Scrapbooks: A proliferation of meaning

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This chapter will explore how historians can ‘read’ scrapbooks, a form of primary source that represents a fusion of cuttings, images, and annotations that may have been deeply personal to its creator, while also offering glimpses into the circulation of ideas at professional, local, and national levels. Our case study will be the scrapbooks created by Detective Frederick Porter Wensley, Head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard, whose career began as a ‘bobby on the beat’ in East London during the 1880s until his retirement as a celebrated sleuth of international renown in 1929. Held at the Bishopsgate Institute Archives, these scrapbooks offer fascinating insights into Wensley’s consciousness of his own emerging celebrity, manifested through charting his presence in press cuttings over time and carefully collating these in his scrapbooks to form a ‘narrative.’ We will explore the ways in which he juxtaposed these texts with photographs and other ephemera from his professional and personal life to navigate experience and representation, eventually distilling facets of these textual interactions into his published autobiography Detective Days (1931). But just how far can we access Wensley’s private thoughts from this kind of source, constituted primarily of others’ writings? And to what extent are we in danger of ‘overlaying’ a particular interpretation onto the proximity of different texts that may have simply been pasted alongside one another haphazardly, or for reasons of space? The chapter will deploy concepts like Judith Walkowitz’s assertion of newspaper editorial choices creating a ‘proliferation of meaning’ on the page, as well as comparative analyses between international studies of scrapbooks produced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to explore the different ways we can ‘read’ these texts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationApproaching Historical Sources in their Contexts
Subtitle of host publication Space, Time and Performance
EditorsSarah Barber, Corinna Peniston-Bird
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781351106573
Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2020


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