Scraps of History : Researching Scrapbooks at the Oregon Historical Society

Article excerpt

In "How To Keep Scraps," David Curtis distinguishes between scrapbooks kept for personal use and those created for profit and public reference. The former, he warns, should not be "out of your own keeping for a single hour, under any circumstances" as they have a "greater value to the col-lector than ... to any other per-son." Scrapbooks compiled and organized for a wider audience, however, are "almost invaluable" to "students, scientists, and literateurs," particularly if the compiler has "judgment displayed in selection," "skill in classification and indexing," and "perseverance and continuity of work."[1] Curtis's article, which was probably written in the 1890s, became a scrap itself and can now be found in the Oregon Historical Society's scrapbook collection. The collection proves the soundness of his prerequisites for a skilled compiler but suggests that over time the value of those records transcends the distinction between personal and public.

Containing material dating from the 1850s to 1980, the Oregon Historical Society collection consists of over 350 scrapbooks donated to the library at various times by the compilers, their heirs, or the associations whose events they document. Many are memory books kept as family albums, and they represent some of Oregon's most prominent citizens. Others were compiled by organizations, such as the Portland Hunt Club and the Oregon Pioneer Association, to chronicle their activities and development. Although the scraps are primarily newspaper clippings, the books also include theater programs, menus, letters, poems, handwritten reminiscences, and invoices. While all major Oregon news publications are represented in the clippings, one can also find material from more obscure nineteenth-century newspapers, such as the Baker City Morning Democrat, the Weekly Epigram, the Long Creek Blue Mountain Eagle, the Oregon Mining Journal, and the Union County Oregon Scout.

The scrapbooks record events ranging from private parties and wed-dings to military battles. Most document local concerns, such as crop improvements and streetcar fares, and regional activities, such as big ships traveling up the Columbia and new bridges spanning the Wil-lamette River. While many of the scrapbooks focus on particular topics -- Rose Festivals, Portland theater, woman suffrage, or the Chinese community's boycott of Japanese goods after the invasion of China, for example -- others are more miscellaneous or follow a theme that is no longer apparent. Articles about palmistry or methods for hatching chickens can appear alongside accounts of Frederick Douglass's 1885 visit to Harper's Ferry or the Oregon Statesmen's 1878 subscription list. Even the books organized around a specific subject often follow the whims of the compiler. Among the stories of chicken thieves, burglars, and murders in the volumes from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, for example, appear reports about the Dionne quintuplets and the 1936 World Series. In some cases, a later collector seems to have added material, appending obituaries of the original compiler or filling in empty pages with more recent, and often unrelated, news.

The task of indexing this eclectic collection was undertaken by the Federal Writers' Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, as one of several projects the WPA completed in Oregon from 1935 through 1940. The scrapbook subject index was part of the Historical Records Survey, a program dedicated to "the discovery, preservation and the making accessible of the basic materials for research in the history of our country." The Indexer's Guide, issued to help archivists classify the diverse materials they encountered, reflects in its suggested topics and topic headings the contemporary interest in social science. For the scrapbooks, the indexers used some of those recommendations, including "Social Activities," for example. They generally seem to have favored quantifiable categories, however, such as "Firsts in Oregon" and "Firsts in Washington," over other, more abstract possibilities, such as "Moral Conditions" and "Manners and Customs. …