Dana Puga, prints and photographs collection specialist at the Library of Virginia, explores a personal archive – and the format itself.
Military nurse's scrapbook
Through this simple scrapbook, we get a glimpse of life in the months leading up to, and after, America's entry into World War II.
Lt. Annabel Long served as a military nurse stationed at the Army's Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. Her scrapbook captures both the seriousness of a nurse serving her country during wartime and the happiness of a young woman enjoying her social life.
Centuries earlier, in the 1400s and 1500s in England, commonplace books and friendship albums allowed owners to collect letters, poems and other writing. By the Victorian era in the 1800s, the term "scrapbook" took hold and reflected how clippings and other scraps of printed material were incorporated. (One innovative design, featuring pages with self-adhesive strips for attaching items, was patented by Mark Twain in the 1870s.)
In the 20th century, personal archives expanded – they might include snapshots, postcards and mass-produced paper ephemera (such as product wrappers, ticket stubs and programs), as well as individualized items such as invitations, report cards and telegrams. Even nonprinted objects – pressed flowers, fabric, hair clippings, balloons, cigarettes and even sugar cubes – were included.
Long's scrapbook features such diversity and richness. A dogwood flower, a movie ticket stub from "The Son of Monte Christo" and an Arthur Murray Studios dance lesson artifact reflect pleasant days in 1941. Packaging from syringe and needle deliveries mark her work as a nurse.
And tellingly, a War Department envelope – from Dec. 10, 1941, just days after Pearl Harbor – included her military orders.
Although notoriously difficult for institutions to preserve and catalog, scrapbooks have a long history as a recognized format – they are valuable artifacts of material and visual culture. Scholars can approach them as cultural and biographical resources, but individually, each scrapbook is a complicated personal chronicle of experiences and memories. Lives emerge gradually across pages, though often incompletely, as the significance of each item becomes harder to decipher over time and distance from the book’s creator.
Viewers, though, continue to discover new ways of reading these assembled life experiences – and to appreciate the creativity that lies beneath the paper and paste.