A scrapbook by Mark Twain

Before the invention of moveable type, books were among the rarest and most valuable possessions created by man. But lo and behold, Gutenberg created the printing press and mass production began.

As the price of paper dropped in the 15th century, it became available to a wider segment of society. Rather than having to commit everything to memory, students began to compile their notes, tables and research in what were called commonplace books. This less structured format of note taking was used by authors and scientists like Francis Bacon, and later by writers like Mark Twain. This practice of 'commonplacing' was even taught formally at colleges like Oxford until the early 20th century.

People also began to use commonplacing as a way of documenting major family events, or as souvenirs of European tours. At the end of the event, their commonplace books might contain letters, newspaper articles, poems, postcards and all manner of ephemera that related to their subject of interest.

The late 19th century brought the advent of photography, and eventually the mass production of inexpensive personal cameras. Suddenly anyone could document anything they wished, both visually and textually - and with that, the scrapbook was born. Today’s students use more formal methods of note taking, but the practice of commonplacing or scrapbooking has never been more popular.

One of the most famous scrapbookers in history was Mark Twain. He was a lifelong devotee to the craft, dedicating his Sunday afternoons to scrapbooking. In 1872 he even patented his self-pasting scrapbook idea, where thin strips of glue were printed on the pages to make updates neat and easy.

An amazing scrapbooking example is the Diary and Scrapbook of an Infantryman in Europe which was penned by Private James Allan, who served with the 8th Battalion Black Watch in WWI. Within the scrapbook he describes the action on the front lines, and records the awful events with factual, affecting prose. He records several close shaves for himself and that his tribulations did not finish with the armistice as he was posted to Germany and suffered many privations there. He talks of the Battel of Metern:

"Explosion in trench 50 yds off gets wind up the section, another trench in front 20yds off goes up, section for evacuating trench, one against proposal. German snipers deadly. Trench good target for snipers. Three stragglers arrive. Take shelter in the wheat sheaves 5 yds in front of trench. One shot through the head. Another in the knee, third man rushes for the trench and falls dead head first into trench".

And at 1:30 pm the same day:

"A proposal to make tea, no objections. Men like Belgians advancing on the left, about 200 strong. Wind up in trench, everyman for himself. Tea boiling and upset, trench empty. Germans open fire on fugitives. Crawl through the wire. "ping" "ping". Near things for the stragglers. Battlefield toll, hundreds lying dead, machine gun team all dead around gun, shells still bursting around vicinity. German post reached, narrow escape large piece of shrapnel misses head by inches".

If you are interested in learning the techniques used in scrapbooking, or more about the history and origins of the craft, here are a few books we recommend.

Scrapbooking Your Family History by Laura Best

Scrapbooking Your Family History

Laura Best

Combining genealogy and scrapbooking to record your own family history

1,000 Artist Journal Pages: Personal Pages and Inspirations by Dawn DeVries Sokol

1,000 Artist Journal Pages

Dawn DeVries Sokol

The Scrapbook in American Life by Susan Tucker

The Scrapbook in American Life

Susan Tucker

This book explores the myriad ways 19th and 20th-century Americans scrapbooked, turning photographs, magazine ads, love notes and recipes into albums that fashioned identities and preserved memories.

Scrapbook Page Maps: Sketches for Creative Layouts

Scrapbook Page Maps: Sketches for Creative Layouts

John Woodforde

Ideas for scrapbook layouts

Laura Childs writes a scrapbook mystery series about Carmela Bertrand, a scrapbook shop owner in New Orleans starting from Keepsake Crimes, to her sixth book in the series, Death Swatch.

How to Have a Healthy Head of Hair by Russell J Sneddon

Keepsake Crimes

Glam by Richard Allen

Death Swatch

Old scrapbooks from generations gone by can become quite collectable; they show how past generations lived and what interests and hobbies they enjoyed. If the book was created by someone of great historical significance or celebrity, the book will obviously be worth much more, but even accounts of ordinary people are of extraordinary interest.

Top 10 most expensive Scrapbooks sold on AbeBooks:

1. Commonplace book of Cresswell, Gurney and Fry - £1,360
The title on the spine is simply "Cresswell", the married name of one of Elizabeth Fry's daughters who presumably accumulated this family commonplace book. Includes a family history including obituaries, marriages, and other newspaper cuttings from family members such as Joseph John Gurney, Thomas Fowell Buxton, etc.

2. A Repository for Original Anecdotes - £284
A charming commonplace book, filled with collected witticisms, anecdotes, epigrams, acrostics, snippets of news, jokes, and a few illustrations. The author and compiler seems to have lived in Devon, and there are items of local interest. The book, written in a precise hand, betrays the whimsical character of its owner. A typical entry reads: "A barrister by the name of Best, went to the Bedford absizers;-- he was generally known by the appellation of Second Best." A fine example of early 19th-century British humour.

3. A Manx Scrapbook by W. Walter Gill - £281
Scrapbook of William Walter Gill, the poet, folklorist and scholar from the Isle of Man which was eventually published, first Edition. The scrapbook contained well names and well lore, coast names of Rushen, old roads and road lore, place names and place lore.

4. Victorian Scrapbook - £227
Scrapbook in original state including over 400 embossed chromo scraps of all sort and sizes: animals, children, birds, cats, Royal Mail coach, Nelson, George I, Santa Claus, tiger shoot, "natives", etc. Including numerous Christmas and Greetings cards, chromo prints (from books?), etc. Plus 3 pages of pasted-down children's verses (excised from newspapers).

5. A Hockey Scrap Book 1901-1904 - £215
200 pages of pasted in cuttings and photographs from "The Ladies Field, "The Hockey Field" and other periodicals and newspapers. Also included are letters from the Hockey Association in Teddington, other similar letters.

6. Architects Scrapbook - £184
A fine collection of high-quality 1870s plates, mostly British, but with a few foreign ones. Architects include Alfred Waterhouse, George Gilbert Scott, Arthur Baker, E Welby Pugin, E W Godwin.

7. Architects Scrapbook - £159
Very interesting scrapbook of superior Victorian residencies with beautiful engraved plates. Architects include Norman Shaw, Ernest Newton, W Burges, W. Sugden, et al.

8. Dessins Ferroviaires Echelle "O" ou "HO" by Various - £150
Drawings of Railways to scale O and OH; a French scrapbook including documents taken from the Museum Di Rodo Uzes. The whole series (73 parts, 1100 pages) comprises drawings and scale drawings of locomotives including Engines, trucks, carriages, details of engines, bogies, tenders etc.

9. Account of a journey to Nineteenth-Century Russia by “John” - £148
A book accounting a man’s journey from Hull to St. Petersburg via Copenhagen and Koenigsburg. Includes many humourous anecdotes about the journey including the guesthouses he stays in, the border crossings, and the condition of Russian carts ('drawn by a most miserable specimen of horseflesh') and his eventual arrival in Russia.

10. Scrapbook containing illustrated clippings of Sport - £142
Well-illustrated album compiled chiefly from the New York Clipper, circa 1880-1886, with hundreds of reports of professional and amateur sporting events in New York, throughout the U.S., and around the world, including athletics, cycling, sprints, Indian club swinging, walking races, roller skating, hare and hounds, "The Champion Tug-of-War Team", wrestling, firemen's games, etc.