collects other people's scrapbooks - 200 so far and still accumulating.
As her collection grew, so did her fascination with these idiosyncratic
"visual biographies." In part, she credits her interest to her parents.
Her mother collected portraits of all description, while her father
amassed an equally diverse mass of printed medical ephemera. In the
introduction to her seminal book, Scrapbooks:
An American History,
Jessica wrote that scrapbooks were a marriage of her parent's
interests, "an ideal hybrid of humanity and paper: ephemeral portraits."
Jessica’s interest in scrapbooks reflects her talents as a storyteller
and a visual designer. In 1982, she received a combined B.A. in Graphic
Design and Architectural Theory at Yale University. A year after she
graduated, in an unexpected turn, she began exploring her storytelling
urge by writing scripts for daytime TV shows like "Guiding Light" and
"Search for Tomorrow." Within five years, she was back at Yale to
pursue her M.F.A. in Graphic Design, which she received in 1989.
After graduate school, Jessica joined the staff of a respected magazine
design studio, and soon moved on to become Design Director for the
Inquirer Sunday Magazine. She credits those years of
relentless photo layouts with teaching her the fundamentals of visual
storytelling. In 1992, a seminar on computer imaging sparked her
interest in new media, and she began to envision creating her own
studio. By 1996 she was back at Yale, this time beginning her long-term
faculty association in graphic design with the School of Art, where she
is now Senior Critic.
Her husband, designer William Drenttel, shared her dream of
establishing a studio, and in 1997 they founded Winterhouse in New
York. Focusing on new media and cultural institutions, they were soon
designing everything from book jackets to corporate identities to film
titles, for a client list that now includes prestigious organizations
such as the Archives of American Art, Teach for America, the Norman
Rockwell Museum, the New England Journal of Medicine, The New Yorker,
the NYU Institute for the Humanities, the NYU School of Journalism, the
Paris Review, the University of Chicago Press and the National Design
Awards. They co-edit a journal of visual culture, Below the Fold,
administer the annual AIGA Winterhouse Writing Awards, and contribute
to many national publications. In 2003, with two colleagues, they
co-founded one of the leading blogs for design and cultural criticism,
Observer. The U.S. Postmaster General tapped
2006 to serve
on the Stamp Advisory Committee, where she helps evaluate stamp
proposals as chair of the design subcommittee.
Jessica is the author of several other books on design and cultural
criticism, including another study of ephemeral artifacts, Reinventing
the Wheel (2002). This book visually explores the
volvelles or wheel charts, a type of circular reference tool
constructed of paper with rotating parts.
An American History was published in 2008. In it, Jessica
examines and analyzes the evolution of scrapbooks from the beginning of
the nineteenth century to the present. Named best coffee table book of
the year by The New
York Times, it was awarded a gold medal in ForeWord
Magazine's 2008 Book of the Year Award in the Crafts & Hobbies
category, and shared a a Bronze medal in the 2009 Independent
Publishers Book Award for How-to (Crafts/Hobby) books.
Researching and writing Scrapbooks:
An American History was a
three-year endeavor to understand the who, what, when, where, how and
ultimately the why of scrapbooking. "The scrapbook," she writes, "was
the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression
that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation
and redistribution of existing media." Her closing words for the book
hint at the journey she took: “To spend any time at all with these
scrapbooks is to fall a little bit in love with the people who created
them. They remind us who we are, where we’re going – and perhaps why,
in the end, it might actually matter.”
Articulate and analytical concerning both the history and current
status of scrapbooking culture, Jessica’s writings have stirred up
excitement and even some controversy. When we talked with her in July
2009, she was eager to describe about her experiences surrounding
An American History:
choosing the scrapbooks to feature in Scrapbooks:
An American History,
your first of five selection criteria stated that the scrapbook "needed
to be beautiful." What were some qualities that made a scrapbook
beautiful to you?
"I tend to be
drawn to scrapbooks that are chaotic and eclectic because that's much
closer to what real life is like, for most of us. I was and am
mesmerized, too, by the kinds of visual experiments made by people who
had no idea what they were doing, yet constructed these remarkably
compelling compositions nevertheless. Every once in a while I'd stumble
across someone spectacularly gifted artistically — Marybelle Harn, for
instance, who studied music but had beautiful penmanship and could draw
anything — or Kitty Baker, a high school girl in Virginia whose densely
composed pages are nothing short of magical. Scrapbooks with only one
type of thing — albums filled with birthday cards, or just photos or
only press clippings — were far less interesting to me."
Through the book, you describe some individuals creating scrapbooks for
themselves alone, while others seem aware that they are creating for
larger audiences or for posterity. How do you think these motivations
affect the process and the creative result?
actually all that sure that they do matter:
it's probably more a reflection of the individual. Some people were like Gertrude Stein
(who used to say that she wrote for herself) while others were, for any
of a number of reasons, more engaged with a public or shared notion of
their own identity: Zelda Fitzgerald was a perfect example of this
personality type! For her, scrapbooks were an ideal medium, because
they were so flexible and so forgiving, and so by definition
unfinished! For countless others, scrapbook-keeping was more like an
autograph book — or even a "slam" book — which enabled the individual
to take random polls of friends' habits or preferences or opinions. But
it bears saying that the more shared a book is, the more neutral it
becomes visually. At the opposite end of the spectrum are scrapbooks
that are truly three-dimensional snapshots of an individual's life.
Those tend to be more emotionally rich, more idiosyncratic, and more
surprising as a result."
popular Brownie camera, introduced by Kodak in 1900, had a profound
impact on family documentation. How did it impact the autobiographical
process to be able to include your own, changing likeness in your
"There are many scholars who've written on this subject, who are far
more equipped to answer this fascinating question than I am! But
briefly, the Brownie changed picture-taking by putting the technology
in the hands of real people. On a larger scale, the phenomenon that it
sparked had everything to do with authorship, with no longer needing to
rely on publicly available images to replicate one's likeness.
(Studio portrait photography was clearly impacted from a commercial
point of view, though it soldiered on, I believe, in the form of things
like photo booth image strips.) Along with "Kodaking" as it was
sometimes called in those early years, people began editing and
sequencing and even omitting photos in their scrapbooks and albums to
tell different kinds of stories. They were thus able to experiment with
perspective and point of view, with voice and personal identity, with
narrative, with autobiography, and with one another. This was
fundamentally a seismic shift from the formal and somewhat distant
portraiture that pervaded albums in the Nineteenth-Century."
by chapter, you sift through the eras of scrapbooking fashions to find
the "why" of it all, citing motivations of posterity, introspection,
and a need to organize among others. What do you think in the primary
driver behind the urge to create a scrapbook?
study of material culture, as a subset of social history, is long and
complicated (and fascinating) but in my opinion, all autobiographical
efforts, including but not limited to scrapbooks, stem from an
individual's need to stake ground, to say "I was here, I mattered, I
bore witness." Susan Tucker, a scholar at Tulane, has written
thoughtfully about the Antebellum notion of Carpe Diem ("seize the
day") and the degree to which people turned to diaries
and scrapbook-keeping in the wake of the Civil War as precisely such a
gesture of permanence.
"I believe scrapbooking moved to the forefront as America’s
fastest-growing hobby as a consequence of the events of
September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of tragedy, it is a
fact that people yearn for protection from loss, steeling themselves
against time. What better way to do that than by writing,
photographing, making something that documents your presence, however
fleeting, in a world spinning out of control? I also think this is one
of the things that makes scrapbooks so timeless — this basic humanity
evident in the pages of a scrapbook; the fact that a
young mother whose husband was fighting in the Civil War was just as
vulnerable as a young mother today whose husband has just been deployed
them time and Americans will make a "kit" out of any activity: cooking,
building, gardening, and of course, scrapbooking. How did the
introduction of pre-chaptered "memory books" after the turn of the
century change the way we kept scrapbooks - and how did they contribute
to the scrapbook styles of today?
were extremely popular at the turn of the century, and the lexicon used
in them shifted over time to reveal different kinds of social
mores. For example, "stunt books" were a feature of the 1920s,
when parties included games and themed activities.
For a period in the 1940s, publishers went a little batty, producing
memory books with preprinted rubrics inviting the user to save
everything from their parents' dental records to their fingerprints,
and to plan — weddings, baptisms, burials, you name it. It got a little
creepy, actually — and oddly gendered, as there were books for women to
plan their gardens and others for men to plan their hunting
expeditions. These weren't "kits" so much as a highly directed series
of user manuals, that made capturing memories feel more like a chore
than a creative pursuit. (Which was itself a very 1940s thing to do:
'Just buckle down and get the job done!')"
You've written observations about how scrapbooking practices are
changing today, from the proliferation of commercial supplies and
embellishments to the shift from it being primarily a solitary activity
to more of a family or group activity. How do you think these affect
the personal motivations and rewards of creating scrapbooks?
wrongly quoted as being really negative about contemporary
scrapbooking, when I am, in fact, a huge supporter. My criticism, if I
have one, is directed at the homogeneity that results when people worry
too much about what their scrapbooks will look like; with fretting over
"getting it right" rather than just embracing who you are and what you
care about. The best scrapbooks — of any generation — are the ones that
are simply honest reflections of the individuals who created them.
They're messy and goofy and homespun, funny and real, honest and true.
"If you sit down at the kitchen table at the end of the day — with
receipts from the grocery store, an envelope from a friend, a drawing
your child did, a newspaper photo that made you laugh, whatever — and
you paste all those things into a scrapbook, annotating, editing,
circling, drawing, adding captions, ripping out the parts you don't
like — you'll be left with this crazy yet compelling snapshot of the
day you just had. Sure, add a beautiful piece of ephemera from
vintageimagecraft.com — or from Michael's or eBay — or
because embellishments can be beautiful and who doesn't want a little
beauty in their scrapbooks? But my view — the "grab what's on your
kitchen table at the end of the day" view — well, it's sustainable.
Anyone can do it. It's green!
And in the future, it's so much more
vivid a snapshot of who you were and what you did than, say, buying a
"kit" to help compartmentalize and clean up your life. Life is messy.
Why can't scrapbooks be?"
bibliography includes sixty contributing references and resources. Do
you have a single recommended book for someone who might want to look
deeper into the history and implications of scrapbooking?
"The best resource is The
Scrapbook in American Life, by Katharine Ott,
Susan Tucker and Patricia Buckler. Ott's introduction alone is nothing
short of brilliant."
In your book's introduction, you refer to your 2005 blog essay of
critical observations about current scrapbook practices - and the
firestorm of popular response that ultimately led to your writing this
book. What has been the aftermath, following the book's publication and
your subsequent writings?
"The biggest fury came following an interview I did in Salon, and I have
to say here, that while I am indeed critical of scrapbooking on some
level (more on that in a moment!) I am not the elitist that some
scrapbookers have made me out to be! First: let's separate the Design Observer
post, in which a good deal of the incendiary comments came from
professional designers and not from me. Second, as a working
mother who both needs and appreciates the benefits of having a creative
life, I'm not about to disparage the efforts of others, especially
other working mothers. And finally, while as a professional
designer I will often be called
upon to critique the work of professional designers, I am not in the
position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of other peoples'
scrapbook pages on the basis of success or failure. Scrapbooks are
not graphic design: they borrow formally from some of the components of
visual language, but they are personal, autobiographical efforts that
should be judged as such. What I can do, and must do, is write about
what I believe. On that score, I believe all scrapbooks are
reflections of their authors. THIS is why I am opposed to the reliance
on store-bought kits and "getting it right" and an advocate of being
who and what you are."
You have now created definitive volumes on two ephemeral artifacts,
vovelles (Reinventing the Wheel in 2002) and scrapbooks. Is
another book in the works along similar lines, or shall we look for
something completely different?
"This is the start of a book-gestation period. I'm teaching a
new class at Yale this fall
based on Scrapbooks,
which is going to keep me pretty busy through
Christmas. In the Spring of 2010, we're taking our children out of
school for 5 months: my husband and I will be residents at the American
Academy in Rome, where I intend to spend ten weeks in the studio doing
something completely different. Painting, most likely. I'm excited and,
truth be told, a little bit terrified."
We are capturing more and more snippets from our daily lives,
but not in the old tangible forms of scrapbooks, journals and albums.
Video recorders, cell phone cameras, YouTube, and Facebook are the next
generation of autobiographical media. What do you think it all means
"It's not clear yet how the YouTube video glimpses and Facebook status
updates will be archived to reveal the kinds of lives we lead in these
bizarrely multitasked, mediated times. Scrapbooks, on the other hand,
are palpable. There's something uniquely pleasurable in being able to
hold a picture of your grandmother in your hand. (That's my
grandmother, Minnie Reed, on the cover of my book, incidentally!) On
the other hand, archivists are struggling to find a way to preserve
real scrapbooks which have a tendency to disintegrate over time.
(Today's scrapbook enthusiasts have a wide range of acid-free materials
to choose from, a benefit which, arguably, will keep future
disintegration at bay: at least we think it will.) In the end, I'm not
sure there's a black-and-white answer for all of this. I know for
myself, I'm an equal-opportunity journal-keeper: I write, draw, paste,
shoot pictures, make films, and keep my fingers crossed that some of it
will survive long enough so that someday, my grandchildren will get to
look at/touch/click through at least some of the madness I call my
about Jessica Helfand; her designs, writings and publications, and her
love of scrapbooks at The Daily Scrapbook, Design
Observer, and Winterhouse. Jessica's books on
ephemera and collecting, including Reinventing
the Wheel, and Scrapbooks:
An American History
are available from bookstores,
stores, and at Amazon.com
and other online retailers.