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Old Picture ScrapbooksAuthor: Claire T. McClellan
( Article orginally published December 1963 )
YOU are taking a risk if, at some auction or antiques show or shop, you buy an ornate old album filled with colored pictures and cards for you are almost sure to want anotherand another! They are intriguing, these scrapbooks of the last three decades of the nineteenth century when their making was a favorite and fashionable activity for both children and young ladies all over America in town and country alike.
In a day when we find ourselves nearly inundated with colored advertising and photographic material, it is difficult to realize the value put upon colored pictures by our ancestors. Lithography is, after all, a nineteenth century invention, and it was not until about 1850, when steam began to replace manual labor at the presses, that colored or chromo-litho graphs became really plentiful.
In 1876, the editor of Peterson's Magazine boasts that his periodical not only has a hand-colored engraving as a fashion plate, but also contains an embroidery pattern "lithographed in several colors." He offers a print as a premium for new subscribers; and in the same issue, a seed company advertises its yearly catalogue at 25¢, stating that it contains two colored plates!
At school or church, good scholars were given decorated "Reward of Merit" cards for learning their Friday "piece" or Bible verse. Merchants distributed fancy cards to favored customers at Christmas and Easter, beaux brought Valentines, and ladies and gentlemen carried decorated calling cards.
After the Civil War, many American lithographing firms kept busy supplying manufacturers with pictures to advertise their products, and for politicians, purveyors of patent medicine, railroad and steamship companies, and theatrical troupes to use for their purposes. Calendars, cigar box liners, and can labels blossomed in color.
It was inevitable that albums should appear to house the collections being made. Some of the more ornate came from Europe and were rather expensive, like the one illustrated, with its original price-mark of $1.75-no small sum in its day.
From England and Germany came sheets of brightly printed embossed cut-outs for further embellishing the album pages, and some of these are really lovely. Almost everything is depicted-children, birds, flowers, animals, butterflies, fancy letters, Santas, actresses, angels, hands-the list is nearly endless.
It would appear that there was a wealth of material for the scrapbook paster, and so there was, but it was not so easy to obtain as it might seem. The cards were rather too costly to be handed out indiscriminately; packaged products were not too common; and one did not earn a "Reward of Merit" card every day. The cut-outs were sold by the stationer in cities, and by the druggist or general merchant in smaller towns, and pennies had to be saved for their purchase. To make a better showing, the scrapbook maker cut calendars to size, pasted in cigar box liners with bosomy ladies and their cavaliers, and used seed catalogues lavishly. The results of these efforts are sometimes artistic, often amusing, but always delightful.
Collectors of trade cards, Valentines and the like have dissected many of these old scrapbooks. It seems a pity, for they are quite appealing left as their owners made them-with cards extolling corsets and cathartics, thread and theaters, soap and steamships, interspersed with children's heads, birds' nests, roses, and St. Bernard dogs.