The following article originally appeared in Smithsonian Magazine (February, 1992). It has been reproduced here with permission of the author, John Fleischman.
The labyrinthine world of the Scrapbook King
An obsessive packrat and gifted inventor, Theodore AshmeadLangstroth II was his name and collecting was his favorite game
Even happy families have secrets that run with no statute of limitations. Twenty years after my mother died, I discovered she had kept a scrapbook. It was delivered to me inside an old chest of drawers left by my father, who survived her by 18 years. The drawers were stuffed with memories and junk: his legal papers, his beloved mandolin sheet music, his college yearbooks and, in among some old photographs, a battered, yellowing composition notebook—a scrapbook kept by my mother for a short time in 1934. I was shocked.
My mother was a thrower-outer—the scourge of packed closets, the emptier of overfilled drawers. I was a bringer-backer. We once clashed over my cherished tennis shoes, which she mistakenly took to the garbage simply because I was stuffing cardboard in the soles to plug the holes. I had to rescue them twice.
Ours was a fundamental clash in human nature, surely as old as the species itself. Some of our hominid ancestors were gatherers who also picked up bright pebbles; others were hunters of clutter who demanded: “Can’t we get rid of some of this stuff?” From those who amassed, we have museums, libraries, attics that groan. From the winnowers, we have public sanitation, rarity (if everything were saved, nothing would be rare) and a way to the front door.
How, then, to explain my mother’s scrapbook? Quotations. Pictures. A mildly rude cartoon about a fat lady speaking on the telephone. It seemed inexplicable: it wasn’t personal, the pithy sayings weren’t familiar, the cartoon wasn’t that funny. Of all the ways to pile up the nonessential, surely such a scrapbook is the worst. Collecting is a different matter. If you seek to possess a fine example of every U.S. airmail stamp, you have a chance at achieving totality. By definition, though, a scrapbook is nothing but pieces, scraps of something—the paper equivalent of worn-out sneakers.
Enter the Scrapbook King, Theodore Ashmead Langstroth II, to put it all in perspective. He was long gone before I made his acquaintance, yet I think he would have enjoyed our first meeting, at which I was looking for one thing and came away looking for something else. If there was one guiding principle in his life it was this: you never know what you’ll find.
We met at the downtown Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. I was trying to pin down details of a local painter and showman named John Rettig (1858-1932). The library yielded up a few standard sources, along with a catalog card describing a six-volume “scrapbook” compiled by one T. A. Langstroth. “What’s this?” I asked. “Oh, that’s a Langstroth,” answered the librarian. “What’s a Langstroth?” “Here’s your number,” he said, stuffing my call slip into a pneumatic tube to the stacks.
The first of the scrapbooks was bound in green imitation leather, the cover studded with enameled metal bosses. Picked-out in stick-on letters of colored foil, the title page proclaimed: “The Colorful World of John Rettig.” I turned the page and fell down the rabbit hole, landing not in Wonderland, but in the Colorful World of T. A. Langstroth, scrapbooker extraordinaire.
Pieces of lost Cincinnati-—and Paris
Langstroth’s scrapbooks were not merely books about Rettig and the German city-within-a-city where Rettig grew up; they were actual pieces of that lost Cincinnati. Beyond clippings, Langstroth pasted onto his pages original letters, rare photographs, artifacts. There were tickets printed in German for masked balls at long-razed Turner Halle (Acrobat’s Hall); campaign ribbons for Millard Fillmore and James G. Elaine; stone lithographs (a city specialty); costume sketches and programs from Rettig’s outdoor epics, complete with foldout panoramas of the sets, blocking scripts, a stagehand’s cue sheet and a canvas section cut from a backdrop; an inventory of Rettig’s own press-clipping scrapbooks; his original watercolors and his penciled memoir of a 1903 visit to the Paris studio of sculptor Auguste Rodin. “He [Rodin] asked me to take the only chair unoccupied,” Rettig wrote. “I said I could not be seated in the presence of the Master when he said, ’Oh, sit down.’ He was standing, leaning on the outstretched hand of Victor Hugo’s nude.”
All this came with Langstroth’s commentary, annotations and, sometimes, carefully typed whimsical asides. The ultimate scrap was an oil portrait of Rettig himself, painted on a 5-by-9-inch wood panel by Edward Potthast, an art school chum who had left Ohio for wider fame. Today, as examples of American Impressionism, Potthast’s East Coast seaside scenes fetch substantial sums. One bright day, Rettig and Potthast painted each other. The painting of Potthast is lost, but there at his portable easel sits Rettig. Potthast “framed” the panel with a painted gold border. Langstroth mounted it on tinfoil before pasting it down. “Do you know what you’ve got here?” I asked the librarian. “Langstroth? Oh, we’ve got dozens by him,” came the reply. “Show me,” I said.
So I tackled the card catalog, looking for a White Rabbit named Langstroth. He had nearly a drawerful to himself—I counted some 120 scrapbooks (he also donated rare books and uncatalogued oddities). His range was bewildering: the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry; chewing-tobacco labels; sheet music covers; the Great Blondin, who walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls; World War I flying aces and the war poet Joyce Kilmer; Christmas and Memorial Day cards; turn-of-the-century opera and theater stars, in the “People Who Pleased Our Parents” category; Japanese prints; 1830s needlework samplers; paper made from tobacco stalks; railroads and Ohio River steamboats; steel bond engravings; calendars and trade cards; ceramics painters and church painters; a circus evangelist; early amusement parks; blackface minstrel troupes; Civil War “rebellion” envelopes.
Langstroth also collected other people’s scrapbooks, which he then refurbished. One was compiled by a friend of the 1920s female impersonator Julian Eltinge, whose real name was William Dalton. Page after page of publicity shots, all inscribed “For Pal Bill,” document the “Feminine Characterizations”— Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra, a Red Cross nurse, a bride, a flapper. Bill also kept the promotional fliers (“Coming to your city this season! The Handsomest Woman on the Stage is a Man—Julian Eltinge!”); an obituary describing a stage-door fistfight in which Eltinge acquitted himself manfully after hoodlums “ribbed him about being a swish”; and a clipping dated December 21, 1949: “Of the straight female impersonators, there is no doubt that for makeup, class and box office draw, Julian Eltinge was the tops.”
In the library’s Rare Book Room, I spoke with Curator Alfred Kleine-Kreutzmann. Of Langstroth he said, “I know only three things: he was some sort of chemist; he was a packrat; and I wish he hadn’t used paste.” Eventually I came up with a few facts. “Ted” Langstroth had come to Cincinnati in 1950 as an ink chemist for a local company (thus the scrapbooks on printing). A tireless collector of ceramics, artwork and rare books, he piled his horde in a series of apartments around town until his retirement in 1975, when he bought a derelict Methodist church downriver near the Indiana town of Vevay. There he spread out. A reporter who visited him in 1977 described a glittering, chaotic treasure house—paintings, pots, boxes of photographs, heaps of old books, stained-glass panels, eccentric furnishings. But beyond that, the mystery persisted. The library was sure he had died in 1978 or ’79—no one was certain. Research was launched. They would get back to me.
I also needed a better background on scrapbooking. What was its history? For some answers I turned to the world of collectors. I called Terry and Ralph Rovel, who follow the world of collectibles for their publications and TV show (SMITHSONIAN, November 1980). Scrapbooks are a funny area, Terry Kovel told me. She has seen all kinds: ledgerlike books that 19th-century businesses used in place of file cabinets, with every bill and canceled check pasted in place; postcard and paper-doll scrapbooks; “personality” or “event” books on single topics, such as the Dionne quintuplets or the crash of the Hindenburg. “And then there are people like myself,” she said. “When I got married I started a scrapbook of stuff about my family, stuff that is of interest only to me. And, I might add, I am ten years behind in mine.”
The narrowest category is also the most avidly collected, according to Kovel. “Scrap” was a 19th-century trade term for what collectors call die-cut printed paper ephemera. The man to talk to was John Grossman, in Sausalito, California. A graphic designer and antique-paper specialist, he is the author of A Victorian Scrapbook, which showcases part of his 100,000-piece collection. Commercial scrap dates from the early 1800s, he explained, when printers sold sheets of small woodblock and steel engravings that were meant to be cut apart, hand colored and pasted into blank books. The concept goes back at least to the 18th century, when European women of means filled leather-bound, hand-tooled “albums” with copied verse, original watercolors and small prints. “Printing was so expensive in earlier periods,” Grossman said, “there wasn’t a lot to paste down unless you took apart a book. And most people couldn’t afford books. Paper itself was expensive.”
Scrapbooking became democratic in the 1860s, when chromolithography, die cutting and embossing unleashed a flood of cheap, brightly colored scrap. Some scrap was given away to promote soap and cigars; some, “real scrap” was sold directly for scrap-booking, which became a mania among women and girls. “It’s hard to realize, now that we’re surrounded by colorful printing,” said Grossman, “but in the early 1800s everything was still black-and-white. When these cheap, highly colored scraps came along, the public just couldn’t get enough of them.” Today, complete Victorian scrapbooks and pieces soaked out of them by dealers are the heart of a lucrative collectors’ trade.
But Langstroth himself remained elusive. While my search for his obituary widened to Vevay, I pressed on in the library, where he was rolled out by the cartload. The early volumes, assembled in the 1960s, are done with relatively crude paper, but over time he refined his materials. Some of the “scrapbooks” are actually boxes of bundled sheets. Some books contain only a dozen or so items. A single card file entry yields a 13-volume work on 19th-century lithography.
After the Civil War, an explosion of color
He collected heavily from Cincinnati’s once flourishing color-lithography industry. Just after the Civil War, the city had 14 big chromo and litho houses that churned out calendars, cigar-box lids, sheet music, greeting cards, postcards, circus posters. He also foraged for early color work from New York, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Amsterdam and a half-dozen German cities.
Ten—or was it 20?—books into the pile, I began to see a method behind all this minutiae. Langstroth was not a scholar in the conventional sense; he had specialties but followed no narrow interest. Instead, he seemed to collect whatever there was to collect, reminding me of the father of British history, the monk Nennius, who prefaced his chronicle by declaring, “I have heaped together all that I found.” Langstroth had been a heapmaker of epic proportions, but he sorted all he had found into smaller piles and labeled them. Once he had a good-sized heap, he made it into a scrapbook and presented it to the library.
The books’ titles were only moderately helpful, their contents always unpredictable. The cigar-box labels, for example, provided a propagandistic history of the Spanish-American War. Admiral Dewey, White Fleet and San Juan Hill were all cigar brands. Cigar art also offered a window into the male sexual fantasies of the age. Freud may have said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but after looking at dozens of labels featuring voluptuous, cigar-smoking women I began to wonder.
The mystery finally unraveled in the Cincinnati library files, which contained the date of Langstroth’s death, and in the Vevay public library, where an obituary provided the details. He had died of heart failure in Vevay on August 29, 1978; there were two sons in California. That night I spoke with Robert W. Langstroth, the younger son. His father, he said, had been a colorful if physically distant parent. Robert’s parents divorced when he was still a boy, and he and his brother, Theodore III, grew up in New Jersey, seeing their father infrequently. They visited him in Cincinnati and Vevay, but only Theodore III lived with him for any time in Cincinnati. The facts of his father’s life could be gathered up, he said, but he urged caution. His father was a spinner of tales, some of which entered family lore but would probably be hard to pin down (e.g., the story that he invented the stripe in Stripe toothpaste—a claim that proved impossible to trace). Robert said his father was a workaholic, a relentless traveler, a gifted inventor—he held many patents on printing inks—and that he enjoyed his company but was reminded of that old cartoon character Major Hoople, someone larger than life and somewhat fabulous.
Calls to Theodore III and to an uncle yielded up a biography of sorts. Ted was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1910, the middle son of three. His father traded in wholesale lumber and pilings in New York City. The Langstroths and the Ashmeads (his mother’s people) were old Germantown, Pennsylvania, families with offshoots into the Philadelphia Drexels. A great-uncle was Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, the “Bee Man of Oxford, Ohio,” inventor of the first commercial beehive frame
The greatest influence on young Ted came from his bachelor uncles, James and Charles Langstroth. Lawyers, they practiced for a year in Philadelphia, then homesteaded a ranch outside of Silver City, New Mexico, on the edge of the Gila Wilderness. In this unlikely setting, they assembled one of the finest collections of Dickensiana and English literary first editions of their day. Eleven-year-old Ted visited in summer 1921 and came back bitten by the collector’s bug. “Whistler’s letters were everywhere,” he recalled in his scrapbook on the trip, “and in a bread box on a table in the kitchen, there were twenty Dickens letters.”
The same year, Ted’s father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved to be near him in a Pasadena, California, sanatorium. Ted graduated from high school and went to Pasadena Junior College. When his father died, the family returned to New Jersey. That was apparently the end of Ted’s formal education. Everything after was self-taught.
Langstroth worked as a dye chemist in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania (his sons remember the day their dad accidentally turned the local river bright red from bank to bank—you make mistakes, he told them, and then you move on) and in New York, before his marriage broke up. He moved to Cincinnati soon after, and except for a stint setting up a dye factory in Mexico, lived in the area the rest of his life. Business took him regularly to Europe and Japan. Why Cincinnati took so strong a hold on his imagination is a mystery to his children. Everything about the place seemed to interest him. He was fascinated by Lafcadio Hearn, the writer who found his vocation in sensational reportage in Cincinnati before shoving off for eventual fame as the first Western interpreter of Japan (see Book reviews, August 1991). But he was equally enthralled by the local career of Doris Day, nee von Kappelhoff. That scrapbook, however, has disappeared.
A network of tipsters to call in new leads
Both sons remember accompanying their father on prowls for material. He dragged them to auctions, junk shops, bookstores, attics—to everywhere that held out the promise of an overlooked trunk, an undistinguished box of books, an old scrapbook he might recycle. He had a network of tipsters—fellow collectors and local historians who were always calling with leads. To his older son, his apartments were scenes of total disorder that only he could decipher. How he managed to move it all to Vevay is another mystery. Theodore III, who visited at the time of the transfer, left without realizing that his father was, in fact, moving.
Langstroth looked everywhere for material, but he was also lucky in his timing. He arrived in Cincinnati just as urban renewal and Interstate highway construction were destroying the oldest parts of downtown. The wrecker’s ball was driving any number of dusty boxes, locked suitcases and abandoned trunks into his eager hands. From a Cincinnati camera club came one of his great prizes, a wooden box holding glass negatives from the 1870s. They turned out to be informal portraits of the Longworth family, one of the city’s prominent clans. Pictured in gingham shirt and ragged trousers at about age 8 was Nicholas Longworth III, future Speaker of the House of Representatives and husband of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, she of the sharp tongue.
The Scrapbook King collected bits of lost time. He unearthed the papers of Freeman Grant Gary, an early Cincinnati educator remembered, if at all, as the man who taught the three Rs to future President Benjamin Harrison. In Gary’s scrapbook the treasures are his schoolboy handwriting exercises. On September 5, 1820, he was set a list of moralistic maxims to copy out. In letters two inches high, the maxims march down the page: “Youth is full of hope,” “Scandal is hateful” and Langstroth’s favorite, “Ruin awaits the idle.” To look at that confident, if slightly shaky, handwriting is to see 10-year-old Freeman Gary at his desk, tongue between his teeth, carefully tracing out the words.
Langstroth made up his own rules of scrapbooking. One “volume” has a lump of coal wired into it (actually it’s a box devoted to W. H. Perkins, the inventor of coal tar dyes). Another is a blue-velvet jeweler’s case; inside are two stones collected, on a trip to Japan, in Lafcadio Hearn’s garden at Matsue. On the lid, Langstroth put the appropriate Hearn quotation: “Until you feel, and keenly feel, that stones have characters, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.”
What can a scrapbook reveal about its compiler? From Langstroth’s I constructed my own picture of his methods and motives. He was an obsessive packrat who came to the scrapbook format gradually. The lithographic material lent itself to albums; I think he started giving the books to the library partially to make room at home. But I don’t think he ever saw the books as storage containers. They were singular creations in their own right, statements as much about the mind of Ted Langstroth as about John Rettig or coal tar dyes. They served another function, too: they recalled the joys of the hunt. It was the finding, not the possessing, that thrilled him, and the books were the mounted trophies of his safari through the gatherer’s life.
You never know what you’ll find. After a hundred or so Langstroth scrapbooks, I found myself reconsidering my mother’s short-lived effort. In 1934, she cut out wise sayings by Edna Ferber, Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln, among others. There was a poem by Rupert Brooke, a sonnet by Shakespeare, a scene from a play by Oscar Wilde, and one long theological passage she hand-copied from a book by Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer. My mother being so long gone, I have no way of discovering why these clippings seemed worth preserving when she was 22, or why she abandoned the effort but saved the scrapbook. I did know that by 1934 she was living away from home and working in a Manhattan dental office as a hygienist, a good job in hard times. I think she was finding her own way, in literature, politics, the world; the scraps were part of that process. Looking back after marriage, after children, after jobs as a union organizer and a fighter-plane riveter, maybe she saw something else in that slim compilation. Better than any photograph or letter, perhaps the scrapbook recalled the time of coming into herself. She could never part with that. You keep a scrapbook to remember.