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by Maureen Taylor

Did you know that you have something in common with Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and President Rutherford B. Hayes? That's right. Scrapbooks. Perhaps you have your grandmother's or grandfather's albums. They may not resemble the books you create today in look and feel, but you might be surprised at the similarities. Before copy machines, earlier generations cut articles from newspapers and saved labels, greeting cards and illustrations for their books. They called them common-place books, friendship albums and scrapbooks.

How old is the scrapbooking tradition? Although no one is really sure, scrapbooks probably have their origin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The word "scrapbook" first appeared in the late eighteenth century. It is derived from the brightly colored paper called scrap that filled the albums of that time. Scrap such as product labels and greeting cards could be collected or even purchased from specialty shops carrying albums and scrap for the scrapbook mania of the late nineteenth century. If you want to see actual copies of these early scrapbooks, many library archives have collections of them. Compare your scrapbooks to their earlier counterparts to learn more about your grandmother's album, or to discover new ways to approach your own albums.

Educated men and women pasted quotes and phrases in things they called common-place books. Thomas Jefferson gathered newspaper articles of his presidency for his books in his leather-bound volumes of plain paper. Most of these books included clippings, drawings and even diary entries. By the first half of the nineteenth century, these albums also had beautiful embossed covers, engraved clasps, and locks. Hattie Harlow of Boston, a seamstress, organized her notes, clippings and illustrations by topic in separate handmade volumes with wallpaper and cardboard covers. One of her common-place books even includes knitting samples with directions.

Even wealthy scrapbook keepers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries often pasted their clippings and memorabilia directly over the text of old books or catalogs, as shown in the albums above from the Colorado Historical Society.


Building on the popularity of common-place books, William Granger introduced in 1769 a printed book with extra blank pages so that the owner could personalize it with autographs, letters, or illustrations relating to the subject of the publication. Early scrapbookers also began adding pages to existing books to mimic the style. There were even manuals that described how to "extra illustrate" a book.

Laura L. Sherwin of Fairhaven, Vermont, wrote, "This lock of hair I will place in your little book for the remembrance of your friend," in Hellen Marion Adams' friendship album. In each place that her family lived, Hellen collected hair weavings and messages in a type of autograph album that originated in Germany in the seventeenth century. Young women in the Victorian period often created memory books or visitors albums filled with signatures, scrap, cards, hair, handwriting, poetry and even photographs of their family and friends.

Just as your scrapbooks have a theme, men, women and children of earlier generations also created albums for a variety of purposes. The peak decade for scrapbooks in the nineteenth century was from 1880, when a popular manual became available, to about 1890. Producers of scrap created a demand for their product by offering sheets of scraps in new styles directed at women and children. Magazines featured numerous articles on the value of scrapbooks as a family activity and educational tool. Housewives kept the labels and trade cards from new consumer products and included them in their albums, while male and female college students documented their years at school.

Mark Twain's self-pasting scrapbook had gummed pages that one would moisten before adhering various scraps (top left). Shown center right, an 1880s scrapbooker filled an album with colorful cards and advertisements. It's speculated the album was solely for visual value, as it contained no dates or journaling.
Mark Twain was such an avid scrapbooker that he reserved Sundays for his hobby. He held patents for his invention of self-pasting scrapbooks that could be dampened with water. By 1901, at least 57 different types of Mark Twain albums were available. Albums could also be purchased from the Montgomery Ward catalog, but many individuals created their own albums using different types of cloth for the covers.
Some scrapbooks were collections of brilliantly colored scraps of paper items in the form of advertising cards or greeting cards arranged by subject or type of material. Other scrapbooks revealed the lives of their compilers through the type of items pasted onto the pages and their arrangement. Other scrapbook hobbyists used their albums as a form of artistic expression. One scrapbooker dressed the paper cut-out figures on her pages in actual fabric swatches.

Today, it's a rare scrapbook that doesn't include photographs. Although earlier generations of scrapbookers began using images in their albums in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn't until the Kodak camera became available in the 1880s that photographs started to appear in most albums along with scrap. Generally, a photograph album is not considered a type of scrapbook because it focuses exclusively on images. As the number of hobbyists declined in the mid-twentieth century, scrapbooks remained unchanged for several decades as a combination of photographs, printed materials and family memorabilia pasted into paper albums.

As family history experienced a resurgence of interest in the 1970s due to Alex Haley's Roots, scrapbooks once again became a popular hobby using magnetic photo albums with self- adhesive pages and plastic cover sheets. At an international genealogy conference in Salt Lake City in 1980, several individuals exhibited their family scrapbooks. This created a demand for new products, magazines and preservation information about scrapbooking, and thus sparked a multi-million-dollar industry.

Most recently, software allows you to create page layouts and albums on your computer. You can also post your pages on the Internet to share with family and friends. And what is a family Web page, but an electronic version of a scrapbook?
Do you still have family or friends that think creative scrapbooking is just a fad? Show them this article. Then sit down to scrapbook with pride, knowing that you play a part in one of the newest developments of a centuries-old hobby.
©2004 Memory Makers