MANDY ROSS, AKA @PAPEROFTHEPAST, DECIDED TO TURN HER FEED INTO A NOSTALGIC DISPLAY OF SCRAPBOOKS, DIARIES AND LETTERS THAT BELONG TO THE PAST, DATED THE LATE 1800S TO THE EARLY 1900S. THE RESULT IS A CHARMING CONCOCTION OF TIMEWORN PAPERS, SKETCHES IN STILL VIVID COLOURS, CUTE TEASPOONS SAVED FOR DECADES AMONG THE PAGES, RECORDS, LOVE LETTERS, CLASS NOTES, FRAGMENTS OF UNKNOWN LIVES LIVED MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO, THAT, AS A TIME CAPSULE, REVEALS THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORICAL MEMORY AND MAKES US REFLECT ON HOW EVEN THE MOST TRIVIAL DETAILS OF OUR EXISTENCE COULD BE REDISCOVERED, REMEMBERED AND PASSED ON IN THE FUTURE. WE HAD A CHAT WITH MANDY, TO DISCOVER MORE OF HER FANTASTIC TREASURE TROVE OF ANCIENT SCRAPBOOKS AND THE STORIES THEY TELL.
Who’s hiding behind the Instagram profile @paperofthepast? Where are you from? What do you do when you’re not collecting scrapbooks?
My name is Mandy and I’m a college lecturer living in San Francisco. When I’m not looking at scrapbooks or teaching, I’m probably listening to podcasts, watching a true crime show, or exploring different parts of the city. My scrapbook activities include finding them, researching them, photographing them, writing about them, and posting on Instagram so it takes up a lot of time! I enjoy every minute.
Your passion is truly unique. Where do you find all these amazing treasures? What made you start collecting them?
I’ve always loved old paper and started out collecting vintage postcards with interesting messages. I found my first scrapbook at an antique shop about 8 years ago and loved it. Now, I spend 10 – 20 minutes per day searching for scrapbooks online and usually find 2 -4 great books per month. I go to paper fairs, estate sales, and antique shops whenever I can. I’ve found a few through Instagram as well.
How did the idea of creating the account come about? How did sharing your trove change the whole experience?
As a new teacher with no summer classes to teach I decided to start an Instagram account and website as a side project. Prior to teaching I worked in a high-travel consulting role and didn’t have much free time. I wanted to do something creative and show these books to more people. My first post was in June of 2016, only 8 months ago. Somehow, I hadn’t really used Instagram before and I figured no one would see the posts. Sharing changed my experience dramatically. It’s allowing me to interact with the content in a different way and connect with people who share similar interests. Before, I was collecting these stories and enjoying them on my own, now, my goal is to give these books another life with a larger audience. People send me photos of their own vintage scrapbooks and I love that.
What kind of scrapbooks are your absolute favourites?
My favorite scrapbooks tend to be from 1900 – 1920 and contain a lot of handwritten captions. I’m looking for the most detailed story possible and captions are key. Some books are beautiful and creative, but contain no details about the person behind it.
You’re focusing on really old material, starting from the late XIX century up to the early decades of 1900. What’s about this era that fascinates you?
Scrapbooking has a long and interesting history across multiple centuries. Each decade brought about different styles and practices in what people saved and how they constructed their books. In general, 1880s – 1920s books tend to have what I’m looking for with personalized content and handwritten notes (captions are less common in 1800s books).
You can see you’re really reading through these diaries and scrapbooks with curiosity and enthusiasm, wanting to get to know more about the stories they tell. In the captions you report notes, anecdotes, dedications and information about the owners. What’s that fascinates you the most about bringing these stories back to life?
Someone put a lot of effort into creating and saving their scrapbook. It makes me happy to bring back small memories that were meaningful to them and show their artistic style. Some are true works of art with collage, sketches, and writing. Many people have commented and said the books inspire their own art or scrapbooks. What a great, unexpected outcome. Now they are living on in other people’s work as well.
What’s the scrapbook with the most particular anecdote behind? You must have come across some really fun letters, notes and drawings. Which were the most striking to you and what’s the story behind them?
One of my favorite scrapbooks contains 43 letters sent from a woman in Luxembourg to an American man in the 1940s. Reading those letters was like sitting down with a good book. I got to know her, her family, and the city. She included twigs from her Christmas tree, a handmade handkerchief, and photos. Did she know he kept a scrapbook of her letters for all those years? It’s a beautiful story. I’m going to Europe this summer and will spend 2 days in Luxembourg City retracing her steps and hopefully finding members of her family. I’ve always wanted to plan travel based on a scrapbook and this is my first opportunity.
What’s the diary you’re the most attached to?
It’s very difficult to pick one. I’ve always loved Mary’s 1920s junior high scrapbook from Arkansas. She was 13 at the time and her strong personality and sarcasm jumps off each page. She made her scrapbook exactly how she wanted and didn’t conform to the usual style. Sarah’s 1880s scrapbook is unique in the fact that it’s from the 1800s and contains a lot of detail about her family, handwritten captions, and a little teacher’s note from 1854. A great combination of beautiful scraps and written history.
I’ve noticed in some occasions you’ve happened to get your hands on several diaries kept by the same person, documenting her life with a few years gap. I guess it becomes like reading a proper book. What’s the feel when it happens, do you start getting sort of attached to books’ owners and to the characters described in their notes?
I do get attached to some of the original book owners and feel sad after reading through their scrapbook. I do a lot of online research to learn more about them. I hope they’d be happy knowing their memories are positively impacting my life and probably others online.
Your account works like a time capsule. It makes us reflect on the traces of our existence we leave behind and how even the most trivial detail can stimulate someone else’s curiosity and get us being rediscovered, remembered. It’s kind of reassuring, in a way. Why do you think this memorial aspect is so important?
The memorial aspect reminds us how special the trivial details of life actually are. I don’t think many people made their book hoping it would pop up 100 years later, I think they were just enjoying daily life as they lived it. Also, the simple details are relatable and show us how much we all have in common. I also enjoy the randomness of it. Anna saved her ice cream spoon in a 1910 scrapbook, the book was saved over time, who knows where or how, who knows how many times the book changed hands, somehow it ends up for sale in a random city, and I buy it and post a photo on Instagram. I’d love to know the journeys these books have been on.
And what about you? Are you keeping track of your own life in some kind of way? How do you feel thinking that someone in the future might find traces of your life and collect them, get to know your story through them?
Strangely, I don’t make my own scrapbooks, but I hope someone finds my photos in 150 years and shares them with even more people. I’ve learned that our work can live on in strange ways.
What’s the future of Paper of the Past? I’ve seen there’s a website already, entering more in detail about the owners of the books and their lives, but do you have any other project in mind?
The website is a big work in progress. I’d like to start writing more and sharing detailed histories online. Other small projects would be the research trip to Luxembourg City, partnering with a San Francisco gallery and organizing a small exhibit, and interviewing people about their own vintage scrapbooks. Long term, I’d like to write a book.
Photos courtesy of press office