About Scrapbooks

One Scrapbook, Two Voices: Finding Women in Wartime Artifacts

By Sarah Glassford

Bringing together fragments of daily life into a book, album, or box is an activity hundreds of years old. From the commonplace books of the fifteenth century to today’s social media, humans have demonstrated a persistent impulse to capture and curate elements of their lives and the world in which they live them. The Calder family’s scrapbook featured in this digital exhibit is part of this long and diverse tradition.

Scrapbooks can do many things; organizing information, preserving words and images, and/or telling stories are only the most obvious and common. Scholar Ellen Gruber Garvey describes scrapbooking as “writing with scissors,” while curator Martha Langford describes photo albums as “suspended conversations.” The proprietors of Scrapbooking.com call the craft “a legacy for future generations” and emphasize the elements of “beautiful, meaningful, handmade self-expression” inherent in it. Creation and curation are the common elements. In other words, there is nothing haphazard about what ends up in a scrapbook: items are selected for inclusion and presented in a specific fashion in relation to other selected and presented items. Every scrapbook has a maker.  

Storytelling, memory-keeping, and the creation of scrapbooks are activities enjoyed by a wide variety of people regardless of gender. Historically, however, scrapbooking (as an activity) and family or community memory-keeping (as a broader concept) have often, and especially, been the province of women. This is important to remember when we are dealing with the history of events traditionally gendered male, such as warfare. Rather than bemoan the absence of women from museums, archives, and history books and assume it is difficult (if not impossible) to know their experiences, we can embrace what historians and museum curators Stacey Barker, Krista Cooke, and Molly McCullough call “turning collections on their heads.”

In the context of their work for the Canadian War Museum, Barker, Cooke, and McCullough describe this practice as “looking closely at objects and documents … originally acquired and catalogued in relation to men’s stories” to discover “buried connections to women’s wartime experiences.” Women may not be the subject matter of an artifact, photograph, or document, but theirs may be the hand that received it, created it, preserved it, captioned it, and/or donated it to a museum or archives.

In this digital exhibit, we turn on its head what could easily be read solely as a “Jack Calder scrapbook” – and in so doing, we find that it is equally an “Agnes Calder scrapbook.” The Calder family’s scrapbook is, on the one hand, a means of organizing information and preserving mementoes relating to the life, military service, and death, of Jack Calder. As an object, it is a repository of memory, full of evidence about who Jack was and what he did. But it is also a deliberate act of storytelling and memory-keeping on the part of Jack’s mother Agnes.

The scrapbook therefore speaks with two voices. The louder of the two speaks a mother’s loving testimony (through newspaper clippings, telegrams, and other ephemera) of the all-too-short life and military service of her son. But if we stop to listen, another, quieter voice hints at Agnes’s own emotional journey through the war years, in step with her son’s experiences and proximity to danger. Her pride, anxiety, fear, grief, and enduring love whisper to us from every page, if we stop to listen.

 Patricia Calder’s creative writing in this exhibit amplifies that whispering second voice, giving us the opportunity to imagine what Agnes’s war years, and her emotional state when creating the scrapbook, might have been. By pausing to consider the woman who created this Calder family heirloom, in addition to the man who is its subject, we may glimpse one of many ways in which the home front and battle fronts of Canada’s Second World War were intimately and integrally entwined.


Sources & Further Reading:

Barker, Stacey, Krista Cook, and Molly McCullough. Material Traces of War: Stories of Canadian Women and Conflict, 1914-1945. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History and University of Ottawa Press, 2021.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hess, Jillian M. How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information: Commonplace Books, Scrapbooks, and Albums. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Langford, Martha. Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

“The Fascinating History of Scrapbooking.” www.scrapbooking.com.  Accessed 26 May 2023.