Memorial Days

Scrapbooking shows that one person’s junk is another’s decoration.

When fond memories are not enough

Until I started watching Scrapbooking (DIY, weekdays, 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. ET) I thought photographs did a pretty good job of preserving memories. But the show’s host, Sandi Genovese, whose online bio describes her as “the Diva of Die-Cuts,” has disabused me of this notion; apparently, even the most captivating pictures need “embellishments.” Each week, Genovese brings in scrapbook giants like Jennifer “Chalk Lady” O’Byrne to teach viewers how to enhance their memories with ribbons, bows, buttons, beads, stickers, glitter, gauze, charms, and brads. I’ve learned how to work with vellum, how to design my own font, and how to use “journaling”—all text, even a single word, is called “journaling”—to add a narrative flourish, because while a picture may be worth a thousand words, that’s not nearly enough. You need to add a few of your own. And some yarn.

Scrapbooking could easily be dismissed as a marginal cable show, but it’s the inevitable outgrowth of a popular cultural phenomenon. There are retail outlets dedicated to the hobby (which is sometimes referred to as “scrapping” or “cropping”), as well as parties (sometimes referred to as a “crop”), weekend retreats, and sleep-away camps for kids. In fact, the industry grosses between $2 billion and $3 billion a year. Scrapbooking is no longer a craft; it’s a movement.

As pedestrian as scrapbooking may seem, the practice actually has a distinguished literary pedigree. Scrapbooks have distant roots in the commonplace book, in which educated people copied down favorite quotations, aphorisms, bits of verse, and even jokes. Commonplace books were popular during the Renaissance; later, English philosopher John Locke published A New Method of a Common-Place-Book, which offered handy indexing tips, such as using Latin headings because they were “the most commodious.” By the early 19th century, paper companies were marketing scrapbooks with title pages and frames for etchings or engravings. Mark Twain was a proto-scrapper, collecting memorabilia from his travels and reviews of his books and public appearances and pasting them in scrapbooks. In 1872, after growing tired of grappling with adhesives—still a tricky material today—Twain invented, patented, and successfully marketed “Mark Twain’s Patent Scrapbook,” which featured self-pasting pages. He reportedly raked in $50,000 with this invention; it was arguably his most profitable book.

By successfully marketing the first easy-to-use camera, Eastman Kodak gave new purpose to scrapbooking—aficionados now collected photographs instead of psalms—but the current craze can be largely credited to a St. Cloud, Minn., company called Creative Memories. Since the late ‘80s, Creative Memories consultants have given in-home classes where they sell albums and supplies directly to consumers, changing the way people think about memorabilia just as Tupperware altered the way 1950s housewives thought about freshness. Scrapbooking, now entering its fourth season,piggybacks on the craze, providing aficionados (and neophytes) witha seemingly endless collection of tips and techniques.

Each episode of Scrapbooking features three segments organized around a single theme—ranging from the broad (episode #237 Wedding Album) to the technical (episode #355 Matting Magic) to the existential (episode #233 Scrapbooker’s Block), with Genovese presiding over the show like an encouraging but slightly spacey mom. Guests are either designers, store owners, or representatives of one of the many scrapping-supply companies, with the latter often giving what are in essence product demonstrations. This is not a criticism. There are thousands of different scrapbook supplies, and the gear is a big part of the joy of scrapping. Genovese and her guests often praise the scrapper’s waste-nothing mentality, but there are an awful lot of tempting goodies to buy: shiny trinkets, sumptuous papers, and special scissors that cut ornate edges.

Of course, the question that underlies all this activity is: Why do people scrap? DIY’s Scrapbooking is resolutely instructional, so for insight into the scrapper mentality, you have to look past the toile and read between the lines. Scrappers seem to be driven partially by guilt: It’s not enough to create a good life for the people around you, you have to preserve it for them as well. Practitioners of the craft appear to be victims of the kind of domestic perfectionism that made Martha Stewart both a household name and a punch line. Indeed, the culture of scrapping does not so much encourage homemade touches as demand them. While showing viewers a page in progress that contained some writing typed on a computer, Genovese apologized that she hadn’t written the words herself. “I had too much to say and I couldn’t fit it on in my handwriting,” Genovese explained. You couldn’t miss the note of genuine shame in her voice.

But mostly it seems that scrapping just feels good. The guests on Scrapbooking are invariably middle-aged women (even the younger ones feel old in spirit), and you get the sense you could do a brisk business selling them scented bath salts. For these women, scrapping, like pottery or gardening, provides tactile pleasure, the satisfaction of working with your hands—and the joy of seeing clay or dirt or a photograph of your husband taking a nap transformed into a thing of beauty. “Tearing paper is therapeutic,” one Scrapbooking guest said, while another “expert,” an X-Acto knife fiend, exclaimed, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically: “I always have to play with things and play with things and play with things.” Genovese herself often sounds like she has a Master’s degree in social work. When the Chalk Lady showed how easy it is to fix mistakes made while lettering with chalk, Genovese enthused, “I love it. It’s so forgiving.”

When it comes to the scrapbooks’ content, at least, forgiving is an appropriate word. Perhaps the examples on the show are intentionally generic, but there doesn’t seem to be any aesthetic sense or taste, not to mention any insight, required. Words like “special” and “precious” are used generously—and the books tend to be decorated with an overabundance of hearts. Some of the pages are so busy that the photographs get buried in all the bric-a-brac. “This sweet little babe is being accented by ribbons and wire and beads and tags and jewels and just everything we’re putting in our scrapbook pages now,” said one guest while showing off a baby page. As she talked, the camera panned away from a cute photograph of a little girl to focus on the garish embellishments. If it’s rude to pass judgment on a stranger’s bad taste, it’s even ruder to pass judgment on their memories, but I couldn’t help but think, Hey! What about the kid?