a scrapbook, where, as Helfand writes in its defense, "to interpolate is to miss the point: rather, one is better advised to look for cues"--but interpolation is precisely what we want of her. Without it, Helfand's analysis remains as tantalizingly incomplete as the bits of fabric or wisps of flowers whose value she champions.

Still, this fine book makes a stirring case for the importance of material culture to the study of the past. Its elegant fusion of the material with the textual demonstrates with verve and intelligence how looking at history with one's eyes as well as with one's head can only enrich and expand our historical imagination. Not simply a mere ornament, a bit of dimity, to round out and enliven an interpretation, material culture is quite literally eye-opening--a revelation in fabric, metal, and plastic. It shows, not just tells, how our forebears actually went about constructing their lives, what they fancied and what they disdained, what lifted their spirits and what darkened their days. As Alice Morse Earle, an early champion of material-culture studies, put it in 1903, in her magisterial study Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820, old things contain the "lingering presence" of the past: its "harmless jealousies, gentle vanities, modest hopes." With an integrity all its own, the stuff of history hands us our past--if only we know where to look.

Consigned for much too long to the role of poor cousin, non-textual ways of apprehending the lives of our ancestors are only beginning to receive their due within the academy. On the considerable strength of Helfand's example, let us hope that full-fledged acceptance is just around the bend. In the course of things, Helfand quotes Daniel Boorstin's cautionary observation about how to go about writing history: if one teaches history as chronology, he remarked, the landmarks have a way of overshadowing the landscape. One loses sight of what actually happened on the ground and at the grass roots. Thanks to this redemptive account of the ways in which Americans of all sorts "committed memory to paper," the chances of that happening are now slimmer.

Jenna Weissman Joselit teaches American studies at Princeton. She is at work on a cultural history of the Ten Commandments in modern America.

This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.