Pieces of a Past Life

Booth's Theatre. C.W. Carmer Scrapbook DetailA popular means of documenting personal interests and life events, the practice of scrapbooking dates back centuries.  In contrast to the modern practice of pasting family photographs and vacation mementos onto brightly colored paper, early scrapbooks were often compilations of newspaper clippings, artwork, hand-copied quotes, and letters.  In addition to being aesthetically interesting, old scrapbooks provide unique insight on the lives of their creators.  What did an individual decide was worthy to keep?  How does ephemera reflect personal, local, and national events?

During my first few weeks as a Special Collections apprentice, I had the opportunity to process the C.W. Carmer Scrapbook which was compiled between 1864 and1868.  The creator had repurposed a handwritten ledger to organize articles, stories, and illustrations clipped from newspapers.  A majority of the entries are literary and I thoroughly enjoyed reading several nineteenth century dramas.  It was fun to trace social commentary through these stories as well as in short humorous tales and published scraps of advice.  Carmer’s scrapbook also proved to be visually entertaining.  Cleverly designed advertisements for theater productions caught my eye, as did pictorials of steamships, world capital cities, and prominent figures of the day.

"An Appalling Calamity" - Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
"An Appalling Calamity" - Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Detail of a news clipping from the C.W. Carmer Scrapbook.

Assembled towards the end of the Civil War, possibly by a resident of New York, the scrapbook contains surprisingly few reports on politics or battles.  A notable exception is the detailed coverage of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.  With the recent acclaim and popularity garnered by the film, Lincoln, these recollections are especially poignant today.  Another unique memento of the Civil War, and one of my favorite items in the book, is a set of political cartoons which incorporate a Valentine’s Day theme into their commentary on the conflict.

While the Civil War did not figure prominently in Carmer’s scrapbook, several other current events did.  These clippings are fascinating in that they address topics that are varied and often obscure.  Among them: an American woman's account of Chinese customs, a description of a cyclone in India, a scientific report on tobacco smoking, and an article about sleep.  Such articles are a reminder that our modern emphasis on major historical events can overshadow other interesting aspects of an era.

Although I am not a scrapbooker, studying C.W. Carmer’s pages has left me wondering: what ephemeral pieces of my life do I hang on to and what understanding of the early twenty-first century might they inspire in future generations?


Pictorial. C.W. Carmer Scrapbook Detail.
Pictorial. C.W. Carmer Scrapbook Detail.

Sarah Vlasity is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2013-2014 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.