Today's First Thoughts piece was inspired by my recent run-in with scrapbooking.
Stumbling into scrapbooking
Last weekend, through almost no fault of my own, I acquired a Creative Memories consultant. A friend invited me to a scrapbooking party she was having at her home. Since she's a new mom and hangs out with a lot of new moms, and because Lucas and Mr. Trillwing were included on the invitation, I assumed it would be a kind of mommy-n-me deal, light on the scrapbooking. How wrong I was! Aside from the hostess, I was the only one of the all-mommy party who had a child in tow, and I may have been the only one there who had not previously been exposed to scrapbooking.
The afternoon began with a presentation by a Creative Memories consultant, a young mother who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the company's product line and a savvy marketer who made recommendations at the party and later followed up on my order with more recommendations and event announcements by phone and e-mail. Each of the participants selected a couple of photos and our consultant led us through the creation of complimentary "Short Story" cards, folded pieces of cardstock that came packaged with a few stickers and a couple scraps of decorative paper. Steps 1-4: crop, mount, journal, and enhance. According to the dominant Creative Memories aesthetic, it's clear my "Hands Off, Mommy! It's Great-Grandma's Turn" card pushed the boundaries of the acceptable. I didn't use the appropriate tools, so my cuts were crooked, and my lettering was not in Happy Schoolteacher Print. Oh well. . . Maybe I'm not cut out for this stuff.
We then moved on to the sales/"workshop" portion of the presentation, where the consultant educated us about Creative Memories products and provided us with catalogs and order forms. She had some supplies with her so we could purchase the essentials (blank album pages, adhesives, decorative paper, etc.) and complete a page or two on the spot. As luck would have it, the usually mild-mannered Lucas used this event to demonstrate his Fussy Boy repertoire, so I didn't get much done, but the consultant was kind enough to check on my progress periodically anyway. We all took breaks to look over one another's shoulders and watch as the pages came together. When people glanced at the page I was sweating over, however, their reactions, I think, were considerably less enthusiastic than their reactions to other folks' scrapbooking. Again, I wasn't buying into, er, didn't grasp the Creative Memories aesthetic. Shall we illustrate?
Here's the Creative Memories ideal, as illustrated on their website:
With my mind on the kind of scrapbook Mr. Trillwing and a future Lucas might enjoy, and motivated by a desire to go at this scrapbooking thing freehand instead of using all the templates and cutting tools, I created this:
Yeah, it's not pretty.
Anyway, I like to be liked, especially by people I'm meeting for the first time, and particularly by new moms who might want to invite Lucas and me into their playgroups, so I was then, and remain now, conflicted: Should I have shown that I could adopt the aesthetic and use the tools (literal, metaphorical, and symbolic) of the other scrapbooking moms? Would it have been more polite and acceptable to use (and then purchase) the tools created for and used by the other scrapbookers? Or was it better for me to forge ahead with my own vision, Creative Memories ideals be damned? If I were experimenting with scrapbooking in my own home, these questions never would have occurred to me, as I'd see the whole project as a creative, quasi-artistic outlet. Out would come the acrylic paints, the cartoonists' inks, the watercolors, pastels and fixatives, scissors and X-acto knives, and whatever else felt appropriate at the moment. But if I wanted to be accepted into this particular group of women (and as a new mom seeking emotional support and potential childcare swaps, I very much desired acceptance), I needed to prove myself a member of the club and validate their visions of what their albums should contain.
In which I get all intellectual on scrapbooking's ass
Some time ago, Fantastic Adviser taught a course on corporate cultures, and she had a Creative Memories consultant come to her class as an illustration of how direct selling organizations work. In planning for this event, Adviser shared with me her desire to at some point write up her thoughts on scrapbooking, and as I sat at the scrapbooking party, Fantastic Adviser's brainstormings came rushing back: that because scrapbooking calls on women to crop, place, and embellish family photos, the whole exercise is really about giving women a sense of control over their families. Through this process of photo mounting and journaling, they can frame their families in any way they wish, and highlight--or even fabricate--those roles they feel they themselves should be playing as mother, sister, daughter, or aunt.
My questions, then, are these: In what ways does scrapbooking empower women as members of their families and of a larger community of women who scrapbook? And in what ways does it reinforce traditional women's roles or circumscribe opportunities for more creative expression? What is the role of the consultant? Is her influence a limiting or liberating one? And what does being a consultant for Creative Memories mean to the women who sign up? (Of course, as an academic, I'm tempted to sign on to get a sense of the experience, but the dissertation must come first.)
Scrapbooking has a long history for women and girls. Drawing on Rodris Roth's chapter on scrapbook houses in The American Home: Material Culture, Domestic Space, and Family Life (ed. Eleanor McD. Thompson, Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum; Hanover: UP of New England, 1998), Mary Flanagan writes,
Playing house in miniature was a popular American pastime in the late Nineteenth century and was featured in home magazines of the 1890s to early 20th century. Children used old ledgers or albums to create a paste-up graphic room per leger page set. These early visual miniature representations of upper middle class houses provide a specific idea of house as imagined by a particular class at a particular time and geography. Rodris Roth notes in "Scrapbook Houses" that such scrapbook houses "were an ideal medium to introduce girls to their future roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers" and that the "house in a scrapbook, just as much as an actual one, had to be run and maintained properly" (308). The house was implicitly known to be a gendered space. That female children were being trained to imitate their parent's tastes and shop for desirable goods from mail order catalogs and samples suggests the intertwining of play, gender, and consumption over a century ago.
Modern day instructions for making a scrapbook house, as well as a photo of a scrapbook house from 1879, may be found here. Another example is here.
The Creative Memories literature proclaims a more liberating motive for scrapbooking today:
Every moment you capture in a photo, every time you ask, “Guess what happened?” … you are telling your story as only you can. We’d like to help you take the next step by preserving your story in a safe and meaningful keepsake scrapbook album.In other words, instead of serving as a training ground for a future life as manager of a household, today's scrapbooks are a way to preserve the past, to celebrate achievements as a wife, mother, etc. Or so say the Creative Memories PR mavens.
It’s so simple:
• Live life
• Take pictures
• Call your Consultant
• Tell your stories in albums
But when we scrapbook, we're not just "telling stories" as a journalist, or even a photojournalist, might. Instead, we're imposing narratives, and therefore fairly explicit meanings, onto our lives. We omit many details and bring others into sharp relief. Most of us put the best possible face we can on our family life. And isn't that our job as wives and mothers? (Single women certainly have some of the same impulses, which may be centered more on self-presentation, forging a sense of extended family, or the role of daughter.)
We pose and then crop photos. We frame them in paper of particular patterns. We stencil. We write brief journal entries. We apply stickers with pre-printed words And the results are, well. . . here, here, and all over here. (In this sense, perhaps scrapbooking is kin to blogging, where most of us use templates created by others but fill them with our own photos and journal entries, but do so often by basing our posts on what we've seen on others' blogs (through memes, responses to posts, etc.).
In light of these first thoughts, could scrapbooking be considered feminist? Could a self-described feminist participate in scrapbooking without feeling too much angst? If the prescribed, cookie-cutter Creative Memories brand of scrapbooking makes us uncomfortable, how far from it do we need to go before we're back in emancipatory territory? What does a feminist scrapbook look like? Does it use new or recycled materials? What does it chronicle? Does it attempt a linear, chronological narrative?
Oy. I think I need to do some freewriting and a lot of further research. In addition to interviews with scrapbooking women and further participant observation, I'm thinking of revisiting Janice Radway's books on romance readers and the Book-of-the-Month Club, as well as maybe Levine's book Highbrow/Lowbrow. (Wheee! That will let me revisit some good American Studies stuff.)
Postscript: While writing this post over a couple of days, I put together another few pages in the hopes of better understanding the process of scrapbooking. And I'm still struggling with what it all means (or might come to mean) to me and to others. I think having a full album of varied pages would give me a very different perspective from having completed just a page or two. That said, I'll close with my latest pages. (They're too big for our scanner, so please excuse the indoor-digital-photo nature of these images.) The print, which may be too small to read, includes passages from poets Emily Dickinson, Sarah Lindsay, and W.B. Yeats.
And one inspired by the cover of Goodnight Moon:
Further resources (which I have yet to read but discovered in my preliminary web search):
Gordon, Beverly. "Scrapbook Houses for Paper Dolls: Creative Expression, Aesthetic Elaboration and Bonding in the Female World," in Susan Tucker and Patricia Buckler, eds., Layered History: Essays on the Commonplace Book, the Scrapbook, and the Album (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003).