QUESTION: Sometime ago I purchased a box of colorful decorative holiday cutouts and imprints. Many of the designs feature St. Nicholas and have a definite British Victorian look to them. What were these called and what were they used for?
ANSWER: Believe it or not, the cutouts you purchased are known as scraps. While the word “scraps” has now come to mean parts that are left over, such as scraps of wood, fabric, and paper, back in the 19th century it meant something quite different.
The Victorians loved decoration—the more the better. They also were very romantic and loved sentimentality and keepsakes. This led to a phenomenon popularly known as scraps.
Also called die cuts or chromos, scraps were small, colorful, embossed paper images that were sold in sheets by stationers and booksellers and used in various decorative, entertainment, and educational applications. Their diverse subject matter included flowers, trees, fruits, birds, animals, pets, ladies and gents, children, historical people and events, angels, transportation themes, and occupational motifs.
People pasted them into albums and used them to make greeting cards and decorated boxes. They also pasted them on folding screens and pieces of furniture. Scraps served as extra learning materials to teach young children the alphabet, counting, natural history, and geography, as well as teaching tools for learning prayers and Bible stories and in the enjoyment of nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
The first scraps originated in German bakers' shops as decoration for biscuits and cakes and for fastening on wrapped sweets. The earliest ones were printed in uncut sheets in black and white, then hand colored. Scraps appeared in Britain in the 1850s and soon became popular as decorative additions to Christmas cards. They were also used to illustrate historical as well as events of the time.
By the mid-1800's, chromolithography had been invented. This made a wide variety of colored scraps available to an ever-increasing market. But chromolithography required a lengthy process. Each color had to be applied separately and needed to dry before the next color could be applied. However, the process made up to 20 printed colors possible. Printers made Victorian and Edwardian scraps in sheets that contained small chromolithographs designed to be cut out in the same manner as the first penny postage stamps. After printing and before embossing, they coated the sheets with a gelatin and gum layer that resulted in a glossy appearance and helped the paper stretch without cracking the print. Steel cutters, powered by foot treadles, punched out excess paper and left clean, sharp edges. Thin paper sheets, imprinted with manufacturers’ trademarks and called "ladders," held the cut sheets together.
The elaborate use of stamping can often be seen in uncut scrap sheets. Optimum use of space, required minimal cutting and lead to the intricate and ingenious design of the cutting die.
Early in the 20th century, young ladies and children of the middle and upper classes began keeping scrapbooks that contained collections of commercially produced scraps. They organized them thematically with a single subject for the entire book or with several themes arranged by section. Sometimes, they added lines of poetry, personal notations, inscriptions by family and friends, and drawings.
Stationery stores sold scrapbooks with tooled leather covers, elaborately embossed bindings, engraved clasps, and brass locks. Some scrapbooks contained printed decorations on their pages, as well as centered oval, circular or square sections into which people could paste items. Other albums held printed pages with theme-setting embossed decoration-like flowers or birds. Many scraps keepers made their own albums by pasting scraps over catalog and magazine pages.
Scraps production continued through the 1920's, but changes in popular taste, the effects of World War I, and the economic limitations of the Great Depression all contributed to their decline. Over time, newspaper and magazine pictures supplanted scraps as the "cutouts" of choice.
Today, sheets of uncut Victorian scraps and single scraps of good design, color, and condition are prized by ephemera collectors. Die cuts by celebrated manufacturers like Raphael Tuck and Sons, which produced a series of scraps to commemorate Queen Victoria's 50th jubilee in 1887, are especially prized by collectors. Values vary from $5 for common scraps up to $50 for unusual and sought-after images.