Jessica Helfand | Essays

National Scrapbooking Day

Scrapbook kept by Frederick Nixon-Nirdlinger, Philadelphia, PA 1909. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library.

Today, scrapbooking enthusiasts across the United States celebrate National Scrapbooking Day, heralding the meteoric rise of a pastime which has, over the course of the past decade, become the nation's fastest-growing hobby.

But what of the countless numbers of scrapbooks produced in the years preceding this booming trend? Herewith, an excerpt from my next book, which traces the history of scrapbooking in America during the first half of the Twentieth Century — a period that witnessed, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic, the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the advent of two World Wars. In spite (or more likely, as a result of) such hardships, people everywhere kept scrapbooks, filled to overflowing with things that mattered to them, fragments of visual evidence rescued from everyday life. Their stories, told through collage, montage, annotation — and even, as in the case of the scrapbook featured here, omission — reveal a remarkable snapshot of life in America at the dawn of the modern age.


The scrapbook kept by Frederick Nixon-Nirdlinger, a theater manager from Philadelphia, chronicles a grand tour in 1909 that took him from western Europe to Egypt and Greece. Most of these travels were by train, and the wagon-lit menus and itineraries are all featured chronologically, punctuated by the requisite telegrams and ticket stubs that collectively mark his journey — a journey he made accompanied by his wife, whose presence in this album is negligible. (This omission may well have been a likely foreshadowing of what would prove to be the imminent collapse of their eighteen-year marriage.) There are advertisements for Moorish lace, elaborate steel-engraved letterheads, and an unusual little receipt from the purchase of a helmet in Gibraltar. The graphic variety here provides an apt metaphor for what must have been an embarrassment of riches; yet at the same time, there’s something oddly incomplete about this book. The lack of personal details (handwriting, captions, personal observations of any kind) testifies to what was perhaps equally commonplace at the time: that is, the degree to which a beautiful scrapbook, if only made of scraps, ultimately rendered one’s extravagant experience devoid of any overt emotional vitality.

Nixon-Nirdlinger’s travel scrapbook perfectly captures this paradox: at once a relic of turn-of-the-century material grandeur, it is also a symbol of the emotional repression of the age and its upper class. (One might even speculate that it was a symbol of one man’s emotional paralysis.) Bizarrely, the tide would soon turn for poor Frederick, for whom there was a much more turbulent personal destiny in store.

Following his grand tour, the couple divorced, and Frederick married Miss St. Louis of 1923 — the young Charlotte Nash, some twenty years his junior — who bore him two children and murdered him, less than a decade later, in their home on the French Riviera. In a highly-sensationalized trial, a French court and a jury of seven bachelors later acquitted the beautiful widow, whose lawyers maintained she’d acted in self-defense: indeed, scars on Charlotte’s neck revealed that her husband had tried to strangle her. In retrospect, the fact that the deceased was a Jew during a period of growing anti-Semitism in France may have had a considerable impact upon the verdict. Nevertheless, poor Frederick had the last laugh: in his will, he bequeathed his nearly one -million-dollar fortune to his two young children, leaving his widow virtually penniless.

That spring, the American press shared reports of the newly emancipated murderer: “Aboard the steamship Roma, Mrs. Charlotte Nash Nixon-Nirdlinger returned to the U.S. from Nice, where a court had justified her killing her wealthy, elderly husband,” reported Time Magazine in June, 1931. “Said she: ‘Sometimes I’m sorry that I am beautiful, considering all the trouble I’ve had over it.’ During the interview Baby Charlotte screamed and Son Fred, 4, beat Grandmother Nash on the head with a paper horn.”

Scrapbooks like these remind us that creating an album from saved matter does not necessarily provide an accurate self-portrait. In the end, Frederick’s is an essentially decorative volume, and while the wealth of ephemera helps to amplify and dramatize the thrill of his exotic voyage, there is little here to reveal much of his own internal journey. Charting that course would prove to be a rather different task, and one to which the scrapbook would, over time, become ideally suited.

From Scrapbooks: An American History. Forthcoming from Yale University Press, October, 2008.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Media

Comments [8]

This fits with some personal research I've been doing - is there a title or projected date of arrival for the book?

Can't wait to read the rest! Riveting! Makes you wonder how such a beautifully simple craft turned into such a trite and tasteless hobby...

Uh oh, isn't Elizabeth's last few words the start of a familiar discussion (On Scrapbooking)? That isn't to say that I'm not in agreement.
It is a bit of a tangent from the writing in this entry, but after reading that long dispute from 2005, I started to wonder: what makes modern Scrapbooking from the graphic designer's (among many others) perspective seem so "tasteless" by comparison to Nixon-Nirdlinger’s scrapbook? Maybe it's that (though lacking his personal travel observations or evidence of his traveling partner) Nixon-Nirdlinger’s scrapbook contains a real story of time. There are clippings of letterheads and other ephemera of the places he visited, creating a visual history of time and place (which in some ways, couldn't that be a telling portrait in a more abstract fashion?) Modern day scrapbooking conversely, uses preprinted things that are designed and sold for the purpose of decoration to emulate (rather than really depict/reflect) a true visual history. I think that is what bugs me most about scrapbooking: though some of the papers and embellishments are attractive, I know no more of a person from their scrapbook today than I feel I might know of the man that created the book above (granted, I've only seen two pictures). Maybe it's a harsh generalization. I feel that more scrapbookers could stand to get out there and pull from elements in actual places and events as opposed to a preprinted piece in a store.

Modern day scrapbooking is what the scrapbooker themselves makes it. It's one hobby where you shouldn't have to answer to anyone. It's your taste and your memories. Who's to say it's 'trite and tasteless'?

I might choose to include napkins, tickets, wrappers and countless other bits and pieces in my scrapbooks and i might choose to pour out my heart into the journaling i include but if others choose not to then so be it. It is their choice.


My own grandmother kept scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and photos. What she forgot to do was to label the people in the photos and leave a note as to why she saved this clip of an obit. Who was this person and why was he or she relevant to her?

My own sister's scrapbooking habits rather annoy me, but, well, she's an accountant and buying the tons of stuff—no matter how tacky I think it is—keeps some other graphic designer or illustrator employed.

I just wish I had thought to get into the business 10 years ago.

The scrapbooking industry has also saved the companies whose products we no longer use on a daily basis (ie: presstype, rulers).
Michelle French

I, too, will be looking forward to this book.

But I'm not exactly sure where to draw the line between "scrapbook" and "artist book" when it comes to being strictly a collection of personal ephemera -- I don't have a problem with the sort of schlock pushed out of craft stores being lumped in with the "scrapbooking" crowd, and even agree with the "trite and tasteless" comment.

But personal ephemera is another matter altogether -- that is the sort of material that Frederick has collected, and what I would define more as "artist book" material. In that sense, I personally would expect to see something to put the material into context and not just a collection of unconnected (to the reader) "stuff."

As someone who has collected a whopping bag full of ephemera from a recent long trip, I'm now not sure how I want to use it to frame where I went, what I did, and how I've changed. Perhaps it will just sit nicely together until I file my income tax and let my accountant sort out what I can deduct as a legitimate business expense as an artist.

Or it will become the art itself.

L.M. Cunningham

“Visually Eclectic”
You go girl! Op-Ed Contributor in the NY Times.
Summerscapes: Stunt Book, 1920

Carl W. Smith

I think that blogging or photoblogging could well be considered a contemporary version of Scrapbooking, in as much as lots of people don't comment much on the materials they post (just as much as other people do, and just as much as people did use to, so it's a bit of a hybrid). I reckon this shed a new light to what some of the commenters are saying in regard to including 'premade' and 'pupose-built' things vs. adapting things from different environments to the scrapbook. There're different levels of alienness of a scrap if it's hyperlinked, than if it's bought to be included in the scrapbook, than if it's cut out from a naturally perishable obect (a cereal box, or a receipt).

Also, how do they know the wife is not accounted for in the scrapbook described in the post? If there're no comments or explanations, it doesn't seem fair to infer she didn't dine with him from the menus he presents in his scrapbook: the contrary seems to be true.

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