Scrapbooks: Ephemeral Autobiographies

In the attics of homes all over the world, in the backs of cabinets and bottoms of drawers, lie testaments to the lives of many forgotten women. Scrapbooks, books constructed of the scraps of lives, are multilayered records of life experiences. They are part of a tradition of life writing that can be called “Self Works” (Melvin 1). Scrapbooks come in many forms. There are books of newspaper clippings, some filled with obituaries or newsclippings focusing on a brother or a favorite movie star. There are books of embroidery samples and collected skeleton leaves. There are photograph albums and autograph collections. There is an entire genre of scrapbook constructed of paper and fabric scraps meant to look like rooms of a utopian household. Each of these types is interesting for its record of a person’s preoccupations, and each tells us much about the person who would patiently create these books. They are all, to some degree, autobiographical. However, the kind of scrapbook that seems most significant to the examination of history is the personal memento scrapbook. This is the scrapbook that contains ephemeral mementos of a woman’s life: letters, photographs, clippings, invitations, locks of hair, dance cards. These fragments are “saved because of their relationship to an experience”(Garvey 56). They are pasted in and each page arranged to hold its record of an event or a day or a year. As Patricia Buckler has stated, “the personal memento scrapbook is a locus where text and artifact meet” (149).

The language to compose these visual autobiographies uses artifacts as nouns and sentiment as verbs (Motz 75, Buckler and Leeper 1). It is a language that is ephemeral, fragmentary, and peripheral, a nonsyntaxically restrained language that women use to creatively express their lives. With these records undeciphered and untranslated, these lives are buried in the silence of unexamined history. Like diaries, they transgress the boundaries of the limits of autobiography. When taken as a form of autobiography, scrapbooks also transgress boundaries of language and artifact, low and high art, and concepts of the spatial and the textual. The scrapbook as autobiography provides us with a fuller understanding of women’s lives.

canon: 1 a: a general law, rule, principle, or criterion. b: a church decree or law. 2 (fem. canoness) a member of a cathedral chapter. 3 a collection or list of sacred books etc. accepted as genuine. canon law ecclesiastical law, based on the New Testament, tradition, pronouncements by popes and councils of the Church, and decisions in particular cases. (OED)

Traditional Autobiographies and Challenges

Traditional autobiography has been conceptualized as the bringing of the self into focus and the presenting of that self publicly through writing. Georges Gusdorf, in his essay, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” described autobiography as that which “requires a man to take a distance with regard to himself in order to reconstitute himself in the focus of his special unity and identity across time” (35). There is a conception of “‘reconstituting’ the ego against the bulwark against disintegration” (Benstock 15). The “self” is typically seen as a firmly singular entity which pulls together the story of a life through an objective, focused will.

Gusdorf distinguishes the autobiography from the diary or journal because of the latter’s lack of continuity and the focus on the day to day (29). Roy Pascal, another writer on autobiographical form, also stresses the difference between the autobiography and the daily series of inscriptions that characterize the diary (9). The Latin root of “diary” means “daily allotment.” This simple chronicity without plot has been called chronos,“empty time” by Stuart Sherman, as opposed to kairos, the “filled time” of traditional autobiographies and literature (10). Kairos is a construction that lies poised between beginning and end, conscious of its place there. Like a novel, there is a sense of climax and resolution, pacing, character development that isn’t present in a diary or a scrapbook. Chronos is continual, unending, and powered by the incessant ticking of the clock, and therefore lacks the sense of a polished whole. Scrapbooks also are written “day by day” (Bunker 8) without a sense of filled time.

Feminist theorists began in the 1970s to note that most autobiographies (as defined by the traditional form) are written by men. The patterns of traditional autobiographies did not seem to fit the existing patterns of women’s lives. In looking for writings by and information about women, feminists found a huge body of another kind of autobiographical writings that had been excluded from the traditional definition of autobiography: letters, diaries, and scrapbooks. These were considered to be too ephemeral and peripheral to be included into the canon. Some feminists state that the reason they were excluded is because they were written by women (Jelinek 3). In beginning to study these outsider forms of autobiography, feminists rejected the traditional definitions and in doing so played havoc with canonical boundaries of autobiography. The criteria of what constitutes an autobiography have been overturned and expanded with the inclusion of the diary and journal as a form of autobiography. Cynthia Huff has stated that the diary is a “profoundly female, feminist genre,” a “feminist practice,” (Profoundly 6) because of its multiplicity of modes, its joining to community and collectivity, and its everyday making primary the personal.

The same can be said for more ephemeral recordings of women’s histories, including scrapbooks. As Cherry Muhanji says, “The male model of objectivity scraps so many things” (qtd. in Alexander 99). The “culture of the ephemeral” as it is called by Todd Gernes, “nurtured less powerful, noncanonical literary voices, like those of young women, whose means of literary production were often limited to handicraft constructionism and ephemeral textuality” (55). Ephemeral materials have long been associated with nature and the feminine. There is a sense of ephemeral being short-lived, everyday items taken for granted. “An everyday item taken for granted” could be a definition of woman.

One of the many challenges that diaries and scrapbooks make to the traditional canon of autobiography is the notion of a creator’s singular self. Creatrixes, it seems, are often polyvocal and relational. Not all diaries or scrapbooks are created to honor or promote a single person. Susan Friedman criticizes the traditional conception of autobiography for its lack of understanding of the cultural and gender limitations of the concept of the singular, self-conscious autobiographical self. Marginalized groups, including women, have habitually had identities constructed not singularly, but on relational lines. She finds Gusdorf’s description of a culture where autobiographies cannot develop to be uncannily similar to a description of the patterns of women’s lives: this as where “the individual does not oppose himself to all others; [where] he does not feel himself to exist outside of others, and still less against others, but very much with others in an interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community . . . [where] lives are so thoroughly entangled that each of them has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The important unit is thus never the isolated being” (qtd. 35-36). At focus here is the concept of the “self,” how it is constructed and how it pervades the autobiographical work. As Friedman says, “the self constructed in women’s autobiographical writing is often based in, but not limited to, a group consciousness — an awareness of the meaning of the cultural category WOMAN for the patterns of women’s individual destiny” (41).

Scrapbooks are also created within a matrix of relationships. They are often a legacy for a woman’s family, the creatrix in the role of family historian. The building of the scrapbook may continue after her death, as in the addition of an obituary to Marie Allmendinger Kolberg’s scrapbook (Motz 69). Todd Gernes, in his exploration of the “culture of ephemera,” rebuffs the idea that “[t]he culture of ephemera. . . is a field of passive consumption and undigested thought. This conclusion . . . would be based on a purely individualistic conception of human understanding. Reading the culture of ephemera requires balancing the individual model of human consciousness and the realization that human thought is fundamentally social” (91). Diaries and scrapbooks often focus on personal relationships, rather than the writer’s personal philosophies, which Jelinek notes is a clear contradiction of established criterion for autobiography (10).

Personal memento scrapbooks are filled with letters, cards, and locks of hair to aid in remembering relationships or events. They are souvenirs, items which are accumulated and collaged into becoming a thing that can be used as a mneumonic cue. Souvenirs are objects that magically envelop the past event within the present, according to Susan Steward (151). They are used for reverie, and the items are validations of the event. They are constructions which bolster our assemblage of a self. The relationships and events that they detail are magnifiers of what these individuals find important about themselves.

Scrapbooks as a form of autobiography, like diaries, transgress the boundaries of public and private documents. They are not usually thought of as public documents. As Juhasz states, a diary “is personal and thus secret: it comes with a lock and a little gold key.” (224) The private realm has always been the realm of the woman, and their being made public and considered and critiqued in a public fashion is a transgression of boundaries. Bunkers and Huff state: “Because diaries have been classified as private texts, they challenge us to question the boundaries between the public and the private; and they encourage us to assess the social, political, and personal repercussions of segmenting our lives, our texts, our culture, and our academic disciplines” (2). However, many women wrote diaries that were meant to be read and even written in by others (Alexander 103). Scrapbooks are often exhibited to friends and family members. Katriel and Farrell, in their interviews of scrapbook constructors, found that while some considered their scrapbook contemplation to be very private, for others the scrapbooks were cues for narrative performances (11-12). None of the scrapbook makers they interviewed felt comfortable with others viewing their scrapbooks in solitude (13) — to outsiders, the scrapbook must be performed. This supplement of description gives the context of individual items and in the process constructs the identity of narrator more than the object (Steward, 136).

For women who have crossed the boundary of silence, there can be danger. Sidonie Smith notes that women have dual impulses of being appropriately silent in a patriarchal society and speaking with their own voices. The challenge of the former by embracing the public arena results in public censure. Remaining silent “denies her desire for a voice of her own” (7-8). Xaviere Gauthier agrees with that assessment: “As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But, if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated” (162-163). And so women create diaries, a private form, and scrapbooks, a coded one.

Perhaps scrapbooks are an even less threatening way for a woman to record her life in a patriarchal society. They contain silences, clipped and pressed. They express without words as much as with them, vestiges of an oral ritual. They construct a public display, often shown to friends and family, and a private one, for those who would take the time to look more closely at the pages, read the letters, be familiar with the stories behind the pages. Scrapbooks are the public archive of a family, a museum of the ephemera of domesticity and children’s memories. Behind the scenes of that theater are memorializing of women’s lives. The flotsam of significant events, souvenirs and signposts are positioned in an acceptable site/sight. Marilyn Motz has found that this is also true of women’s photograph albums: “By creating photograph albums, they could establish their own individual identities while placing themselves within the traditional framework of family relationships” (89).

Diaries and scrapbooks are both fragmented and interrupted, an echoing of the patterns of many women’s lives. These lives are often constructed around other people, taking care of children and husbands, aging parents and communities. The will of the individual person often gets lost amid the clamor of the many claims on a woman’s time. Tasks, especially those for herself, become fragmented because there is no large blocks of undisturbed time. A woman’s life is made of fragments, pasted together to form a life of pattern. Stream of consciousness, flashbacks, mixed chronology, and fragmentation all make up what Estelle Jelinek call the “discontinuous forms [that] have been important to women because they are analogous to the fragmented, interrupted, and formless nature of their lives” (19). Domna Stanton quotes Anaïs Nin as describing this “discontinuous, digressive, fragmented” narrative style as being “a crazy quilt, all in bits” (qtd. 11). The fragmentation of scrapbooks is presented in a visual, even literal sense. They are, essentially, fragments of a life pasted into a pattern, a three dimensional metaphor for women’s lives.

ephemera: noun 1. an insect living only a few days. 2. pl. a thing, esp. a printed item, of short-lived interest or usefulness;
effeminate adj. (of a man) feminine in appearance or manner; unmasculine.

Extratextuality

There is a primary difference between diaries and scrapbooks: Scrapbooks contain more extratextual materials than diaries. While most personal memento scrapbooks contain letters and other written material, much of the contents are not as easily “read.” This alienates researchers intent on quotable phrases and details of the linguistic style. Artifacts are things to quickly turn past on the way toward finding and reading the written material. In scrapbooks, this might mean “freeing” them from their “confining” context of being in envelopes, being handwritten, or being pasted onto the page. Yet in bypassing these materials, it is possible that researchers are ignoring significant information about women’s lives. It is important to remember that one of the primary tenets of feminist practice is to contextualize information. Remembering the limits imposed on women’s lives by living in a sexist society provides a more complete picture of women’s world(s). The lives of women were once considered to be peripheral, mere details in the “real” history of the world. Diaries were ignored as autobiographical writings. This bias led to an incomplete understanding of the world and of our history. Ignoring extratextual materials as sources of information makes the same mistake. Judy Nolte Temple suggests that collections seen as fragmentary and ephemeral may be best conceptualized as “protodiaries.” She sees the study of diaries as autobiography as a great step forward, but also notes that the criteria of “diary” are already a force of conventionality, stifling creative theories that would include more fragmentary collections (78). As feminists we must engage in active reading, questioning and interacting with texts and metatexts alike. Artifacts within scrapbooks provide such a metatext.

Scrapbooks are sources of both linguistic and artifactual information. Learning to read artifacts offers a particularly rich source of information about women’s lives. As women are the Other, the Ephemeral, the Peripheral in this culture, the messages of the Object becomes more significant. Feminist historians have begun to use material culture for that reason, learning to “read” domestic objects to uncover the details of women’s lives (Johnson 2). Some museologists have suggested that in emphasizing documentary sources, historians have “constructed a middle-class view of the past, since not only the creation and retention of the documents, but also the development of their interpretation, has rested largely with the literate and intellectually privileged” (Kavanagh 126). Women have often historically not been among those ‘privileged.’

Researchers of material culture have found that objects are not passively acted on by people. They engage in a dialog together, interlocking memory and artifact. “Through objects we keep alive the collective memory of societies and families which would otherwise be forgotten” (Riggins Introduction 2). Some of these researchers are calling for a semiotics of the object that would use a visual syntax, without referent to methods established on linguistic methods (see Vastokas 339-343). “Artifacts function and signify in an expanded social and environmental space-time. To observe the artifact as a multi-dimensional phenomenon in the context of cultural performance is to experience its full reality and, ultimately, to achieve more valid interpretations and explanations” (Vastokas 342).

Extratextual material, far from being something to ignore, is a source of rich “emotional texture” of a woman’s life (DuPlessis Etruscans 275). Cynthia Huff notes that the lock of hair, pressed flower, or lace handkerchief found within a diary are important elements: “These are as much a part of the diarist’s life as is her writing, and their inclusion in her record testifies to women’s joining of the inner and the outer, the mental and the physical, as they witness connections between body and mind and between the actual and the symbolic.” (Profoundly 11). Johanna Drucker notes that hair, fibers, and other organic material in artist’s books suggest bodily detritus and reinforce the femininity of a scrapbook (105). Margo Culley underscores the value of reading diaries in their original form, complete with extratextual materials:

The ideal way to study a diary is to have the manuscript itself in your hand because all the material aspects of a diary create important impressions. Is the cover ornate? Are the edges gilt? Does it have a lock? Or was the writing done on the least expensive of notebooks whose covers have barely survived? . . . The most intriguing state in which to find a manuscript is the one complete with all the bits and pieces the diarist placed inside: clippings from newspapers, dried flowers, mementos from friends. Each detail adds a bit of knowledge or suggests a mystery . . . Would the passage in a contemporary journal: “Another goddamn idiot evening with Amy crapping around about going to sleep. . . I am so pissed . . . No more naps . . . I have so much to do. SHIT. ANGER. FRUSTRATION” read the same neatly printed on a page as it does scrawled across the pages of a notebook in increasingly large block letters? (14).

An important point here is each scrapbook is unique. That singleness imbues it with a special sense of value that makes each one even more important as sources of autobiographical material. Mary Douglas uses art critic Nelson Goodman’s conception of autographic and allographic to describe the effects of “genuine” artifacts. Items that are one-of-a-kind productions, whose value is based on this exclusivity, are autographic and “genuine.” Allographic items are made for mass production and their value is not necessarily connected to an original entity (11-13). For example, two copies of a musical score bought at two different music stores are both “original” in the same sense of the term and therefore are allographic; there is only one Guernica, however, and in this sense it is autographic. Genuineness implies a special value that is unattainable by the mass produced. This genuineness contributes to the “truthfulness” of a scrapbook as autobiography.

Personal memento scrapbooks are imbued with the immediate presence of the individual who created them. This presence can’t be captured by mass production. Imagine, for example, a page of a scrapbook with a handcolored birth announcement next to a lock of extra fine baby’s hair and a pressed rose carrying a tag marked “for the new mother.” We get an immediate emotional snapshot of a relationship. Is this the “truth” of the relationship? Postmodernist theorists often write of the multiple truths of existence. This representation may be idealized or tell us more about the rituals of parenthood than actual events, but it still tells us about the creator.(1) As Todd Gernes has written, “the culture of the ephemera embraces the unclassifiable aspects of language use, what we might call the mythopoetics of everyday life” (Gernes 107). Perhaps the continued use of a visual vocabulary by women constructing scrapbooks is a sign of a different way of thinking.

The poet Dana Gioia has written eloquently on the magical value of original manuscripts, which like scrapbooks are original, one-of-a-kind entities. A poem in its original draft feels different from the same poem set in mechanical type. The author has a physical presence in the handwriting; coffee stains communicate something about the total text. He writes that “[f]inal manuscripts reveal the juncture between the secret realm of poetic inspiration and the external existence of the printed text” (16). Gioia notes that the isolation of a text from its performative context is recent: “The urge to see the author face to face is not merely fandom; it is a deep-rooted, primitive human desire. The physical separation of the poet from the audience is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of human history, the audience heard the poet’s physical voice; a direct physical relationship was unavoidable in preliterate societies. Even after the introduction of the phonetic alphabet, which allowed writing to preserve the text of poems, the links with oral culture remained” (18). Separating the textual element from a scrapbook would be the equivalent of losing the performative aspects of a poem. Johanna Drucker notes that artist’s books, of which journals and scrapbooks are one type, “generate a mystique, a sense of charged presence . . . they have been imbued with a power which animates them beyond their material limits generating a metaphysically charged atmosphere which surrounds the work” (93-94).

Extratextual materials transgress spatial boundaries (Huff, Textual Boundaries 130). They cross divisions between two dimensional written records and three dimensional artifactual ones. Stephen Riggins considers all objects to be used in mapping of social relationships, and ideologies. “This is indeed what objects are — dots on a map and connecting links which can be retraced in any direction.” (Riggins, Fieldwork 109). Some feminist theorists have postulated a separate space from which women’s writings come (Smith, Showalter, and Huff, Profoundly): a “wild zone,” as postulated by Shirley and Edward Ardener lays outside the dominant culture’s boundaries in a “spatial, experimental, and metaphysical ‘no-man’s land'” (Smith 9). Perhaps the language of this “wild zone” is different from its tamer neighbor.

Many writers have implied, suggested, or proclaimed the alien nature of the written word to women’s lives, of the more immediate impact of the visual to women. Gilbert and Gubar have found that visions of a female-connotated nonalphabetic writing are referenced in many women’s prose and poetry. Images of glyphs and emblems, diagrams and pictures punctuate women’s writing. One of the many works they discuss is H.D.’s Tribute to Freud, in which H.D. details a vision of a series of mystical emblems that magically appear written on the wall that appeared to her and her lover Bryher. “[T]he luminous script that the two friends ‘read’ in an apparently irrational series of mystic glyphs constitutes a subversive text that they collaboratively set against the traditional masculinist order of Alpha and Omega” (qtd. 37). Gilbert and Gubar ask: “Are alphabetic characters necessarily ambiguous or enigmatic? Is the ‘analytic rationality’ of the alphabet, with its apparently inexorable sequence, essentially coercive or corrupt?” (40)

Hélène Cixous states that “. . . there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity; . . . nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason” (349, 350). L’écriture féminine, to Cixous, is not linear or objectified. It is historicised and multiple, holding within it the matrix of her many selves, her body. It “will be conceived of only . . . by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate” (353). She postulates a writing from the body that pushes past boundaries of syntax and patriarchal content. But this writing, she says, has been rarely committed to paper.

Julia Kristeva also identifies a language that pushes the boundaries of syntax and logic as being poetic language. She identifies poetic language as inherently female because of its connection with the semiotic. Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic is, quintessentially, the pool of chaotic polyvocality that existed before we learned to speak. It is a realm of intonations that have no referent, a maternal space of unbridled images. Only a preverbal child (or a psychotic person) can access the semiotic fully. We all develop from that stage into the symbolic, in which verbalizations use syntax, logic, categories. Poetic language refers back to the semiotic, trying to capture the rhythms, the preverbal state. Kristeva states that the semiotic is “[i]ndifferent to language, enigmatic and feminine, this space underlying the written is rhythmic, unfettered, irreducible to its intelligible verbal translation; it is musical, anterior to judgment, but restrained by a single guarantee: syntax.” (Kristeva, Poetic 29)

Kristeva believes that this semiotic is inherently feminine. As she says in an interview with Susan Sellers: “many women . . . complain that they experience language as something secondary, cold, foreign to their lives. To their passion. To their suffering. To their desire. As if language were a foreign body. And when they say this we are often given the impression that what they question is language as a logical exercise” (Question 131). According to Kristeva, women need to express themselves in a nonlinear way that will explode the structures of symbolic.

Perhaps the extratextuality and visual imagery used in many of the artistic expressions created by women are examples of that nonalphabetic, nonlinear writing. Scrapbooks and quilts are visual records of emotional lives. Perhaps these records have been too peripherial to be noticed or too ephemeral to catch. Our gray-haired grandmother’s innocently radical act: to record her own life on her own terms in her own pattern. Perhaps we talked our theory while ignoring their practice.

I am reminded of Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use.” Set in the early 1970s, a young black woman visits her family after a long absence in the city. She feels empowered by her embracing of her African heritage; she has taken an African name and is informed by new upscale tastes and college-fed theories. Her mother and her sister live a simple country life and the visiting woman belittles their lives. The central exchange in the story involves Dee (Wangero) wanting the quilts that her grandmother and great grandmother had made. She had refused them years before, saying they were “old-fashioned”; she wants them now, because they are “priceless.” Her sister, Maggie, to whom the quilts have been promised, is undemanding of her own right to them, even though she learned to quilt from her grandmother, and knows the stories and sources of the pieces used in them. The mother intercedes and denies Dee (Wangero) the ownership of the quilts, and receives the taunt: “You just don’t understand . . . your heritage.” Dee (Wangero) had learned her heritage from books on Africanism. Ignoring her own personal experience of her own culture, she felt it was something to shake off and transcend. The heritage of her own experience involved many things, good and bad. In rejecting dirt floors and lack of plumbing, she also rejected some treasures of her heritage, like understanding that sentiment of the quilts, their autobiographical content, is more important than their value as antiques. And she therefore missed her own value.

Scrapbooks, like the quilts in this story, are often created by those we have grown beyond. They may be part of the tasteless flotsam that our mothers pile in every cupboard, that we only pay attention to when it is to be sorted through after her death. They might be unimportant and trite in our sophisticated eyes. The messages we construct as scholars are very complex and we tend to look for that complexity in what we study. Sometimes we miss the significance of silent simplicity. Are we like the selfish daughter in Walker’s story, not seeing the value of our own lives? Are we standing in the midst of our mother’s sentimental collections of images and staring into the distance, looking for women’s language?

peripheral:adj. 1. of minor importance; marginal. 2. of the periphery; on the fringe. 3. Anat. near the surface of the body.

periphery: 1. the boundary of an area or surface. 2. an outer or surrounding region (OED).

Female aesthetic

The question of “female aesthetic” is a crucial one for understanding scrapbooks as women’s autobiography. Rachel DuPlessis, in her article, “For the Etruscans,” sees women’s language as an undeciphered code, a secret language, or a constellation of secret languages, with “. . . emotional texture, a structural expression of mutuality. . . . text as a form of intimacy, of personal contact, whether conversations with the reader or with the self. Letters, journals, voices are sources for this element. . . The female aesthetic will produce artworks that incorporate contradiction and nonlinear movement into the heart of the text” (275, 278). She takes from Virginia Woolf the idea of the diary as “loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through” (qtd. in DuPlessis 279). Lucy Lippard also sees “a certain antilogical, antilinear approach also common to many women’s work. . . . fragments, networks, everything about everything” (81).

Fragments pieced together: An image of the crazy quilt again, a utilitarian object, a giver of warmth and protection, constructed out of pieces of clothing, scraps and bits gathered from the outgrown garments of a woman’s family (Alexander 103, Johnson 4, Motz 75). Quilts and embroidery are two examples of artworks traditionally created by women that have been undervalued by mainstream criticism. Typically, they have not been considered art at all (Mainardi 331, Parker 5), despite the great deal of skill and expressiveness that these works involved. Mainardi states that “[i]n designing their quilts, women not only made beautiful and functional objects, but expressed their own convictions on a wide variety of subjects in a language for the most part comprehensible only to other women” (338).

Melissa Meyer and Miriam Schapiro reclaimed these and other domestic arts, including scrapbooks, as autobiography in the seventies. Fragmented women’s work, constructed for an “audience of intimates,” (59) is called femmage, a collapsing of the terms collage and female. There are several criteria for a work being femmage (the authors note that at least half of these should be present):

1. It is a work by a woman. 2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients. 3. Scraps are essential to the process and are recycled in the work. 4. The theme has a woman-life contexts. 5. The work has elements of covert imagery. 6. The theme of the work addresses itself to an audience of intimates. 7. It celebrates a private or public event. 8. A diarist’s point of view is reflected in the work. 9. There is drawing and/or handwriting sewn in the work. 10. It contains silhouetted images which are fixed on other material. 11. Recognizable images appear in narrative sequence. 12. Abstract forms create a pattern. 13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter (69).

They use as an example of femmage a scrapbook made in the 1940s. “On first impression it seems banal, yet there is novelty in its contents: newspaper clippings decals, some birthday and holiday cards with portions silhouetted (some are left whole) and commercially colored animal pictures.” (66) The pictures change as the war increases, becoming more serious yet still filtered through the life of this woman. “This then, is a visual artist’s equivalent of a diary” (66).

fragment n. & v. 1 a part broken off; a detached piece. 2 an isolated or incomplete part. 3 the remains of an otherwise lost or destroyed whole, esp. the extant remains or unfinished portion of a book or work of art. (OED)

Reading Scrapbooks

There are several theoretical perspectives that are useful to learning to “read” scrapbooks. Two of possible use are Kristeva’s semiotic process and the concept of palimpsest.

Judy Nolte Temple suggests that Kristeva’s theoretical perspective would be useful for understanding fragmented, ephemeral collections (80). Gioia’s description of the magical nature of manuscripts as being “between the secret realm of poetic inspiration and the external existence of the printed text” (16) would seem to point in that direction as well. Juli Duffy and Lloyd Davis used Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic process to investigate the interaction between the photographs and text of Virginia Wolfe’s Three Guineas. The photographs that are meant to accompany the text are often excluded from many publications of the book. They state: “The exclusion of the photographs implies that they are viewed as expendable — a subsidiary part of the text, illustrative of and dependent on the written word. A generic hierarchy is constructed and enforced, in which a dominant verbal medium is asserted. Moreover, there is pressure to fix the reader and her reading practice within this hierarchy” (128). The presence of the photographs is not merely illustrative, according to Duffy and Davis. They are part of a complex process of intertextuality, the ambiguity of the text and the ironic nature of the photographs disrupt the readers’ position. This “interactive, verbal-pictoral discourse that comprises Three Guineas becomes a source of disruption to patriarchal values and meanings.” (130) They suggest that this process is akin to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the “semiotic” process.

Scrapbooks can also be looked at from the perspective of palimpsest: the layering of texts, one over an imperfectly erased another. Rachel DuPlessis states that the “palimpsest is the visual image of the situation of writing. Palimpsest is the feel of writing within the consciousness of the producer of poetic language” (Pink 86). This hypothetical layering is present both literally and metaphorically in scrapbooks. Literally, many scrapbooks are palimpsests. Many scrapbooks are made from husbands’ discarded ledgers used as a base for the pasting of pictures, quotes, letters. The palimpsest is also the scrapbook metaphorically, as the public side hides a number of private meanings, open to the family or to the woman herself. As a photograph presented to strangers may present the likenesses of two women, it will disclose more to the family, based on their experiences with the women in the photograph, the photograph itself, the placement of objects and the meanings of texts around it. Roland Barthes’s questioning of how to read photographs reflects this notion of a “code of connotation,” intelligible only after one has learned to read the signs through familiarity with the reader’s knowledge (207). In his analysis of a family album of snapshots, Ralph Bogardus found that “photographs acquire meaning, then, in a dialectical way –one that involves culture: the cultural contexts surrounding the images’ original making as well as their various readers and disparate readings. It must be obvious that a photograph can be and mean many things to many people” (117).

Patricia P. Buckler’s examination of the scrapbook of Ann Elizabeth Buckler uses two layers of examination. Writing with C. Kay Leeper, she examines the scrapbook as autobiography, stating that “[t]he scrapbook author used language and artifact to discover the other and the real world; she realized herself by composing herself through scrapbook. Reading the scrapbook is like reading an autobiography, less linear and more visual, yet the self emerges just as clearly and authentically as it would in a wholly verbal narrative” (2). In another article, Buckler looked at the ways that the poetry pasted in the scrapbook exemplified the “cult of domesticity” (150). Buckler recognized the multilayered nature of the meanings of scrapbooks and how they are a negotiation between the construction of self and the cultural matrix.

Diana Collecott has used the concept of palimpsest to analyze H.D.’s scrapbook. The scrapbook is filled with photomontages of H.D., and her lover Bryher, juxtaposed with images of Greek statuary and Grecian grottos. These were created by Kenneth Macpherson, who was married to Bryher and was also H.D.’s lover. Captions enigmatically referenced Greek mythology and their relationships with layers of meaning. As Collecott says, “Like dreams, these pages of the album offer cryptic texts or palimpsests whose meanings are not available to the uninitiated” (157). This analysis illustrates the usefulness of the palimpsest concept for understanding the embeddedness of the scrapbook as only part of the individual’s autobiographical materials. Scrapbooks as palimpsests can be read only by immersing oneself in the totality of an individual’s life. The language used within a scrapbook has been composed over a lifetime of experiences. Images and symbols are living and grow in their meanings to individuals and families. References to events and people are made very casually in scrapbooks. It is important to be aware of the context of labels and statements in order to gain the fullest understanding of the material.

Judy Nolte Temple (1997) found this to be true in her study of the collection of “Baby Doe” Tabor. This collection contains many scraps of written material structured in a nonlinear form. This includes pieces of torn brown paper bags and bits of used stationary, each piece with a cryptic note scribbled upon it. During her lifetime in the late nineteenth century, “Baby Doe” Tabor was labeled a gold digger when she “stole” someone else’s (rich) husband, a bad mother when her daughter became a prostitute. She fell from being the “Silver Queen” of Colorado to living in a shack on a mountainside in abject poverty. She also became a mystic who created an unorthodox autobiography. Temple found that several biographical studies had excluded looking at this material, probably due to its inconvenient ephemeral form. Leaving out this information leads to a lack of understanding of the fullness of Baby Doe’s life.

At first glance, these miscellaneous writings are daunting and disconcerting to researchers trained in linear narrative methods. Although archive workers chronologically organized the fragments, they do not form an immediately accessible story of Tabor’s life. There are numerous ‘irrational’ elements in the scraps: codes, elastic time, devils, a ubiquitous little girl who circles the Matchless Mine, obsessive colors, defiant juxtapositions of real and imagined characters, rambling and repetitive phrases with no clue of a verb or object. . . . One reason that Tabor’s Dreams and Visions seem like the monologues of a madwoman is that they have been categorized in the archives by genre and therefore detached — fragmented — from other materials that Elizabeth Tabor was writing and reading at the same time. Once re-integrated with the quite lucid correspondence she was carrying on with several people, and the maddening letters she was receiving from her distressed daughter Silver, the scraps are fragmentary no more. In fact, they are crucial missing pieces of a psychic puzzle. The Dreams and Visions form an interior, delayed diary, in which real-world experiences are processed within the psyche and emerge in the dream-diary several days — or even years — later. (75-76)

These materials, while not pasted into a book, are typical of the kind of materials found in scrapbooks, and their isolation by archivists and exclusion by researchers is identical to the treatment of scrapbooks. Only by placing these fragments in context, by understanding the events and thoughts going on within Baby Doe’s life at the time they were written, was Temple able to decode this material.

Florence Larkin’s Scrapbook

As an example of using a scrapbook as an autobiographical source, I searched for a representative example of personal memento scrapbooks at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In this search, I quickly realized that scrapbooks are palimpsests at all levels of their care and processing and this is inseparable from their content.

The first step in finding a scrapbook was to leap the hurdles faced by all researchers of women’s lives: finding the documents. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin is a rich resource, and the archives reading room is staffed by helpful and knowledgeable people. However, women’s scrapbooks here, as in all historical societies, are often catalogued under their husband’s names. Often various materials were received in a bundle that a donor has marked “Grandfather’s things.” This bundle may contain his wife’s diaries and scrapbooks, but be accessioned as part of his collection. This is not a plot on the part of archivists or a horror story of misogyny, but a legacy of a lack of funding to recatalog materials accessioned in earlier years and time to research donated materials thoroughly.

Next problem: most scrapbooks have been dismantled. Palimpsests are messy and must be contained. Invitations and clippings have been cut out or steamed off their pages to be more easily stored in file folders that will then fit in archival boxes. Locks of hair and pressed flowers have been removed. A careful, appreciative archivist may place a note stating that such an item was discarded or removed to another location, but often this isn’t the case. It is part of the palimpsest nature of scrapbooks that the different layers can be determined to be of different value. A processing archivist may find these different layers in competition for primacy. She may create access to one layer at the expense of another with her assignment of cataloging terms. More disastrously, some layers may be determined to be discardable. For example, there are many scrapbooks made by women that use their husbands’ old ledgers as a base. I have seen such scrapbooks destroyed, the invitations and clippings pasted on them steamed off to access the ledger underneath.

In the face of all this adversity, I located a personal memento scrapbook. Florence Larkin’s scrapbook(2) was created between 1906 when she entered Vassar and 1912 when she taught in Wisconsin. The scrapbook was located in the Conservation Lab of the SHSW. Because I once worked there, I was able to gain access to it.(3) Unfortunately, the conservation process was well advanced. The last time I had seen the Larkin scrapbook, it was bursting its binding, being filled with bulky extratextual materials. It now has been debound and is in the process of having each of its pages placed into custom made 3-sided enclosures of 3 mm. mylar polyester and boxed in a pH-neutral, lignon-free archival containers. The conservation treatment of this scrapbook exemplifies a sense of competition of palimpsest layers: preservation vs. the immediacy of handling the real item. The condition of this scrapbook, particularly the weakness of the pages and stress on the binding, required the technician to make choices between these two layers. The result is an attempt to negotiate this conflict. Rather than microfilm the book and then dismantle it completely, they have tried to protect it yet maintain its integrity as a unit.

Florence Sullivan grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., studying for a teaching certificate. This scrapbook includes materials assembled from the Vassar years of 1908-1909, and some materials from the University of Wisconsin, 1912-1913, and a few programmes from events held at schools Larkin taught at. Many young women during that era created scrapbooks, as have women before and since them. These books meet most of the criteria for femmage given earlier in this paper, and stand as visual autobiographies.

The scrapbook is heavy with material. Turning pages is an activity that requires both hands to prevent the crumbling, weak paper from tearing under the weight of the shifting pages. There are a number of thick play programs, both pasted in and inserted loose between the pages. Other small booklets are included, such as the “Freshman Joke Book” and dance cards. Much of the material is labeled with information about why it was saved in a pointy script in thick black ink. There are many “firsts”: The first waffle luncheon, the first town Sunday, the first autumn. There is a “Christian pledge,” thank you cards, examination questions, dance cards. What is distinctive about this scrapbook is the lack of photographs, personal letters, casual notes. The most casual things are two small envelopes filled with pieces of paper with scrawled notes — saved from the note pad used by visitors when she wasn’t in her room. The lack of incidentals gives an impression of a social life built on public functions. Nights must have involved plays or group study, weekends organized trips with all dances tidily written into the proper blanks. There are many “calling cards,” small cards in small envelopes, some with notations of invitations on them. These invitations seem very formal, and convey a sense of rehearsal of proper behavior. As Patricia Buckler found with Ann Elizabeth Buckler’s scrapbook, these materials can convey a rehearsal of feminine roles (Silent 150). This scrapbook seems to record not only a young woman in her learning of practice in proper behavior, but also a practice of that properness.

Two pages were chosen from this scrapbook. The first example page contains several mementos surrounding the attendance of a dance at West Point. The largest item is a typed letter from the West Point Hotel (the only hotel on the West Point Reservation) saying that there was no room available for the night of October 30th, that she would have to share with other young ladies; the letter is also marked with a handwritten note stating that there were “13 in the cellar apartment.” There is also a printed calling card of a Milo Fox, probably an official escort. There are two dance booklets, one marked “summer hops,” and the other a picture of snow-covered buildings, marked “winter hops.” Each contains printed lines upon which are scrawled the names of those claiming dances. There is also a toothpick in its paper wrapper that identified it as being from the train. It is unknown if the card is from an official escort or a beau. However, there was nothing handwritten on the card or a pressed corsage or note that might indicate a more personal relationship.

Taken as part of the cultural matrix within which this scrapbook was compiled, these objects are a map of courtship rituals of the upper class at that time. Separate enclaves of men and women come together for very orderly interactions. There are points of travel, arrival, escort, and event on this map. A diary entry about these events might indicate that she enjoyed herself, names of people she met, more specifics of the events. However, it would not give the insight to the structure of this event within its cultural context that is revealed by the arrangement of these objects on this page. There is an orderliness to the interaction between the sexes, and an indication of a cohesion within the group of women. The women are crowded into a hotel, the handwritten item indicating a sense of jocularity and camaraderie. The toothpick saved from the train indicates a wish to remember the travel there, undoubtedly filled with other Vassar students going to the dance. The interactions with the men are formal, and linked with phallic symbolism: the dance card depicted a soldier, standing at attention in front of a Washington Monument-like structure, holding a rapier, with a pencil tied to it. Pencils, swords, toothpicks: a Freudian could have a field day with this scrapbook page, analyzing its significance as a showing anxiety about this young woman’s encounter with this structured sexual encounter.

The second page chosen for illustration includes a pinned-on list with the names of four women and a number next to each labeled “The Laundry Bill”, a hard round red disc with a central design and the words “Rinse in fresh water and serve with cracked ice circumambulating the design labeled “Relics of a Spread,” a very well preserved reddish maple leaf labeled “Memories of the first Autumn,” a small envelope with the handwritten address “Miss Sullivan” and “McGlynn” labeled “The Weekly Billet-doux”, and a larger envelope with the handwritten address “For Miss Sullivan” and “Kindness of Miss Fordley” and labeled “First Town Sunday.” There is a stain in the middle of the page as if something of organic material once resided in this spot. This page is a record of Florence’s experience as a new student at Vassar. The saved laundry bill shows a remembrance about the small routines of dormitory life. The leaf and the envelope marked “the first” show a savoring of initial experiences. Both of the envelopes contain invitations from other women. The larger envelope contains a very formal sounding invitation; as if for a much more formal occasion than visiting another girl in her dorm room. There is a sense of irony with the one envelope being labeled a “billet-doux,” and again in saving a laundry list. There is a sense of lightheartedness and sentiment in saving a leaf and instructions on how to eat (presumably) oysters, probably a very adult food to Florence. Comparing this page with the previous example, there is an indication of less structured activities, of everyday (the laundry list) mixed with events (first town Sunday). Yet as mentioned above, it is not totally without structure. It does not indicate any abandon or spontaneity. It is merriment within the proper structure.

Of course, a truly in depth analysis of these scrapbooks would entail looking at other material written at the time and before this scrapbook was made. The language of images is a very personal one, built over a lifetime. But this brief examination of two pages shows that scrapbooks offer the research a rich source of autobiographical texture.

What we define as canonic, ephemeral, fragmentary, and peripheral plots a cultural map of our own boundaries. These boundaries move and shift in response to our own need to know about the world around us and of the lives of those who might be on the other side of those boundaries. As this brief analysis of a scrapbook shows, this form of autobiography offers some surprising insights into the life of the creatrix. The language used in them is one that requires context and active reading in order to understand. It is a private language of image and connection that women have used in other creative works. It is a language of the ephemeral, the peripheral, used by those who are considered ephemeral and peripheral and placing them into the center.

Footnotes

1. See Suzanne Bunkers “Faithful Friend” for a discussion of “truth” in autobiography.

2. FULL DISPLAY OF RECORD:
AUTHOR Larkin, Florence M., 1889-1976.
TITLE Papers, ca. 1900-1973.
LOCATION State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Archives Division. 816 State Street, Madison, Wis. 53706.
FORMAT 19.0 c.f.
ABSTRACT Papers of Florence M. (Sullivan) Larkin, documenting the accomplishments and family ties of a prominent Eau Claire, Wis.woman active in the life of her community. After growing up in Eau Claire, Larkin trained as a teacher at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and taught at several places including Miss Beard’s School for Girls in Orange, N.J. and Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wis. before returning to Eau Claire to live with an aunt. She traveled widely and played an active role in both World Wars, organizing troop entertainment at the Columbia Club in England during 1917-1919, and as a member of the Red Cross during World War II. She married Edwin J. Larkin, a lawyer and banker, in 1938. She was among the founders of the Eau Claire Civic Music Association and was active in the Woman’s Club and League of Women Voters. The collection reflects the activities of both Florence and Edwin. Included are scrapbooks, photographs, correspondence (mainly incoming), clippings, postcards, Vassar College material, playbills, financial information, and records pertaining to the Eau Claire Civic Music Association.
NOTES Restricted: This collection is closed for processing. (GJM; 9/22/97)
FINDING AIDS: Case file.
UNPROCESSED ACCESSIONS: M92-234: See box list with accession form. Qty: 19.0 c.f. (19 record center cartons); Eau Claire ARC

3. Thank you to Robin Carlson, conservation technician, and Shar Grant, preservation officer at the SHSW

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