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Scrapbooks: An American History Hardcover – November 3, 2008

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008:  The scrapbook has long been a popular and vital form of self-expression embraced by a cross-section of American society. "To read another person's scrapbook" observes Jessica Helfand in Scrapbooks: An American History, "is to acquire a body of knowledge about an entirely different time and place." Helfand--a prominent graphic designer, art critic, and author--has combined her considerable talents to create one of the most interesting and category-defying books on American culture this year. Through some 200 albums dating from the Victorian era through the present day--albums that Helfand personally curated and researched--Scrapbooks tells the story of ordinary and extraordinary lives, innovative visual ideas, and social change within the larger context of American history. The perfectly presented color photographs of album pages and schematic renderings draw readers right in. And, Helfand's detailed, yet evocative interpretations will keep them glued to the page. Scrapbooks is a special book that engages readers with a palpable sense of the material qualities of historic scrapbooks, and provides a stimulating presentation of the complex social and cultural worlds out of which they emerged. Like any first-rate scrapbook, Scrapbooks is a treasure-trove worth poring over for hours and hours. --Lauren Nemroff

The first book on the history of the American scrapbook. Discover untold stories in America's cultural history through nearly 200 fascinating scrapbooks.

Author Jessica Helfand Describes the Scrapbooks Project

Rich or poor, celebrity or civilian, men, women, and children of all ages kept scrapbooks. Some were ornate, with gilded covers and carefully composed pages of decoupage. Others were retrofitted from secondhand books, with chromolithographs glued sloppily on top of existing texts. Many consisted entirely of clippings, rigorously aligned and chronologically arranged, often around a central theme—pigeons, for instance, or movie stars or, not infrequently, obituaries. There were scrapbooks filled with babies, birds, and baseball statistics; scrapbooks about ice skating, dog breeding, and the intricacies of boy watching. Fragments of cloth from wedding gowns were included in bridal books, while new mothers included gentle locks from their baby’s first haircut. Debutantes saved news clippings, farmers saved weather reports, high school girls saved gum wrappers, and everyone, it seemed, saved greeting cards. Even soldiers kept scrapbooks, pasting in furlough requests, ration cards, and the tattered, beloved photos of their faraway sweethearts. Clumsily folded, haphazardly pasted, randomly annotated with fascinating afterthoughts, the material presence of these personal repositories offers a long-overlooked glimpse into the American spirit. Why did people feel compelled to save the things they did? What did they value, and question, and believe about themselves and the world around them? And how did the things they saved express what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not say in words?

Over time, the scrapbook came to mirror the changing pulse of American cultural life—a life of episodic moments, randomly reflected in a news clipping or a silhouetted photograph, a lock of baby hair or a Western Union telegram. As a genre unto themselves, scrapbooks represent 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. As author, editor, photographer, curator, and inevitable protagonist, the scrapbook maker engaged in what seems today, in retrospect, a comparatively crude exercise in graphic design. Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, the resulting works represent amateur yet stunningly authoritative examples of a particular strain of visual autobiography, a genre rich in emotional, pictorial, and sensory detail. --Jessica Helfand

Get a Closer Look at Scrapbooks
(click on images to enlarge)

Zelda Fitzgerald's Scrapbook 1000 Journals Project, 2000-present
Harn Scrapbook, 1920s
His Service Record, 1942; USO Scrapbook; Victory Scrapbook, 1942 Kelley Scrapbook, 1927

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Scrapbooks were the original open-source technology, says graphic designer Helfand, who teaches at Yale, in this appreciative and analytical tour through a century's worth of visual historical record books. This eclectic, yet inclusive genre provide[s] a cross section of the range and pluralism of more than a century of modern American experience. The scrapbook compiles artifacts that illustrate their times, ranging from photographs of Rita Hayworth to ration cards, yet also render psychological portraits of their makers, whether young Victorian school girls, the mother of F. Scott Fitzgerald or WWII soldiers. A scrapbook's historical lessons can be gleaned by studying its content, form, commentary and even the wear of included items, and its intended viewers. Tracing the evolution of the scrapbook from a documentary record through manifestation of fantasy to nostalgic rendering or compendium of loved things, Helfand roughly sketches American history through creating her own scrapbook of scrapbooks. This book is colored at times by her privileging of older forms, which she sees as more personal and authentic expressions than the products of today's craft-oriented scrapbookers. But like any good scrapbook, this is a personal collage of a collective experience. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (November 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300126352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300126358
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 12.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #310,218 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

This project percolated in my brain (and my sketchbooks) for years until I realized that scrapbooks were simply visual autobiographies filled with stories waiting to be told. I am fascinated with the degree to which non-visual people felt, for whatever reason, compelled to keep these remarkably visual records of their lives. Its a chapter in American history (and in graphic design history) that has not been told: in my book I call it outsider art with insider knowledge. It's raw and primitive and heartbreaking and real, and if it bears little if any resemblance to contemporary scrapbooking, it's probably because a generation ago, people made things from the detritus of their lives: they rescued things, saved and savored them, and pasted them in the pages of books. And therein lies the scrapbook's particular and enduring magic.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By U2Kitteh on November 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a beautiful book allowing us a glimpse into some gorgeous examples of vintage scrapbooks. The photos of the books are so well done you feel like you could touch the different textures of photos and scraps attached to the pages. If you are interested in the history of true scrapbooking then you should definitely buy this book. It is a work of love.

That said, modern scrapbookers beware. I agree with the author that the kind of scrapbooking she is presenting is closer to the original meaning of the word and hobby. Everyday scraps of ephemera are collected and pasted onto pages...with no thought to design or it's future readers other than what pleases the maker. It was a beloved personal hobby that can now, unknowingly, give us glimpses into what life might have been like for that person, or at least what might have been on their mind.
I agree with the author that modern scrapbooking has become almost soul-less...all about expensive papers, embellishments and posed photos. In this modern manufactured world, it seems that scrapbooking memories is also as such.
If you are interested in how scrapbooking began, about how generations of women (and intelligent men!) before us saved their memories, you will love this book. If you've gotten stuck in a modern scrapbooking rut and want to put more meaning to your hobby, this book will be inspiring and may change your direction.

The only element that I do not like about this book is that there is a bit of snobbish-ness about the whole phenomena. I respect that Ms.Helfand is an art critic and graphic designer, but I wish that she would have left her opinions about the books she is presenting out and just concentrated on the history of scrapbooking itself.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lee Moody on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The reason I love this book is because finally Jessica put in words what I could never do....tell the story of peoples collected memories. Beautiful photos ! If you have a drawer in your house, or a relatives house that is filled with old pictures or a saved collection of anything -you will not be able to put this book down. If only I had thought of writing the book first !
I highly recommend buying a few copies to remind people of the love of collecting warm memories. I curled up with a cozy blanket and read it for hours- and then I gave it to my Mom and she read it for hours. We all are information over loaded...but reading this book was equivalent to sipping rich hot chocolate from your favorite mug on a cold winters night.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Julian Burgess on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Jessica Helfand's book is nothing less than a living, breathing slice of American history: a beautiful, funny, exciting living collage of who we are, where we came from and what we're all capable of being -- flawed, human, deep and joyously alive. On a design level, it's a visual feast. On a literary level, it's full of stories of the famous and the anonymous, each one riveting. Botton line: the scrapbooks she has unearthed, and their fascinating minutiae, make up nothing short of the perfect archaeological find for anyone interested in/fascinated by our collective national heritage; you could literally spend the next twenty years, if you wanted to -- and I think I will -- poring over each and every one of the things in these scrapbooks, and marvelling in the stories they tell.

As for the flap over the author's apparent intent/attitude concerning scrapbooks in general: isn't it completely irrelevant? Judge the book not by its author, whoever she is. Check out the book. It's a marvel. It's a museum between two covers. It's a journey through time. It's a hoot. It's a gem.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jessica G. Gladstone on December 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Turning the pages of Jessica Helfand's beautiful book is like turning back time. Each selection is layered with import, curiosity and the promise of story. It's a wonder the author was able to edit down any of her findings as each one launches you to a distant world. My eyes and mind were completely engaged as I wound through the pages - as if I was a treasure-hunter seeking clues to understand the pathology of collections.

As a modern day scrapbooker, I was inspired and reminded to privilege the everyday ephemera I've kept along with my images and notes of random thoughts and comments. For, these examples assert that this "lost" kind of labored expression still exists today, only we've grown accustomed to a blanketed and generalized editing mentality.

I'm not sure that modern scrapbooking is entirely bereft of individuality...but rather the tools of the trade found so easily in craft stores today are not our ready-made "answers to scrapbooking" but should be considered as entry-points to story-telling.

If you are interested in scrapbooking you will enjoy this book. It's a wonderful gift and an unusual take on what it means to make memories.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Eric Baker on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Scrapbooks: An American History

Scrapbooks: An American History by Jessica Helfan is a book for all lovers of ephmera and Americana. It is neither high brow nor low brow. It captures the passion and history of peoples love of memory. The images are beautiful and the text is accessible.

What is most intriguing, and almost voyeuristic, is to see a persons life progress though the years, the places they have been, the events they witnessed and the people they loved.

To sit with the book is to take a trip through time.


Eric Baker
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