Scrapbook kept by Frederick Nixon-Nirdlinger, Philadelphia, PA 1909. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library.
Today, scrapbooking enthusiasts across the United States celebrate National Scrapbooking Day, heralding the meteoric rise of a pastime which has, over the course of the past decade, become the nation's fastest-growing hobby.
But what of the countless numbers of scrapbooks produced in the years preceding this booming trend? Herewith, an excerpt from my next book, which traces the history of scrapbooking in America during the first half of the Twentieth Century — a period that witnessed, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic, the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the advent of two World Wars. In spite (or more likely, as a result of) such hardships, people everywhere kept scrapbooks, filled to overflowing with things that mattered to them, fragments of visual evidence rescued from everyday life. Their stories, told through collage, montage, annotation — and even, as in the case of the scrapbook featured here, omission — reveal a remarkable snapshot of life in America at the dawn of the modern age.
The scrapbook kept by Frederick Nixon-Nirdlinger, a theater manager from Philadelphia, chronicles a grand tour in 1909 that took him from western Europe to Egypt and Greece. Most of these travels were by train, and the wagon-lit menus and itineraries are all featured chronologically, punctuated by the requisite telegrams and ticket stubs that collectively mark his journey — a journey he made accompanied by his wife, whose presence in this album is negligible. (This omission may well have been a likely foreshadowing of what would prove to be the imminent collapse of their eighteen-year marriage.) There are advertisements for Moorish lace, elaborate steel-engraved letterheads, and an unusual little receipt from the purchase of a helmet in Gibraltar. The graphic variety here provides an apt metaphor for what must have been an embarrassment of riches; yet at the same time, there’s something oddly incomplete about this book. The lack of personal details (handwriting, captions, personal observations of any kind) testifies to what was perhaps equally commonplace at the time: that is, the degree to which a beautiful scrapbook, if only made of scraps, ultimately rendered one’s extravagant experience devoid of any overt emotional vitality.
Nixon-Nirdlinger’s travel scrapbook perfectly captures this paradox: at once a relic of turn-of-the-century material grandeur, it is also a symbol of the emotional repression of the age and its upper class. (One might even speculate that it was a symbol of one man’s emotional paralysis.) Bizarrely, the tide would soon turn for poor Frederick, for whom there was a much more turbulent personal destiny in store.
Following his grand tour, the couple divorced, and Frederick married Miss St. Louis of 1923 — the young Charlotte Nash, some twenty years his junior — who bore him two children and murdered him, less than a decade later, in their home on the French Riviera. In a highly-sensationalized trial, a French court and a jury of seven bachelors later acquitted the beautiful widow, whose lawyers maintained she’d acted in self-defense: indeed, scars on Charlotte’s neck revealed that her husband had tried to strangle her. In retrospect, the fact that the deceased was a Jew during a period of growing anti-Semitism in France may have had a considerable impact upon the verdict. Nevertheless, poor Frederick had the last laugh: in his will, he bequeathed his nearly one -million-dollar fortune to his two young children, leaving his widow virtually penniless.
That spring, the American press shared reports of the newly emancipated murderer: “Aboard the steamship Roma, Mrs. Charlotte Nash Nixon-Nirdlinger returned to the U.S. from Nice, where a court had justified her killing her wealthy, elderly husband,” reported Time Magazine in June, 1931. “Said she: ‘Sometimes I’m sorry that I am beautiful, considering all the trouble I’ve had over it.’ During the interview Baby Charlotte screamed and Son Fred, 4, beat Grandmother Nash on the head with a paper horn.”
Scrapbooks like these remind us that creating an album from saved matter does not necessarily provide an accurate self-portrait. In the end, Frederick’s is an essentially decorative volume, and while the wealth of ephemera helps to amplify and dramatize the thrill of his exotic voyage, there is little here to reveal much of his own internal journey. Charting that course would prove to be a rather different task, and one to which the scrapbook would, over time, become ideally suited.
From Scrapbooks: An American History. Forthcoming from Yale University Press, October, 2008.