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The “Real” Story of Everyday Life

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In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explored creation by chronicling how Victor Frankenstein developed new life out of disparate, “remixed” body parts. Off the page, she created an intellectual life and career for herself — and helped to establish the new literary genre of science fiction. Other women who lived in England in the early 19th century were less independent than Shelley, but many expressed their creativity in other ways. NYPL’s Pforzheimer Collection houses a number of unusual and intriguing women’s “scrapbooks” that offer another perspective. In the two we focus on here, the primary artists along with their family and friends assembled separate pieces to form a cohesive whole. Beautifully handmade and touchingly personal, these albums serve as invaluable examples of an earlier era of remix.

The Library’s scrapbooks were created by Anne Wagner and Julia Conyers, who had connections to the literary and social circles surrounding the Shelleys and Lord Byron. For women who didn’t have careers or lives that offered independence from their husbands and families, the opportunity to shape one’s own narrative was alluring. Just as many political and journalistic writings present the public world of men in the 18th and 19th centuries, women’s letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and artwork tell an equally vivid account: the “real” story of their everyday life.

What we think of as a scrapbook today, a bound book or album filled with mementos and photographs that document an individual’s or family’s history, first became popular during the 1800s. An extension of the commonplace book, the scrapbook evolved during the second half of the 19th century following the development of commercial printing and advent of photography. NYPL’s albums can be considered precursors to this scrapbooking tradition.

One of NYPL’s librarians has a special interest in handmade things. Jessica Pigza, assistant curator of the Rare Book Division, educates her colleagues and patrons about all kinds of crafts and the Library’s rich resources. She hosts a regular Handmade Crafternoon event and writes an NYPL blog called “Hand-Made.” Captivated by the Wagner and Conyers scrapbooks, she delved into them and shares her observations in the following pages.