Often when I tell people that I’m working on making a database of all the scrapbooks in the Special Collections Research Center, I get a reaction something like, “Oh, that’s nice,” a reaction with subtext that seems to say “oh-that’s-nice-but-not-something-actually-significant-like-Thomas-Jefferson’s-letters.” And while the correspondence of our illustrious college alumnus certainly holds the utmost importance for the historical narrative of our country, the value of the everyday person’s point of view can sometimes be lost in the search for those of history’s best and brightest.
This, of course, isn’t anything monumentally revolutionary, but even historians sometimes fall into this trap, I certainly not the least among them. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive of the scrapbook project in January, specifically because didn’t seem to be anything groundbreaking. Once I really started to dig into the material, though, I quickly began to realize that these volumes provided unique glimpses into not only the lives of their creators, but into larger social trends as well.
Since they were deliberate attempts to preserve memories of specific times and events, these scrapbooks contain the pieces of their creators’ lives. This naturally allows us a rare glimpse into the experiences of those who lived history, whether it is as monumental as a soldier’s service during World War I, as in the F. H. Maguire Family Scrapbook, or as minute as details a girl’s camp romances, as in the Barbara Gabowitz Scrapbook.
The F. H. Maguire Family Scrapbook primarily chronicles the family’s vacations from 1911-1929, along with postcards acquired by one member during his time in the U. S. Air Service during WWI. There are tons of little jewels of information throughout the volume, chronicling wealthy Americans’ increased awareness of international affairs and desire to travel abroad during the early 20th century. For example, one page holds an extremely fragile flyer advertising the arrival of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his queen to England to attend the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to Queen Victoria. This item’s historical significance is fascinating when you consider that it was a scant three years before the outbreak of WWI.
The postcards collected by the soldier in the family also demonstrate WWI’s contribution to the American awareness of the world. Before American involvement in the war, only a small percentage of the population with the money to support costly sea travel (such as the Maguires themselves) had the opportunity to broaden their horizons through travel. As atrocious as war is, WWI gave exposed many Americans who otherwise would probably not have left their home region of the United States, much less the country itself, the chance to learn about the world. The soldier from the Maguire family collected postcards from Tours all the way to Savoie, both chronicling his campaigns and demonstrating his new found knowledge of Europe.
Even the seemingly unimportant minutia of some scrapbooks gives us valuable insight into the past, especially if it happens to be narrated by the creator. Bobbi Gabowitz’s thorough description of each of her camp beaus during the summers of 1953-58 provides an interesting contrast to the strict moral guidelines of the cultural context in which it was compiled. Although her time at summer camp coincided with Cold War ideals of the nuclear family, entailing distinct roles and expectations of both men and women, Barbara was clearly at home with the concept of a summer relationship, returning to her steady boyfriend at the onset of fall.
So at the end of the day, clearly scrapbooks are much more than just a fad from the 1990’s; they provide valuable historical insight that is often completely unexpected. I, for one, will definitely not think of scrapbooks in the same way, and I hope other history enthusiasts will also find scrapbooks as intriguing as I do now. Come by and see us, and our scrapbooks, in the Special Collections Research Center—you never know quite what you’ll find!
Kim Bassett is a senior at the College of William and Mary and a volunteer at the SCRC.