The Scrapbook Craze

By staff February 1, 2002

Adrienne Frank of Sarasota likes to telI a story about her grandfather, Alois Traxler. In 1912, the young Traxler left Austria for a new life in America. He had planned to set sail on a brand-new vessel called Titanic. Advised by relatives never to take the maiden voyage of any ship, however, he settled instead on Le Havre and arrived safely at Ellis Island while some 1,500 others perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

This startling revelation was unknown to Frank before she embarked on a journey of her own to trace her family's history. The result of her year-long effort is a "titanic" 80-page scrapbook that she made for her mother Lillian, the daughter of Alois Traxler. Within its pages are hundreds of photographs that Frank gathered from relatives all around the world, as well as decades-old postcards, many engraved with the elegant script of a culture long passed.

The scrapbook, made of acid-free paper, is embellished with elaborate, Victorian tea-rose borders and dainty lace doily mattes. As the book moves through different periods of her mother's life, the backgrounds change to reflect the big-band era of WWII, for example, or the psychedelic '60s. For Frank, who owns Made of Memories, a Sarasota store dedicated to the art of creating scrapbooks, the family album was the culmination of a lifetime spent honing the craft of making these books. But with its stylized layouts, computer-generated titles and coordinating borders, Frank's creation also shows how the modern scrapbook has come of age.

Once comprised (literally) of paper scraps and loose photographs, scrapbooks today are slick and sophisticated, adorned with everything from metallic thread to dried flowers. They are also big business. According to the Hobby Industry of America (HIA), scrapbooks generate nearly $400 million a year in sales. (Other estimates go as high as billions of dollars.)

Frank's store has been so successful that only a year after opening, it's expanding into the vacant space next door. Two years ago, when she began researching the possibility of opening a store here, there were only a handful throughout the country. Today, there are more than 400.

Most hobby magazines now have Web sites that direct hobbyists to scrapbooking stores in whatever part of the country they visit. That's how Kim, a young mother of two from West Virginia, found Made for Memories. "Everywhere I travel, I see where the scrapbook stores are," Kim says. She comes to Sarasota at least four times a year, and every visit includes a stop at Frank's store.

"Some people plan their entire vacations around scrapbooking," says Frank. Two hundred enthusiasts, including Sarasota's Jocelyn Stevens, recently attended a weekend scrapbooking convention in Orlando; Stevens says some people worked 24 hours straight on their books before breaking for a short nap and starting again.

Susan Brandt, a spokesperson for the HIA, confirms that scrapbooking and paper crafts have increased significantly over the past few years. Seven in 10 households now report that at least one member is engaged in a craft or hobby, and at least 20 percent of those are doing scrapbooking and other memory crafts.

In Sarasota, they're doing it at Made for Memories, where the last Friday of each month is "midnight madness." From 6 p.m. until 11 p.m., Frank and store manager Leslie Rudden oversee a cadre of men and women who come laden with cases bulging with memorabilia. Frank and Rudden provide snacks and dessert; their guests often bring bottles of wine. Only 20 seats are available each month, and the event always sells out.

For those who attend, it's an opportunity to look at other books and learn new techniques. But for many hobbyists, it's about more than just snipping construction paper. HIA demographics indicate that those who make scrapbooks tend to be high-income, well-educated women between the ages of 20 and 40 who have at least a part-time job and school-age children living at home. Many lament the loss of female bonding experiences and liken the scrapbook-making process to such traditional activities as their grandmothers' quilting bees, where every piece of material represented a family memory.

Stevens, who has spent nearly $2,000 on a scrapbook for her year-old son Andrew, says the experience is so powerful it's "an addiction." But, she figures, "I don't drink, smoke or do drugs. At least I can buy scrapbook materials."

There are a staggering number of materials to buy. Half a dozen scrapbooking magazines feature new products every month. Made for Memories stocks thousands of stickers and paper selections-plus 47 different types of scissors. There are even small plastic pouches designed to hold locks of hair, sand or fine buttons. Customers have access to a variety of die-cutters, paper slicers and a computer that generates graphics and specialized fonts.

But it's not just materials they're selling. Rudden tells the story of one woman who was making two keepsake albums for her 30-year-old sons. The woman wanted to include a photograph of her sons that their deceased father had kept folded in his wallet, but was frustrated with its frayed condition.

"Can you imagine?" asks Rudden. "To think any man would care enough about a picture of his sons that he would carry it his entire adult life!" She urged the woman to show the worn picture, cracks and all, with a note explaining how long their father had kept it near him. "We're dealing with real emotions, people's lives. We're selling hopes and dreams and memories," she says.

Stevens agrees, describing a scrapbook she made during summer camp in the sixth grade: "I saved all the letters my mother wrote." Her mother died shortly after that, and today those letters are the only things she has in her mother's written hand.

Although the modern scrapbook movement began in Utah, where genealogy is important to Mormon families, Frank and Rudden insist they aren't just for family history. "It crosses all age lines and all gender lines," says Frank. She's seen older men do books of their travels, Word War II veterans document their experience for their grandchildren and architects trace the origins of homes they've designed.

Scrapbooks serve other purposes, as well-including preserving important historical documents and information. For example, noted jazz critic, composer and producer Leonard Feather documented the history of jazz in a series of scrapbooks he kept from 1935 to 1994; after his death, his wife donated the scrapbooks to the Lionel

Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho. In eight other scrapbooks, Anne Fitzhugh Miller and her mother Elizabeth Smith Miller tracked the early suffrage movement in Geneva, New York. These extraordinary collections contain everything from handwritten notes for lectures on suffrage to ribbons, buttons and correspondence between politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

Brandt, who worries that "we're losing touch with our history," believes scrapbooks are becoming a new form of folk art that can be passed from generation to generation. Certainly many creators see their scrapbooks as a kind of art. When she was younger, Stevens dreamed of becoming a professional photographer. Today, her scrapbooks, with their intricate layouts and professional appearance, fulfil her desire to develop something of beauty, just as she developed pictures as a student. "It's creating with your hands-and your heart," she says.

While not every scrapbook would qualify as art, Kevin Dean, director of the Ringling School's Selby Gallery, agrees there's artistic value in the genre. Dean, who teaches a course in American culture, traces the scrapbook's heritage to "memory jugs" that held keepsakes for 19th-century Europeans, and believes that scrapbooks will show up in artists' work eventually, much as collage found its way into the work of Picasso and Braque. "Americans have always been a sentimental people," says Dean; and scrapbooks "reflect that sentimental quality."

They also provide a timeline. They introduce us to our parents when they were young; they remind us of the days when our footprint could fit on the side of a coffee mug. Just as textbooks tell the story of a culture, scrapbooks define individual families. A double-page spread in Stevens' book, for example, reveals the history behind her son's given names. Each relative that he was named after is pictured, but when Andrew is old enough to read them, brief biographies will tell him what those relatives accomplished and why it was important that he be their namesake. "I want him to know how much he was loved, how much I cared for every picture and every piece of information I saved for him, so he will pay attention in his life to his children and the joy they'll bring him," says Stevens."

"That's why scrapbooks mean so much to the people who give and receive them," says Brandt. "They have great sharing potential and provide more than just a picture with a date at the bottom. They put the important events in our lives into context."

Those who make scrapbooks should remember that's really why they started them, Rudden notes. "We get caught up in all the bells and whistles," she says. "It doesn't have to be perfect-it just has to be yours."

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