Ribbons, clothespins, and paper ephemera, along with a small bunny figurine, grace this 1880s page

Vintage Scrapbooks Offer Fascinating Windows into Student Life

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By Joe Wilensky

The pages are delicate—most more than a century old—and must be turned with care, as they’re apt to crumble at the edges. But the more than 1,000 Cornell scrapbooks housed in the University Archives in Kroch Library, dating mainly from the 1880s through the 1920s, remain a vibrant chronicle of student life in an earlier age.

Between the covers of volumes with titles like “My College Days” and “My Memory Book” is a wide variety of ephemera, including black-and-white photos of friends and campus scenes, filled-in dance cards (complete with attached mini pencils), and countless programs from banquets and promenades—their embossed lettering and colorful tassels serving as remnants of a far more formal era.

An ad for a Cornell Navy regatta, and a preserved spoon and ribbon, from an 1889 scrapbook
Memorabilia from 1889.

“The scrapbooks provide some of our best representations of a slice of student life,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14. “They can vary dramatically in the type of content the student deemed worthy of preservation—from commercial mementos to deeply personal letters and reminiscences of poignant moments of college life.”

The scrapbooks’ pages seem at once carefully curated and delightfully arbitrary. Newspaper clippings and telegrams share spreads with registrar receipts, paper napkins, holiday decorations, ticket stubs to football games and regattas, train tickets and timetables, menus from fancy affairs, invitations to Greek “smokers” and military hops, and much more.

The scrapbooks provide some of our best representations of a slice of student life.

University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14

But in addition to mementos of a bygone age, there are items that resonate with modern-day Cornellians, including images of familiar campus buildings and quads, academic documentation (like notices of registration deadlines, lists of assignments, and final exams), and memorabilia of Big Red traditions still observed today.

“I was surprised at the shared Cornell experience across time,” says Maggie Berthold Fearn ’03, a former textiles and apparel design major in Human Ecology who delved into the scrapbook collection for a course on University history. “It was hard to believe that students who had lived long ago had experiences that I could relate to.”

The scrapbooks made their way to the Archives through various routes. Some were given or bequeathed by alumni or their families, while others have been donated as parts of larger troves—like the more than 200 items, including scrapbooks and other Big Red ephemera, collected by retired staffer and history buff Mike Whalen ’69. (They now comprise the Library’s Whalen Collection of Cornelliana.)

A few have been digitized and can be browsed online, including one compiled by Victor Daly 1919, a World War I veteran who was among the few Black students on the Hill at the time.

One early scrapbook includes a mourning badge worn by an honor guard during funeral exercises for University founder Ezra Cornell, who passed away in December 1874. Another, from 1918, has a newspaper clipping noting the death of A.D. White—pasted next to an admission ticket to a YWCA party at Risley, a receipt from a United War Work Fund Campaign, and a dance card from a masquerade ball.

A page of scrapbook photos from Victor Daly, Class of 1919 and a World War I veteran
From the scrapbook of Victor Daly 1919.

Most ephemera fit neatly on the page, but some scrapbooks include 3D items—like pressed flowers, pins and buttons, even a spoon and a section of a bullhorn—that bulge inside the volumes.

While the oldest scrapbooks are not really journals (typically, few things are labeled, and photos are captioned cryptically, if at all), they offer fascinating glimpses into undergrad life.

They preserve details that might otherwise be lost to history—such as the unique “class yell” each Cornell undergrad cohort boasted more than a century ago. (For example: “Rickity, Rackity, Rickity, Roar, Cornell, I Yell, Nineteen Four!”—as in 1904.)

More than one student saved copies of a small bound menu from College Town Sweets, also known as Pop’s; its offerings included sundaes, seasonal drinks (hot beef bouillon cost 15 cents), and milkshakes.

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A University Library “admission to alcoves” pass from 1886 notes that it entitled the bearer “to consult the shelves in the department specified, and such shelves only,” and that “it is absolutely required that books must be returned to their proper places.”

Carol Kammen, who is stepping down in March 2023 after a quarter-century as Tompkins County’s historian, is a retired senior lecturer who taught history on the Hill for more than two decades; among her longstanding courses was a writing seminar on the history of Cornell. 

As part of the class, students (including Fearn) perused the vintage scrapbooks; they also created their own—affixing meaningful ephemera and writing entries that put the memorabilia in context.

Maggie Berthold Fearn ’03 created her own watercolor illustrations to accompany journal entries for her scrapbook, created for a Cornell history course
Fearn created watercolor illustrations to accompany journal entries in her scrapbook.

From the 1990s through the 2000s, Kammen’s students added more than 400 scrapbooks to the University’s collection, chronicling classes, sports, social life, and more; some have subsequently been used in a class exploring student perspectives of 9/11.

“Old scrapbooks are wonderful reminders of other days, with mementos from dances, parties, photographs, and calling cards, among other things,” Kammen observes. “But often those old books didn’t tell us if the student had a good time at the dance—or who were the people in the pictures.”

Despite a lack of context, some of the vintage scrapbooks offer revelatory snippets of everyday student life. A small handwritten notice tucked into an 1885 scrapbook, for example, chronicles a minor drama:

Eloped! A medium sized umbrella with a yellow celluloid handle. Any one returning the same to the Business Office will be rewarded by the gratitude of Anxious Friends!”

Were umbrella and owner reunited? Sadly, the scrapbook doesn’t say.

Top: A scrapbook from the 1880s. All images courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Published March 21, 2023


  1. Lynne Mehalick, Class of 1975

    So happy to know my accumulation of memorabilia may be of historical interest. I have been thinking recently that it’s time to part with the debris of my life, but do not want to just throw it out.

  2. Margaret C. Caldwell-Ott (Peg), Class of 1979

    I left my Grandfather’s scrapbook from his years on the hill (Cornell 1906-1910) at the Alumni House many years ago. I hope that it somehow found its way into the collections!! His name was Wallace Everett Caldwell. I have my own Cornell Scrapbooks (1975-1979) and will gladly leave them for future reference–along with many other Caldwells at Cornell items!

  3. Dottie Free, Class of 1953

    Is the class of 1953 ‘s Scrap Book in the collection?

  4. Lucrezia Herman, Class of 1976

    In addition to scrapbooks, there are other objects that need to be conserved, probably sitting in the attics of sorority and fraternity houses. I was a summer subletter in Acacia in 75/76/77, and they had some extremely large guest books going back to at least the 1920s with many exquisite illustrations created by frat members with real artistic talent. I regret that I didn’t take photos of my favorite pages when I had the chance.

  5. Laurel Meredith, Class of 1993

    Will be donating my great grandfather’s Isadore J (IJ) Elkind’s scrapbook from his time at Cornell as an engineering student, class of 1913. I recently discovered that I lived for a short time in the same off campus house he did on College Ave. It is such a treasure trove — he saved everything and clearly cherished his time on campus.

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