Arts & Culture

Scraps of memory

Book review

Thomas Hine '69 is the author of, among other books, Populuxe and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

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The most seductive thing about looking at an old scrapbook is that you never know what you will find. Turn the page and you might see a lock of hair, a dried bouquet, a dance card, a yellowed clipping about a dead soldier or a glamorous movie star, snapshots from the Brownie, ticket stubs, or -- amid the artifacts -- some deeply personal revelations.

The scrapbook is a mongrel form. Jessica Helfand ’82, ’89MFA, clearly loves old scrapbooks, and through her research in historical societies, family attics, and eBay auctions, she has unearthed some choice and evocative examples. Helfand calls the scrapbook "an ideal hybrid of humanity and paper" that represents "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."

Helfand, a distinguished graphic designer and a teacher at Yale's art school, offers insightful reflections on nearly all the images she shows. The book, which is filled with images from a variety of scrapbooks spanning two centuries, is subtitled, "An American History." Still, like many of the scrapbooks she documents, it is much more impressive in its presentation of odd pieces of raw evidence than it is in making a coherent argument or offering a clear narrative. Scrapbooks overflow with pieces of evidence about people and the lives they led, but they are so idiosyncratic, and their survival is so chancy, that they provide only a flimsy foundation for drawing larger historical conclusions. While Helfand tries to do so, her book constantly -- and rightly -- pulls us in the opposite direction, always showing something odd and remarkable, and inviting us to say, "Oh, look at that!"

Look, for example, at Mary Schultz's Home Study scrapbook from 1928. It records many examples of common household stains, each one on its own square of linen, four to the page. One can see this scrapbook embodies ideas about domestic efficiency and virtue that were a preoccupation of such books for half a century or more. But such generalities lack the grip of the specific. All of those stains -- along with their meticulous annotations, and the thought of Mary Schultz carefully creating each one for posterity -- are what make an indelible impression.

Neither will I forget Helfand's account of the scrapbook kept by Edith DuTeau, a Los Angeles woman of modest means whose children socialized with the Kleinmeyers, who were rich and socially prominent. DuTeau's scrapbook consists almost entirely of clippings about that family, its notorious divorce, and a scandal that involved a bounced check. "Edith used her scrapbook," Helfand writes, "to reckon with her connection to this glamorous, if infamous man." Its mixed emotions of attraction, moral superiority, social climbing, and sheer obsessiveness seem to contain elements of a great novel. But as Helfand notes, scrapbooks are often silent about those things that affect their makers most deeply.

And speaking of novels, consider the baby book that was kept by F. Scott Fitzgerald's mother. While most mothers abandon this project within weeks of the child's birth, Mrs. Fitzgerald kept at it, and young Scott dutifully wrote his autograph in the book each year until the age of 25. That's one way to make a child feel like he's the hero of a book.

Fitzgerald's wife Zelda made scrapbooks, too. They reflected her interest in cubism, collage, and other forms of modernist visual expression. "As a writer, dancer, and artist, [Zelda] struggled with form (and in particular with finishing things)," Helfand writes, "yet her scrapbook remained by its very nature, an improvisational endeavor: it was a story requiring no plot, a dance needing no choreography. As such, it may well have been Zelda's ideal medium, a virtual celebration of the indefinite."

Perusing this book reminded me, for the first time in years, of a time when I was about ten. I spent perhaps a week's worth of evenings with a bottle of mucilage and a scissors, pasting pictures from magazines of modern products, mostly cars, into a cheap paperbound scrapbook someone had given me. Three decades later when I was putting together the pictures -- many from magazine advertisements, many of cars -- for my first book, I had a sudden flashback. Not only was my activity almost indistinguishable from what I had done before, but I was using the same magazines and even some of the same images. I didn't know what I was doing at age ten, but I guess I was starting a book. What can be fascinating about scrapbooks is that they might be every bit as mysterious to those who create them as they are to us decades later. They may have a purpose, but often that purpose isn't expressed, or even understood. They may lead somewhere, but usually that endpoint is outside of the boundaries of the scrapbook.

Helfand's book is made particularly timely by the explosive growth of the hobby and craft of "scrapbooking" during the last decade, and by the proliferation of scrapbook-like forms on such Internet sites as While it's not a shock that Helfand, a pioneer of complex yet elegant web designs, would dislike the visual (and auditory) cacophony of these online scrapbooks, it is surprising how dismissive she is of the entire scrapbooking phenomenon. In a final chapter she decries the commercialism that drives the hobby, the die cuts and embellishments that threaten to make them all look alike. (Helfand notes that Mark Twain made money selling scrapbook supplies. Can we condemn Martha Stewart for following his example?)

She is also tough on the therapeutic claims of some scrapbookers, as well as their often-empty notion of "creativity." Yet aren't these the kinds of cultural phenomena one would expect scrapbooks to express? I suspect a successor to Helfand, half a century from now, would be able to sift through the thousands of uninteresting examples and find some scrapbooks whose jagged and mismatched shards will mirror the way we live now. 

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