Rob Walker | Essays

Shared Memories

Many of the images reproduced in Scrapbooks: An American History, by Jessica Helfand, date back 50, 80, even 100 years. Reproduced in color and spread across wide pages, they are treated as worthy examples of creativity. The anonymous scrapbook creators could hardly have imagined such a fate for their work. Whatever audience they had in mind, it surely did not include a design critic ruminating over this “evocative” and “largely overlooked class of artifact.” In the 21st century, of course, scrapbooking is a multibillion-dollar affair, with specialty publications and businesses serving a huge market of self-documentarians. By and large, their work has little aesthetic resemblance to what Helfand has compiled. And while contemporary “scrappers” may not be thinking about future historians, a good number are thinking about an audience — and it isn’t just the grandkids.

According to Helfand, the roots of scrapbooking can be traced back to the “commonplace book” of the Renaissance; in 19th- and early-20th-century America they evolved from group parlor activity to something more personal. In addition to written notations, newspaper clippings, photographs and the like, many contained actual scraps: soap labels, candy wrappers, bits of cloth, ticket stubs, envelopes. In one of the many old scrapbooks Helfand pored over, she even encountered a pasted-down cigarette butt. In an interview, Helfand explained that these collagelike collections of images and ephemera and the narratives they suggested frequently impressed her with their aesthetic impact and originality. Helfand noted that the makers of these scrapbooks — frequently young women — were on voyages of self-discovery and operating (by today’s standards, certainly) in relative isolation.

Even in the 19th century, there was a commercial aspect to scrapbooking: One of Mark Twain’s many entrepreneurial side projects was a line of “self-pasting” albums. As the 20th century wore on, the products aimed at visual journal makers tended steadily toward standardization: books with graphic themes built in, formats telling you just where to put what. Next came premade stickers, buttons, patterned papers and other “embellishments,” which, of course, are not personal items the scrapbooker has saved but produced items the scrapbooker has bought. That trend and the industry have grown gradually for decades, but 21st-century scrapbooking has been profoundly shaped by — what else? — the Web. Posting individual page designs, or “layouts,” online is a major feature of contemporary scrap culture. And for some, a transformative one.

Consider Ali Edwards. In 2002, when she decided to organize pictures and other memorabilia associated with the birth of her son, she came upon twopeasinabucket.com, its message boards teeming with scrapbookers and their layouts. A photography enthusiast who studied design in school, she was hooked. The following year her scrapbook designs won a contest run by the popular scrapper magazine Creating Keepsakes, and soon she was writing for that magazine and her own ad-supported blog, giving workshops and publishing how-to books. Edwards describes this sudden “scrapbook celebrity” as a “random, bizarro” turn of events. And while she figures the vast majority of the millions of scrapbookers today simply enjoy the creative process, there are those who want the success and recognition that Edwards and others like her have achieved. Somewhere between the friendly Web buzzwords “self-expression” and “community” is a cousin to the profit motive: the audience motive. To be creative, sure, but also to be recognized as creative.

Edwards’s fans praise her layouts precisely because of their personal touches — her handwriting across photographs and pages, in particular. Yet when she teaches workshops, she encounters scrappers so wrapped up in buying embellishments that their work becomes “product heavy” and so concerned with achieving the “right” look (like the popular layouts they have seen online) that it “completely stalls them.” She encourages workshop attendees to think of the process as its own reward and to focus on telling a personal story.

That said, she has served the market for those who seek to emulate stars like her, by offering her own branded templates for digital scrapbookers. She has even made her unique handwriting available (free) in the form of a digital font. She resisted this at first because her style was so much a part of what attracted her audience in the first place, but finally decided to give it to them, “if that’s going to help them tell their stories.” 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, September 12, 2008.  

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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