Paper Chains

By Julie Carter Spring 2021 | ISSUE 79

It wasn’t so long ago that the only time you saw a scrapbook was in a movie where the serial killer had kept all the newspaper cuttings of his gruesome exploits. It was a pretty unexpected end to a hugely popular art that swept the Victorian era and left us not only with some glorious examples of the scrapbook, but also gave a window into the private world of the maker, writes Julie Carter.

As early as the Middle Ages, it was common for well-educated people to keep personal diaries or journals that recorded their thoughts on life’s activities and events around them. They were known as ‘commonplace books’, and the journals typically contained notes from various sources on a range of topics, rather than the glued-in paper items we associate today with a scrapbook. Key passages were copied from materials studied in libraries, and philosophers, writers and scientists used them to record the progress of their work as well as their inspirations. ‘Commonplace books were not personal diaries or even a way of recording the owner’s inner thoughts, but rather a way of collecting and organising a variety of information and material that came to the person from a range of sources – a gathering of informational ‘scraps’, if you will,’ writes Maxine Carter-Lome in her 2019 essay, Bound Memories & Scraps of Ephemera.

Letters, poems, recipes, quotes and similar items were all kept in commonplace books and their compilation was taken very seriously. In 1512, scholar Desiderius Erasmus wrote a guide to commonplace book note taking, titled De Copia. In 1642, Thomas Fuller explained that keeping a commonplace book could serve as an aid to memory and as a ‘way of preserving learning and putting it to effective use.’ Such was its importance that in 1706, philosopher John Locke’s book, A New Method of Making Common-Place Books was published posthumously; his extended format added subject headings, places for reference and an index. The commonplace book largely remained a valued, masculine genre throughout the nineteenth century.

The trend for more informal scrapbooking emerged with the increased accessibility of printed material in the 19th century. Blank, bound books were filled with newspaper clippings, calling cards and other printed ephemera that caught the eye.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a scrapbook as a ‘blank book in which pictures, newspaper cuttings, and the like are pasted for preservation’, suggests that 1854 is the earliest known date of the word ‘scrap book’ being used in print, although there’s now evidence that it dates back to 1821. But it was in the Victorian era that scrapbooking really came into vogue.

‘For adults, nineteenth-century scrapbooks were created for a variety of reasons: as a craft project, as a way to preserve letters or photos, and as a way to document a family history or special event,’ writes Carter-Lome. ‘College women around the turn of the century used scrapbooks extensively to construct representations of their everyday life as students. Without photograph albums to provide images of these life events, students created unique representations through scrapbooks to illustrate their lives using ephemera and memorabilia.’ Often a student would use the scrapbook to display portraits of her favourite authors, adding sketches and quotes from her favourite works. Scrapbook keeping became associated with domesticity and femininity, and was not always looked upon favourably; an anonymous contributor to the New York Mirror disliked women’s scrapbooks so much that he labelled them ‘abominations’ and criticised those who would ‘aid’ and ‘abet’ such practices.

Responding to the negative preconceptions, enthusiasts often tried to rehabilitate the reputation of scrapbooks by promoting the ways in which scrapbooking could complement the expected roles and duties of women. The scrapbook began to be perceived as a reflection of domesticity and most of the advice on how to make scrapbooks emphasised their use in the home and for domestic pursuits.

When the development of photography led to the introduction of the carte de visite in the 1850s, it became common to trade them with family and friends or even purchase pictures of celebrities. Printed in sheets of eight photographs, these small photos were about the size of a calling card and were perfect for scrapbooks.

As the art of scrapbooking became ever more popular, sheets of ‘scraps’ were produced, stamped with embossed reliefs, chromos or diecuts of small paper images that were printed especially for their design. Early scraps sold by stationers and booksellers were printed in black and white and then hand coloured, but the development of chromolithography in the 1860s led to the printing of a large number of high quality images. Zinc plates treated with photosensitive chemicals and asphalt varnish used in conjunction with steam printing presses made mass-produced colour prints possible for the first time. The scraps were sold in large sheets with small paper strips and gummed backing for easy removal and pasting. Embossed for a three-dimensional look, they were finished with a gelatine and gum layer that gave them a glossy appeal.

The pictures are charming reminders of the Victorian preoccupation with romantic and sentimental subjects such as baby farm animals, garlands of flowers, angelic children, exotic birds, children with puppies and kittens and fashionably dressed ladies, as well as holiday themes such as Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. By the late 1800s, Britain, Germany and the United States had become the leaders in scrap production, with well-known companies such as Raphael Tuck & Sons, Currier & Ives, Allen & Ginter and Littauer & Boysen supplying beautiful scrap pieces.

The views and opinions of other people were of the utmost importance in the Victorian era, so a guest list or group of calling cards would also be included in a scrapbook to record a young woman’s status in society. Calling cards, which were printed with the person’s title and name (and later, the address) were often sent in advance to advise of a visit, or left behind if the recipient wasn’t at home; elaborate rules dictated how the cards could be used to make attempts at social contacts and how to accept or decline them. Often used as a polite way to extend social greetings after a significant event, they were usually left on a silver tray that would be on display in the entrance hall, for other visitors to see. A tray full of calling cards was an excellent way for the Victorian lady to tastefully advertise her extended social circle; the cards ultimately became so decorative that whole albums were devoted to their collection.

Trade cards were also an early Victorian novelty, and were handed out in their many thousands at trade expositions to encourage people to the various booths. Vividly coloured to show off the newly developed printing techniques, the subject matter ranged from medicine, food and tobacco to clothing, household items, sewing goods, stoves and farm equipment, as well as images of general interest such as cute children, pretty women and popular sports figures. Card collecting became such a craze that popular tourist attractions began printing them and some of the larger companies offered them as collector cards.

Recipes, poems, brochures, greeting cards, paper dolls, business cards, ribbons, tickets stubs and recorded family events were also typical scrapbook topics, containing information that today might only make sense to its owner. Scrapbooks made from newspaper clippings often focussed on obituaries, not only of family members, but also those whose interests included popular celebrities of the day, current events and chronicling weird or gruesome deaths. American collector and historian Jessica Helfand, who studied more than 200 scrapbooks during her research, told the Smithsonian that: ‘… They are weird obituaries, like one in which a woman watches in horror as streetcar claims the life of her six children. Incredibly macabre, gruesome things. ‘Two Weeks With a Corpse: A Senile Mother Alone in a Farm House With Her Daughter’s Remains.’ We have one of these books from 1894, and in it there is every weird obituary.’

Victorian families even created small libraries devoted to their scrapbooks, arranged by categories and topics with richly embellished and ornately designed covers, including elaborate tooled leather, engraved clasps and brass locks. Spines were tooled in gold decoration, and pages were highlighted with gilt edges. High quality paper was used for the mounting of prints and lithographs, and some albums were produced with blind embossing on the pages and blank spaces where the scraps would be pasted. Special title-page prints were also produced.

In his book Scrapbooks and How to Make Them, published in 1880, author E.W. Gurley suggests we are all scrapbooks, adding: ‘And happy is he who has his pages systemised, whose clippings have been culled from sources of truth and purity, and who has them firmly Pasted into his Book’. The fifty-six page manual contained ‘full instructions for making a complete and systematic set of useful books’.

Typically, although scrapbooking was thought to be a useful pastime for children, it was decreed in ladies’ magazines of the time that ‘children should be taught the art and beauty as well as the value of scrapbooks. The helter-skelter scrapbook made without rhyme or reason, with facts and fictions and poetry all pasted in just as they came to hand, is an unsightly affair and offends any well-ordered mind’. Victorian parents used scrapbooking as an educational tool to teach children how to organise and classify information and at the same time develop their artistic skills. Children’s scrapbooks often included little cards given as a reward of merit, to be viewed at family gatherings; they were awarded for things such as punctual attendance, good conduct and improvement at school. From 1860 to 1930, the training of kindergarten teachers included the making of albums.

The aforementioned E.W. Gurley claimed that scrapbookers would make more attentive readers because they were constantly looking for things to save. ‘We read for a purpose, look for something and keep it when found,’ he wrote. Many serious authors agreed. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, claimed her copious clippings had informed her novels: ‘The habit of reading with a pair of scissors in my hand,’ she wrote, ‘has stood me in good stead for much of my literary work.’ W.A. Bardwell argued in an 1888 article in the Library Journal that librarians ought to begin keeping scrapbooks expressly for purposes of reference by ‘taking important and interesting items, biographical, historical, or of any value, that would not ordinarily be found except in the newspapers; and preserving them in such manner that the information may be readily found when sought.’ Scrapbooking even had its own vocabulary. The scrapbooker ‘scissorized’ a newspaper and any valuable clippings were called ‘gleanings.’

As the scrapbook became more popular, companies began offering blank albums and glue. In 1872, the American writer Mark Twain created and patented a self-pasting scrapbook that contained adhesive on a grid pattern on each page. He marketed it as ‘the only rational scrapbook the world has ever seen’. The scrapbooker need only dampen the adhesive before sticking their pictures, clippings and other ephemera where they wanted them. It was a wildly successful invention that has been suggested earned Twain as much as US$100,000 – a huge amount for the times. Twain himself was an avid scrapbooker, taking his scrapbooks everywhere with him and filling them with pictures, souvenirs and articles about his books and presentations. English poet Martin F. Tupper (1810-1889) was also a devoted scrapbooker, filling forty-three volumes of letters, newspaper clippings, drafts of poems and memorabilia over his lifetime.

Scrapbooking even affected the way newspapers themselves were produced. Newspapers began printing short, nugget-size items and urging readers to clip them, by putting them in sections with names such as ‘For the Scrapbook.’

It was the introduction of the Brownie camera in 1900 that altered scrapbooking forever. Photography not only became more affordable for the average family, it also moved out of the studio and into the family home. Instead of having their photo taken just a few times over their lifetime, people were able to take photos regularly and in a much more relaxed mode. The snapshot had been born.

By the early 1900s people began combining casual photos with scraps of important memorabilia, letters and decorative die-cuts and images into the same book in a decorative manner. After colour photography was introduced in the 1960s, there was no holding back – the scrapbook had become the photo album.

Julie Carter is the Editor of and a regular contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine.