Heavy Metal Madness: Treasures From Scrap

Perhaps it’s the voyeur in me, or maybe it’s a desire to live in the past, but one of my favorite sources of pleasure is looking through other people’s old scrapbooks. These collections of ephemera from a person’s life, or from a period of particular importance in their lives, serve as great historical documents and fitting eulogies for their deceased owners.
Scrapbooks can be readily found at garage sales, flea markets, antique stores, and of course, on eBay. They are usually cheap, and are often like mystery grab bags of printing history. You never know what you’ll find that someone chose to keep as a reminder of better (or sometimes worse) times. I’ve come across lots of ticket stubs, event programs, dance cards, school memorabilia, and sometimes very touching letters, love notes, and holy-cards given out at the funeral of a loved one. It’s hard to pick up a scrapbook from any era and not find something of interest.

Figure 1: Scrapbooks are easily found at garage sales, antique stores and on eBay. They provide a wealth of interest both graphically and sociologically. This book is from a young boy in Midland, PA, from the early thirties.

Figure 2: My favorite scrapbook cover is this one, handmade from plywood. Sadly, the owner’s life did not live up to the book — there were only a few completed pages.

It used to horrify me that these precious memories would end up on a table at a garage sale, often discarded by an uncaring relative or estate liquidator. Buying them made me feel not only sad but a little bit guilty as well. Who was I to paw through someone else’s memories? It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t someone somewhere who knew the owner and for whom such a book would have sentimental value.

Figure 3: Sometimes you luck out and find some really old material that has held up, like this graduation invitation from 1878. Many scrapbooks were done with low-quality paper full of sulfur, which causes yellowing and deterioration.

Figure 4: Of course many scrapbooks contain photographs, usually with hand-written captions below. This photo is from a scrapbook owned by Barbara Desotelle of Portsmouth, NH, in 1953.

But when I realized that the alternative in most cases was the garbage heap, I began collecting scrapbooks in earnest, content that I was preserving some, if not all, of the memories they represented. I can only guess that one day my own scrap will be on the auction heap — besides my wife Patty, I have no heirs to care about my teenage concert tickets or the receipts I still have from repairing my first car (a 1960 Corvair I bought for $35). I can only hope that some nut like me comes around and finds room in his or her heart (not to mention the garage) for my scrap.

Figure 5: Lots of scrapbooks contain cutout magazine photos of favorite Hollywood stars. In this book, which was undated, the owner colored the lips of actresses red throughout its 50 or so pages.

Figure 6: Scrapbooks serve as reminders of good times, whether a trip to Disneyland back in the E-ticket days, or a first airplane ride in 1934.

A Simple Graphic Art Form
Scrapbooks represent, in most cases, one of the crudest forms of graphic arts — simple cut-and-paste jobs with lots of handwriting, sometimes goofy drawings, childlike descriptions of good times, and often little, if any, narrative or timeline. These days you can print keepsake books from your iPhotos, or use real typefaces to label your junk. I understand, thanks to the sticker craze among kids, that scrapbooks are making a big comeback. But what I’ve seen lately are mostly collections of stickers, rubber-stamp patterns, or other images not of a highly personal nature.

Figure 7: Many of the scrapbooks I’ve found are from teens. Here is the cover of an invitation from an all-girls high-school prom in 1974, and a dance card from the “Memories” Junior-Senior Promenade of Lincoln High School in Pennsylvania, 1937.

Scrapbooks are just like every other art form — they represent the personality and skill of the owner. Some books are meticulously laid out, expertly pasted together, obsessively labeled, and well annotated. Others are loose, fun, random and sometimes downright nutty. Those tend to be the ones I like the best.

Figure 8: Sometimes what you find in scrapbooks is a reminder of more notorious places or events. This scrapbooker thought well enough about the drag show at Finocchios in San Francisco to save the advertisement. And before it became politically incorrect, Sambos was a very popular coffee shop chain on the West Coast.

Scrapbooks of the Ages
The idea of keeping a book of memories, or even a simple journal, has been around as long as there have been writing tools. The scrapbook is the ultimate form of self-publishing, and has been used for centuries as a way to pass down valuable information from one generation to another. And though the emphasis in these publications is not usually graphic, in some cases they become collecting points for great examples of fine printing, graphic-design trends, and language development. They’re like looking through someone’s garbage, but after it’s been sifted and only the best things remain.

Figure 9: When many people carried hunting licenses in their wallets, Pacific Telephone gave out these nifty plastic covers with great advice on them.

Figure 10: Over the years no matter which organization kids chose to join, there was always sage advice on some sort of card to remind them of good behavior and give them something to put in their scrapbooks.

I came across a scrapbook once from the daughter of the founders of a famous American business dynasty. She was, apparently, the black sheep of the family and tracked in her scrapbook the accomplishments of her sisters and brothers. Toward the end, she began writing nasty notes and obliterating certain faces in pictures and newspaper clippings. If only her shrink could have seen her scrapbook, it would have saved a great deal of couch time.

Figure 11: In 1933, the San Francisco Bay Bridge was dedicated. I found this invitation, still in its original envelope, in a discarded scrapbook at an estate sale. The owner: Esther Johnson.

There’s not all that much to say about the production values of most scrapbooks — they reflect the era in which they were conceived. Future scrapbooks will look different because of technology breakthroughs, and changes in how we save and retrieve information. In many parts of our lives, it is no longer necessary to save any particular memories — they are mostly saved in one electronic form or another.

Figure 12: Memories of famous encounters. Scrapbooks often have autographs in them — and what better memory of Mike Connors than his autograph on a carpet-store flyer?

But I’ll always come back to the personal, organic qualities of a book composed of the hard-copy ephemera of a life someone was proud of and wanted to remember. I’m experiencing this firsthand right now with my live-in nephew. This kid has moved around so much and been through so many cultures that he obsessively covets the few pictures, paperwork, and scrap of his life. It’s kept under lock and key, hidden from the world.

Figure 13: A program of the original U.S. production of “Tommy” at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, circa 1972. Found in a scrapbook owned by Timothy Burns, of San Diego.

Figure 14: In the days when Americans drove to vacations, most roadside attractions sold colorful decals for placement on your car or RV window. This one, from the One-Log House in the California Redwoods is from a scrapbook owned by Marsha Murphy of Sacramento.

We all need visual cues to stimulate our memories and bring back certain feelings. For me, the best way to gain insight into a life is to look at the material a person has chosen to save. Every scrapbook I’ve bought has some sort of “rosebud” in it somewhere.
Read more by Gene Gable.

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.
  • fsheff says:

    My Web site is a “scrapbook” in a sense: it’s centered on things I was (am) interested in, and is intended to help others share some aspects of the big and little joys that continue to nourish my appreciation of life.

    My not-very-aggressive assault on eBay has yielded enough gems related to my interest in early (50s-60s) Southern California sports car road racing that by my reckoning it will be two years before it’s all accommodated in digital display-if I stop acquiring today.

    I get a couple of new reflections of joy (“Boy does that bring back memories…”) from Web surfers who chance by and bother to say so. No telling how many smile and move on.

    Frank S

  • anonymous says:

    I see your point,… “the good old days”, and “aren’t we tired of these darn computers”, making arts and crafts too easy and taking all the handmade quality fun away.

    Like everything 20 years or older we can see a naive charm we long for again, when we were innocent too. it’s not just in printed matter but in all aspects of our daily lives. There’s nothing I find more boring today than looking thru someone’s wedding album or baby pictures. Uhg!

    I think you are just looking in the wrong places. Really great talent is hard to find, but it’s there. I’ve seen it, and if you need any links or info. mail me! :)
    I’m sure 50 yrs. from now or more, anything generated on an impersonal tool with no human warmth, the computer, will appear charming, or at least interesting to those looking. I only wish I could be there to view it in the context of that time period, relative to technology.

    What would Andy Warhol be doing if he had a Mac?

    So let the iPhoto, ImageStation, Shutterfly, Snapfish folks make their money. I’ll contribute. I’m looking forward to more wonderful gadgets and tech-machines making my creativity blossom even more. (I used to paint the old fashioned way)

    Oh, and please check out my iPhoto book if you get the chance! . . . you might be surprised?! https://homepage.mac.com/rpirman/MissingpartsBook1/PhotoAlbum15.html

    website: https://rpirman.com


    Rick Pirman

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