Picture This is a blog series exploring the different ways in which we collect and share photographs, how they have evolved over time, and what deeper insights we can draw from them. Beyond the act of simply taking a photograph, how we keep or display pictures tells the story of who we are as individuals, our values, and what matters most to us.
The Art of Scrapbooking: An Evolution
The tradition or art of scrapbooking emerges from an inherent desire for individuals to leave a legacy. Tangible, but highly visual in nature, a scrapbook is a careful curation of images, clippings, and other ephemera that tells a story of someone’s life at a particular moment in time. Unlike a diary or journal, which are much more intimate and introspective, a scrapbook can be personal, but there is also a performative element of display, or presentation in the way each page is organized. Scrapbooks are curated with an audience in mind.
The origin of the scrapbook is quite literally rooted in the practice of collecting ‘books of scraps’. After the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, noble and well-educated Europeans were quickly overwhelmed with the increasing proliferation of printed information. To help prioritize and organize this new influx of information and materials, it became common practice to compile and curate “scraps” of publications, literature, and other printed material of personal interest into “commonplace books”.
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. Women might record their favorite religious passages, recipes, and quotes from the books that they read. Commonplace books were a way to collect, organize, and make sense of a wide variety of information that came to an individual from a wide array of sources. The gathering and arranging of “scraps” of information was an opportunity for members of the upper echelons of society to make their personalized mark in what likely felt like an increasingly dizzying world of new information and knowledge.
Another early example of people ‘making their mark’ within the binding of books are the scribbles of family history in personal bibles. As printing became more widely accessible through the 16th and 17th centuries and more and more households acquired their own bibles, many families began to utilize the blank pages at the front or back of their family bibles to record family genealogies. These annotations would include full names, dates of birth, marriage records, dates of death, and other notes of lineage. Family bibles are some of the earliest forms of personal family history-keeping, and sometimes even the only surviving records of family lineage. Passed down from generation to generation, the family bible became a tangible symbol of an enduring legacy.
Over time, this practice of family record-keeping became more and more popular. By the mid-1880s, bible publishers were including pre-printed pages to help facilitate family record keeping, with specific lines to record birth, marriage, and death dates. Some bibles were even manufactured with photo-album like pages bound into the book, where families could arrange portrait photographs into provided slots. Families also used the pages of their bible to store important newspaper clippings like birth announcements, obituaries, or other items with sentimental significance. Locks of hair were not uncommon to be kept between bible pages, and significant thought was also given to the item or material used as a bookmark. These family bibles were family scrapbooks of everything that held meaning and value to its members.
Preserved in the St. Catharines Museum Collection is the bible of the Henry family of Port Dalhousie. Dated to 1849, this bible was not published with dedicated space for family record keeping or photo display. However, the Henry family still chose to preserve their legacy within its binding. Carefully flipping through this very large tome, you’ll find pristinely kept pages with no markings or even dog-ears, until you reach the very back of the binding. There, you’ll find the beginnings of the Henry family tree, written with ink on the last bound page and a separate, smaller page that has been glued in. Though very brief, this record traces the migration of the Henry family from Scotland to Port Dalhousie and tells a story of life and loss of a seemingly tightly-knit immigrant family. Born in Scotland in unknown years, father Robert Henry Sr. and mother Marion Watt migrated to Port Dalhousie likely some time in the mid 1850s, where they raised their children Michael, William Dewan, and Robert Watt. The death date of each family member is recorded, along with their place of birth and death, but there is no record of marriage or children among the sons. This information might have been recorded by a man named Earl Henry, possibly a grandson, also of Port Dalhousie as his name is inscribed on the back cover of the bible along with the year 1900. This may be the only surviving record of the Henry family together; a lasting legacy of a Scottish immigrant family of Port Dalhousie that might not have otherwise existed.
The Victorian Scrapbook
The practice of scrapbooking as we understand it today is rooted in Victorian tradition. As printing technology and the industrial revolution progressed into the nineteenth century, the accessibility and proliferation of printed material grew even wider and a new trend emerged. Newspapers began to circulate among the masses and elaborately printed postcards, calling cards, and advertising trade cards became novelty keepsakes for their recipients. Using blank, bound books, people began to glue their collection of these ornate scraps of memorabilia onto pages, alongside an arrangement of letters they’ve received, newspaper clippings, hands-drawn sketches or paintings, passages from literature or poetry, quotations, recipe cards, personal recollections and inner musings, and other records of interest. The pieces selected for inclusion in a scrapbook, as well as how they were curated or arranged onto each page, offers abundant insight into the interests and values of the creator at a specific moment in time, the social and cultural trends that shaped them, and their views on the world around them.
Scrapbooking in the 1800s was practiced by men, women, and children alike. Of course, what was collected differed widely depending on age, gender, and class. It was not uncommon for scrapbooking projects to be assigned to children in the Late Victorian period as a way to learn how to organize and classify information, and to develop creativity and artistry.
We have a number of 19th century scrapbooks in the St. Catharines Museum Collection, many of which belonged to members of the well-known Merritt family here in St. Catharines. William Hamilton Merritt Jr., son of esteemed businessman and father of the Welland Canal, dates his scrapbook to 1832. He would have been 10 years old at the time. Though it lost its cover sometime before coming to the Museum, its pages are filled to the brim with various clippings and copies of art from books or periodicals featuring scenes from exotic places, some having been coloured in by hand, as well as some personal sketches and drawings. Each glued-in scrap stands alone, without captions or context. The viewer, removed by almost two centuries, is left to wonder whether this bound book of scraps was meant to be kept private and intimate, or was it compiled to be shared with others as a conversation tool to talk about the interests of the day. Merritt Jr. died in his late thirties in the year 1860. Would he have kept his childhood scrapbook with him as he grew up into adulthood?
Mark Twain’s Patent
Another Merritt scrapbook in the Museum Collection belonged to Thomas Rodman Merritt II, great-grandson to William Hamilton Merritt. This isn’t just any scrapbook though, it’s a Mark Twain-patented adhesive scrapbook. Yes, the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn fame. An avid scrapbooker himself, Twain invented a self-pasting scrapbook in 1873 to save time and effort with the art form. It was mass-produced between about 1877 and 1902, and it is said Twain made more money from his scrapbooks than his authored works. Protected by a thick cover, each blank page is lined with three columns of adhesive, large enough to paste a newspaper article. The scrapbooker only needed to moisten the area of the adhesive to be used and arrange and secure their scrap collection however they’d like.
Compiled between roughly the 1910s and 1940s, Thomas Rodman Merritt II’s scrapbook contains a wide collection of ephemera. The first several pages are of only newspaper clippings, ranging in various subjects of interest, including comics, editorials, and other musings. As more pages are flipped and years pass, Merritt II also began to paste letters, wedding announcements, wedding invitations, and a random assortment of his own personal musings. Merritt II’s final pasting in this scrapbook is an undated, handwritten letter to a possible girlfriend that was seemingly never sent. It reads:
I’ve asked a girl from Buffalo to go to the dance with me but I haven’t heard from her yet. So you’d better get back here quick to give her a little competition. Well I really must [sic] but I’ll write again before you leave. I’ll try my best next time to get a picture of my school uniform is has more gold braid etc. and I’ll try to smile next time and wear my hat straight. All my love to you, your best boyfriend (I hope), Tommy.
Again, the question must be asked whether this scrapbook full of memories was intimately personal, similar to a diary or journal, or was there an element of display and presentation to how Merritt II arranged his clippings and findings?
The Modern Scrapbook
As photography advanced into the twentieth century and became more and more accessible for families, the art of scrapbooking further evolved to include family portraits and personal photographs. Photographs added an additional layer of personal, intimate storytelling to the scrapbook, as they offered insight into a moment frozen in time and opened further conversation between the scrapbooker and the viewer. These are the scrapbooks we are more familiar with today, pages filled with people, places, and experiences that hold significant meaning to the scrapbooker. This is similar to the photo album, which will be subject of the next Picture This blog post.
There are relatively few personal scrapbooks from the twentieth century in the St. Catharines Museum Collection. Most highlight the activities of local organizations like amateur sports teams or large businesses like McKinnon Industries and Lightning Fastener. One example is a 1940s scrapbook documenting the St. Catharines Ladies Softball League from 1941-1946. Neatly organized onto each page are newspaper photos and clippings of the various teams in the league, including the Merry Macs, Teepee girls, St. Catharines (St. Kitts), Merritton Garden City Paper, Hayes Steel Girls, and Mason Dairy. Curating these images and clippings into one scrapbook tells a collective story of women’s sports leagues as an important foundation of community and belonging during the Second World War in St. Catharines.
Another in the Museum Collection are pages from the scrapbook of St. Catharines resident Sheila Kroetsch, which documents her marriage to her husband David in May 1980. The photos highlight specific moments from the wedding day: someone arranging the bride’s veil, the bride and groom walking out of the church and being greeted by family, and portraits with the wedding party. Included also is a clipping of the wedding announcement, and a frosted sticker with the phrase “Stand by Me”, perhaps holding special meaning to the couple or calling back to a specific memory. The selection of the floral paper, photographs, and clippings were deliberate. The scrapbooker made the choice to include each, and to not include other images or memorabilia that might have been available. The arrangement of these pages matter. Each time the scrapbooker flipped through these pages in the months and years following, her memory would recall what she saw through these photos and clippings, and over time her memory might forget other moments not pasted down. The scrapbook inadvertently shaped not only the scrapbooker’s memory of this moment in her life, but also how this story was passed down to others as she shared these pages.
Scrapbooking as Storytelling
Scrapbooks tell stories through the careful arrangement of clippings, letters, photos, and other scraps on bound pages. Unlike a diary or journal where intimate thoughts and inner musings are often written as the heart or mind desires, there is something more deliberate in a scrapbook. The art of scrapbooking is where each page is crafted or curated to tell a specific story, from the photos or memorabilia selected, their arrangement of the page and within the larger book, to the text and captions included (if any). The scrapbook has an audience in mind, the story being told is to someone else.
The content of scrapbooks, and the stories we’re able to tell, has further evolved with technology and the media available to us. The rise of the printing press gave many families their first Bible, where for the first time they could record their family history and lineage to pass down to generations. Advancing printing technology in the 1800s opened further access to mass-produced literature and periodicals, where individuals could take inspiration from the outside world to carefully arrange a collection of pages symbolic of how they wanted others to perceive them. As personal photography grew more popular in the twentieth century, scrapbookers began to fill their pages with their own experiences and memories, though still selective in which stories made it to the page, to curate a specific version of their lives.
Today, in the twenty-first century, the rise of social media has drastically shaped how we curate our stories and experiences for others. Social media is an inversion of the scrapbook. We can think of a scrapbook as a tool to bring the outside in.
Inside the tangible scrapbook, we gather information from the outside world as well as from our own experiences and arrange this information within its pages to tell a specific story. As a bound, physical object, the author has control over who can access its contents, and how those contents are interpreted through storytelling, dialogue and sharing. Social media, on the other hand, is a platform where we put inner selves out into the world. As much as we attempt to control our narrative through the photos, captions, statuses, and tweets we share, for the first time, viewers are accessing our stories from behind a screen and far removed us. The storytelling become one-way, and the opportunity for dialogue is lost. So too is the intimacy and connection that personal storytelling can foster.
Perhaps the insidious impact social media has on how we tell our stories is partly why the scrapbooking industry has experienced an increasingly resurgence in recent years. Scrapbooking gives you, the storyteller, full control in how your story is told, and the legacy you choose to leave behind.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.