Paste and the Past: Scrapbooks as a Source for Understanding Campus Culture
Here at CAP, we find artifacts of the past that are generally not meant to have been found (e.g. items from trash pits or ruined buildings or privies). In contrast, the scrapbooks curated by MSU Archives contain elements that students found so important that they preserved them in personal record books. The college used to give scrapbooks to students and while most of these did not end up in the University Archives collection, quite a few did. Flipping through these scrapbooks gives current students a glimpse into student life 100+ years ago and I must say the old adage is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same!
For my gendered landscapes project, I spent a lot of time looking through scrapbooks made by female students. While doing my search, I noticed some patterns. Grades were rarely, if ever, recorded. Instead, there are dance cards, photographs, drawings, sorority and literary club information, flyers for events, postcards from travels, and clippings from newspapers. When I went through the male scrapbooks last year, I found the same patterns (though, to be honest, much more emphasis on sports photos!). Initially, I started reviewing the scrapbooks to fill out some gaps in my gendered landscapes paper. I wanted to get a sense of how the female students might have experienced restrictions in movement around the campus, but what I started to realize was I had to do a lot of reading between the lines. Instead of looking for injustices or exclusionary actions, I started to focus on what the students focused on: what was important enough to record? Who is being photographed and why? Where do students like to hang out? Why is there little focus on any negative experience? Why are particular themes from newspaper clippings highlighted? What else was going on culturally, historically, and socially at the time of each scrapbook?
My biggest surprise was not in the female scrapbooks, but in the ones created by male students. I admit that I was expecting to see a lot of emphasis on sports and fraternities, and those themes were indeed very present. However, what I have found in scrapbooks made by both sexes was a seeming ability to find importance in courses that we might today label “female” or in courses that we might assume were filled with male students. Photos of women, (presumably enrolled in the Home Economics course of study offered to female students beginning in 1896) working in chemistry and biology laboratories were commonplace. Male students proudly scrapbooked their attempts at sewing and domestic arts, so we can assume that these courses were open and welcoming to men. The classroom, then, was not a site of restriction by sex.
It might not seem like a distinction worth discussing now since integrated classrooms have been part of a long campus tradition, but in the early years (precisely the ones we are interested in archaeologically) this integration cannot be assumed. It is especially useful for CAP to review these scrapbooks as we study the material culture of the past so that we do not overstate restrictions or underestimate the early campus experience. From these scrapbooks, we do see continued exclusions based on sex (try to find a woman in one of the sporting event pictures – it’s like trying to find Waldo!) but not to the extent that we might think. The scrapbooks, while fun to go through, also teach us a valuable lesson in using all data sources to best approximate the reality of the past.
The University Archives occasionally posts about the scrapbooks – visit their site and search for the tag “scrapbooks”: https://msuarchives.wordpress.
Author: Amy Michael