Saturday, February 18, 2006

First Thoughts: Scrapbooking and Feminism

I'm supposed to be a scholar, so I thought I'd behave like one from time to time in my role as chief curator of The Clutter Museum. Accordingly, I'm starting a new series here called "First Thoughts." In it, I'll share my first, largely unedited ramblings thoughts and very preliminary research on topics of interest to me. These pieces will likely raise more questions than they answer.

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:

A detail:

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.

It’s so simple:

• Live life
• Take pictures
• Call your Consultant
• Tell your stories in albums
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.

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).


New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is a fascinating post. To be completely un-intellectual, can I say that I like your pages so much more than the standard, idealized models set forth by Creative Memories?

Phantom Scribbler said...

What a great post. But, oh, let me advise you now: if this is the sort of thing that you have to supress in order to be liked by the people in the scrapbooking class, then I humbly suggest that those other mothers are not ideal playgroup candidates for you. Trust me. After the initial pleasure of having successfully negotiated entrance into the world of playgroups wore off, you would find yourself wishing that you could stick hot pokers in your eyes rather than have to make (heavily edited) small talk with these women for two hours a week.

The women you want for your playgroups would be the ones who look at your scrapbooking experiments, laugh with delight, and yell, "These are AWESOME!" Then they would engage you in a long conversation about, say, the uses of the color pink in Creative Memories products and the reinforcement of gendered assumptions about childraising.

Leslie M-B said...

Kate, Thanks so much for your thoughts. I'll definitely follow up on those!

New Kid, thanks for your comments on my little attempts at scrapbooking. I don't know what I've gotten myself into, really. I have this way of finding myself in communities of hobbyists and getting way too involved (witness the dozens of model horses lining my bookshelves, which I should write about here because I'm not keeping up on my blog dedicated to the subject--yes, that's how obsessive I am), so I need to watch myself.

And PS, you're absolutely correct. I guess I'm in desperate-times-call-for-desperate measures mode. The good news is Lucas's fabulous doctor invited us into her childcare co-op, so I should definitely follow up on that.

Thanks again, everyone. I can't believe people actually read (or even skimmed) all that. :)

BrightStar (B*) said...

I like your scrapbook pages better than most any I've seen.

oh, wait... New Kid just said that, too!

I have been icked out by scrapbooking for quite a while, and your post helped me make sense of why it's problematic for me. That's a very interesting point about seeking to control one's narrative and role.

MJ said...

Great post!!

I like your scrapbook pages better too. I kept scrapbooks all through high school and college, back before pre-printed pages and scalloped-edge scissors (and it was nearly impossible to find a real scrapbook--I got two of mine at estate sales), but I find the current scrapbooking craze kind of bewildering. Especially Creative Memories--the way it's pitched to the "consultants" as some kind of empowering entrepreneurial opportunity for stay-at-home moms really bothers me.

Breena Ronan said...

Have you seen the scrapbooking boards on craftster? They would make for interesting research.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Okay, I'll start at the superficial level first. The scrapbook page that you made, with Lucas as your little gangster and that hilarious picture of Mr. Trillwing and Lucas, made me laugh out loud helplessly. (Not so good when I'm pretending to research, to get some bloggy time away from my parents.)

It was also very satisfying for me to see you subverting the oppressive scrapbooking culture. I used to work at an office supply store, and the scrapbooking women were frightening. There were a few who'd bought into all the propaganda, without fully understanding it. They'd get so scary about acid-free products. As someone who has dealt heavily with archival materials, I appreciate all that acid-free stuff. However, I do have a problem with that woman who yelled at me because the only acid-free page protectors we had in the store came loosely in a box, and not sealed up in plastic, so that "How can you tell if acid hasn't gotten in there?"

As one who has dealt with memory theory and commemoration rather heavily (and wishes to do so more heavily), I found your analysis of all this fascinating, especially in terms of women imposing narratives and control onto their lives. I think that's always what has kept me away from scrapbooking: carefully cropping photos and arranging them out of their context. But is not the act of arranging uncropped photos in an album also an act of construction? Whatever is included in the photo is what will end up being connected and remembered.

Now I have to think all this out. Also especially because I was just comparing the mindset of blogging to photography (always observing everything with the question of how you can frame this and make it permanent). But blogging as scrapbooking? I'm going to have to think about that more.

Okay, I don't know if all my ramblings made sense. I keep being interrupted by my mother, who is currently taking over my kitchen.

P.S. I second what Phantom Scribbler says about not wanting friends who don't appreciate the awesomeness of your experimentation. Because your scrapbook? Is AWESOME!

mamaloo said...

Don't forget, though, that just like all other tactile creative endeavors, the process is a significant part of it. I think average women who don't create what is commonly called "art" also do not have a lot of oppourtunities to be creative (in a creating non-practical things kind of way).

The act of choosing paper and accessories (whether they are approved scrapping accessories or bits and bobs from life like old buttons, scraps of fabric, yarn...), conceptualizing a visual narritive and then assembling is akin to being an artist for many women. The act itself, removed from the the issues of narritive is a significant part of the story, I believe.

Jeff Mather said...

You asked, among other interesting questions, "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?"

This is essentially the same set of questions that many creative people (regardless of gender) ask at some point when they engage in group activities. I have seen it many times in camera/photo club circles. "Do I subscribe to the dominant aesthetic and subject matter, even if they're not my own? Should I buy equipment to help make images that fit into that aesthetic? Will I alienate people by going against the grain, or is their room for exploration?"

Several years ago, Dona Schwartz made an ethnographic examination of the differencces between fine art and camera club aesthetics. When someone in my camera club dug it up, it spawned a lengthy discussion. Essentially, new people find the composition rules and product talk helpful in becoming more proficient creators; while more technically advanced photographers and artists usually move on to rule breaking and reduce the emphasis on tools.

(Maybe you're just really advanced for a first timer!)

Perhaps a reasonable question is whether the scrapbooking and photographic hobbies are similar enough to draw these parallels. I suspect so, especially given what Kate and the Queen said. But I find it amazing that while both men and women engage in preserving family memories via photography, scrapping is aimed at women.

Scrapbooks tend to have more narrative structure and cohesion than sets of photographs. It can be argued that for most people, they require more time and effort to make than photographs and even photo stories. They explicitly include more value judgements, hopes, and desires, too.

Doesn't this all sound like the typical things said about gender roles in families? Women are more articulate and feeling. Women invest more effort in the family. Women educate and shape values.

But now I'm out of my league...

Leslie O. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Leslie O. said...

When I worked on that scrapbook magazine launch, something that struck me about the hobby was that the women were, essentially, doing the same thing I was doing professionally as a layout-oriented graphic designer. Granted, many are being "art directed" by the companies themselves, but the way the average woman could be a layout designer sans any deep knowledge of typesetting and grids, without any real training apart from their local scrapbook classes, struck me as very democratic. Still waaaay too conformity-pushing and way too many stereotypical themes for me to deal with, though, to be anything more than a closet embellishment junkie!

An aspect of scrapping you should definitely study is the idea that the hobby has Masters, and a defined hierarchy amongst those in the serious scrapping "world." It's simlar to how model horse enthusiasts practically canonize certain artists, but with the sort of freaky/delicious Mean Girl Stepford quality you should find irresistible. ;-) All over the magazines is the idea that these particular women are so much better than you at organizing their personal memories and inner aesthetic (read: buying the right materials and using them the right ways)... I find it disconcerting but their accompanying biographies in any "Masters" issue are durn interesting, always emphasizing their wife and mother role.

Nancy White said...

I came to your post via and just LOVED this. Wow. You tickled my half awake mind into high gear this morning. THANK YOU!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I, like you, was unaware until recently that "scrapbook" could be a verb. I'm a stay at home parent and have been invited to several 'scrapbooking parties', none of which I have attended(BTW, I am also an alum of the same delighful midwestern college that you attended).

Anyhow, your comments about wanting to feel 'accepted' by the other moms rang so true to me. I have to agree with P.S. who said that you will soon be very frustrated with those who won't appreciate your interpretation or viewpoint. My girls are 5 and 3 now and I have completely given up on the play-date as I have not been able to find a group whith whom I have much in common. I think it's easy to assume that just being "moms" together should make us all friends. But, the reality is we need to find the subset of moms with whom we really have some deeper issues in common. Good luck with the diss and the new mama gig.

Anonymous said...

I'm Kristine and kind of new to scrapbooking. I had this idea to make a
scrapbook for a friend of mine for the forth of July.
So I was looking around and found this site
Which had a great article on making a July 4th page (
Does anyone know any other good resources?
Also - I signed up and they sent me this whole 100 page book with all these great tips.
Totally unexpected but it is great.