Graphic designer Jessica Helfand has been fascinated with visual biography since her days as a graduate student in the late 1980s, pouring over Ezra Pound’s letters and photographs in Yale’s rare book library. But the “incendiary moment,” as she calls it, which really sparked her interest in scrapbooks came in 2005, when she wrote critically of the hobby on her blog Design Observer. Helfand derided contemporary scrapbookers as “people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows,” among other things, and was vilified by the craft’s enthusiasts. “I hit a nerve,” she says.
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Spurred on by the rise of scrapbooking as the fastest growing American hobby, Helfand set out to study the medium, collecting, from antique stores and eBay auctions, over 200 scrapbooks dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. In the collages of fabric swatches, locks of hair, calling cards and even cigarette butts pasted on their pages, she found real artistry. Helfand’s latest book, Scrapbooks: An American History, tells the story of how personal histories, as told through the scrapbooks of civilians and celebrities, including writers Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Anne Sexton and Hilda Doolittle, combine to tell American history.
What types of scrapbooks do you find the most interesting?
The more eclectic. The more insane. Scrapbooks that are pictures of just babies and cherubs or just clippings from the newspaper tend to interest me less. I like when they’re chaotic the way life is.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve seen saved in them?
Apparently it was custom in the Victorian age for people to keep scrapbooks just of obituaries. And 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. We have one of these books from 1894 in Ohio, and in it there is every weird obituary. “Woman lives with remains of daughter for two weeks in a farmhouse before she’s discovered.” Just one after another, and it’s pasted onto the pages of a geometry textbook.
You see often in books by college and high school girls these bizarre juxtapositions, like a picture of Rudy Valentino next to a church prayer card, or a box of Barnum’s animal crackers pasted right next to some steamy, embraced Hollywood couple for some movie that had just come out. You could see the tension in trying to figure out who they were and what their identities were vis-à-vis these emblems of religious and popular culture. I’m a kid, but I really want to be a grownup. There’s something so dear about it.
What do you think goes through people’s minds as they paste things?
In antebellum culture just after the Civil War, there was this kind of carpe diem quality that pervaded American life. I have my own theory that one of the reasons for the rise in scrapbooking has been so meteoric since 9/11 is precisely that. People keep scrapbooks and diaries more during wartime and after wartime, and famine and disease and fear. When you feel an increased sense of vulnerability, what can you do to steel yourself against the inevitable tide of human suffering but to paste something in a book? It seems silly, but on the other hand, it’s quite logical.
Scrapbooks, like diaries, can get pretty personal. Did you ever feel like you were snooping?