Scrapbooks, the Smiling Villains

by Robert DeCandido

"Smile and smile and be a villain" Hamlet (1,5,43)

A number of years ago I was asked to introduce several speakers who were going to talk about the preservation of scrapbooks. I thought that in doing so, I would talk a little about the background of the topic. I assumed that there was a standard reference about scrapbooks that I could consult or, at worst, a little research would be required to extract the information I wanted. This turns out not to be true. As far as I could find out little or nothing has been written about scrapbooks as a format. What I am about to recount are dribs and drabs of information held together by my own conjectures and deductions.

A scrap of a definition

What is a scrapbook? Not a simple question. We can all think of examples, indeed many diverse examples. They range from the simple constructions of children to elaborate albums of fine prints, from the creations of scholarship to the compilations of vanity. One characteristic that they all have in common is that they are indeed books. Another is that they are derivative. They take something from somewhere else and put in the book. The above quote by Hamlet is a remark that he copies down into his "tables." (The stage direction indicates that he is writing as he speaks.) Table or commonplace books, such as these, were popular devices in the early 16th century wherein "intellectual young men...recorded good sayings and notable observations." (1) They are the earliest examples I have found of the impulse to create scrapbooks. That impulse, that attitude, includes a degree of informality about books in general that I believe would have been impossible before printing and the widespread use of paper that made books everyday objects. There is also an underlying emphasis, uncommon before the Renaissance, on individual taste and secular self-improvement.

Though the motivations for creating a commonplace book may be similar to those for making a scrapbook the two results differ in two essential ways. First, scrapbooks, at least as we now think of them, consist not only of thoughts derived from other sources but actual things, scraps of paper, photos, mementos, etc., while commonplace books are quotations, usually written out by the compiler. (Some table books were scrap books in the modern sense, consisting of passages cut from other works, but these were relatively uncommon in the 17th century. Books might have become everyday items but they were expensive everyday items, not to be sliced up in Cavalier fashion.) The second way in which commonplace and scrap books differ is that a scrapbook will almost always have a unifying theme or subject--the Royal family of Greece, an historic event, the self; whereas a commonplace book is often miscellaneous.

Getting back to our initial question of what is a scrapbook, I think we can start naming some definitive characteristics. A scrapbook is an informal compilation of objects on a specific theme or subject, from various sources, mounted onto the leaves of a book.

Cavalier clipping

The 17th century saw the development of a type of album which met most or all of these criteria. These were albums of prints and drawings compiled by serious collectors. "Serious amateurs," says William W. Robinson, "including Samuel Pepys, preserved most of their prints in albums...such volumes...constituted the backbone of every collection or 'cabinet' formed during that period." (2) Elaborate schemes for organizing these albums by type and subject, but not usually by artist, were created. These albums are rare in the United States but much more common in Europe were the tradition of making them continued up until the 20th century. A large proportion of the 20 million prints in the Bibliotheque Nationale are still in volumes. I have examined one such album in the Art, Prints and Photographs Division of The New York Public Library. It is a collection of architectural prints compiled in the late 18th century. (3) The prints in this volume were not so much preserved, as they were incarcerated. The book had been used as a Procrustean bed, a number of prints had been folded and others trimmed to accomodate them to the size of the leaves.

Scrapbooks are the children of our minds, our hearts and our egos, frustrating, intriguing and fascinating.
With the development of newspapers and magazines in the 18th century, scrapbooks began to take on their modern form. The ephemeral nature of these publications, their brevity and timeliness made them ideal candidates for scrapbook fodder and they have formed the staple diet of clippers ever since.

One odd turn in the history of scrapbooks was taken in the 18th century when William Granger published a history of England (4) which included blank pages on which could be pasted whatever appropriate illustration the purchaser chose. Once conceived, grangerizing, came to include books that were disbound and rebound with added illustrations, letters, autographs or other additions. These strange combinations of printed book and scrapbook, also known as extra-illustrated books, reached the zenith of their popularity in the 19th century.

The 19th century was, arguably, the golden age for scrapbook makers. Cheap job printing, chromolithography and the newly developed art of photography all added grist to the avid compiler's mill. Thematic scrapbooks were the forte of Victorian times, orderly, sentimental and message-laden. From this time, too, date the earliest theater-related scrapbooks I have been able to find.

The photo album, though, first created in the 19th century is probably the most common form of scrapbook in the 20th century. With the creation of roll film and the vast proliferation of amateur photography came the need to keep, organize and display photographic prints. Scrapbooks were the almost universal solution. Today, few homes in America are without one or more photo albums.

The very personal nature of most scrapbooks keeps them from being common in libraries. And yet I doubt that there are many libraries in this country that do not have any at all, acquired as gifts or even compiled by the staff. Because they are virtually always unique items, they often have artifactual value. The best of them are engaging and even the worst are informative at some level. And yet for all their charm they have some villainous preservation problems.

Preservation headache

Assemblages, such as scrapbooks, are among the most difficult objects to preserve. They have all the problems of all the pieces assembled, of the substrate to which they are attached and of the substance or mechanism that attaches them. For scrapbooks this means that any preservation action must consider the needs of all the scraps, whether they are newspaper clippings, photos, theater programs or a combination of these and many other things. It must also consider how they are held in--usually with glue, tape or paste which are often damaging and disfiguring. It must then take into account the materials with which the book itself is made--often the cheapest available--and its construction--frequently non-standard, sometimes home made. The full conservation of a scrapbook is an ambitious, difficult and extraordinarily expensive undertaking.

It is little wonder reformatting is often the preferred treatment option for scrapbooks. Where the contents of the book are of artifactual value a combination of filming and conservation may be the best option. The microfilm will document the scrapbook's original format and layout. After filming it can be disassembled, some parts that are neither unique nor intrinsically valuable, such as newspaper clippings, can be discarded. Other items such as photos, letters, and drawings, can be rehoused as part of an archival collection. Though it is certainly less expensive than conservation, microfilming scrapbooks is not a simple process. I recall looking at Sophie Tucker's scrapbooks in The New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Collection. They included numerous programs, more than a few sets of telegrams pasted one over the other, shingle style, numerous mementoes ranging from napkins to photographs to scraps of cloth from her costumes. There were also the ubiquitous newspaper clippings, carefully folded and pasted in. To microfilm these scrapbooks would require multiple exposures for the pages which contained programs or the shingled telegrams so that everything could be shot. The clippings would have to be unfolded before filming. If, when unfolded, they obscured anything else, that page would have to be shot again with the clippings folded. This might have to be repeated several times if there were more than one clipping on a page. With a little imagination, I'm sure you can multiply these examples any number of times.

Scrapbooks form an important resource and pose what is euphemistically called a preservation challenge. They are the children of our minds, our hearts and our egos, frustrating, intriguing and fascinating. Their history has not been written, but it ought to be so that we can better appreciate and preserve these smiling villains.

For further information on the preservation of scrapbooks I recommend: Conference on Preservation Management for Performing Arts Collection (1982 Washington, D.C.) Preserving America's performing arts Theater Library Association, NY: 1985. (In which appears an abbreviated version of the above remarks which introduces several papers on the preservation of scrapbooks.)


(1) Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare, the Complete Works, G. B. Harrison, ed. New York; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952, note on p. 895. Hamlet, a bookish sort, has, apparently brought his "tables" even to a meeting with his father's ghost.

(2) William W. Robinson. "This Passion for Prints" Foreword to: Ackley, Clifford. Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt. Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, N.Y. Graphic Society. c1981. Though the term "preserved" may, in the present context, seem incongruous, some of the alternatives to albums were much worse. Robinson notes that for display purposes "Pepys...had the prints mounted on boards and varnished before he set them into frames."

(3) This uncataloged volume is identified only by the legend, "Die Zirliche Baukunst" lettered on the front cover.

(4) James Granger. Biographical History of England. London; T. Davies, 1769.

This article first appeared Conservation Administration News (CAN)
No. 53, April 1993 as the Feature "Out of the Question."

© 1993 by Robert DeCandido.

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