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Writing and recording with scrapbooks

By Ellen Gruber Garvey


May 5 is National Scrapbooking Day. Like National Fig Newton Day or National Golf Month, its purpose is mainly commercial and it was unsurprisingly started by an album company. Scrapbook making is hugely popular and profitable. Stores that sell scrapbooking supplies use the day to sponsor scrapping gatherings or crops where scrapbookers (nearly all women) get together. They spread their projects out at tables with equipment for diecutting, embossing, and distressing paper (to make it look old). Tips about layout and technique are shared as they paste family pictures and memorabilia into their scrapbooks.

The men and women who compiled scrapbooks in the nineteenth century had a different idea of what a scrapbook looked like and what it was for. Abraham Lincoln, Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Jefferson, and Susan B. Anthony all made scrapbooks. Like the thousands of other nineteenth-century scrapbook makers, they created scrapbooks from their reading, mainly for their own and their contemporaries’ uses. Their records — without family photos — are intimate and revealing. These scrapbook makers saw their interests reflected in the newspaper. Worried about losing the poems, articles, and stories that spoke to them, they made scrapbooks of them — sometimes hundreds of volumes.

1878 Agricultural Reports repurposed as a scrapbook. Page toward the end shows underlying text. Source: Author’s collection.

For many, scrapbook making was a salvage art. They turned the trash of the newspaper into treasured volumes. Where did they get the volumes to work with? Not only did they remake newspaper clippings into books, but they remade old books into scrapbooks. As one scrapbook maker whose family was busy cutting and pasting papers in 1873 explained, they were not “using up good printed books” as her visitor accuses her of doing. Rather “there is nothing in them that we want, and so we propose putting in something, rather than have them stand idle…. Some of them are old school-books, not much worn, but out of date. Almost every library has some useless books.”

Cover of a thick volume of Senate Documents repurposed as a scrapbook. The date is obliterated. Source: Author’s collection.

The government helped supply nineteenth-century scrapbook makers with useless books. The hefty yearly volumes the Patent Office issued, including their agricultural reports, were especially popular with scrapbook makers. They neatly fit two columns per page and looked well on the bookshelf, one scrapbook advice giver explained. And since Congressmen (all men in those days) sent them out free to constituents, at least in part so their constituents would have that good-looking binding around as a reminder of the Congressman’s favor, why not refill the dull contents to one’s own uses? Thousands did.

Government reports and other thick volumes, such as outdated city directories — the forerunners of phone books — lent authority to clipping collections. An African American janitor in Philadelphia used such directories to paste up over a hundred massive volumes mainly concerning black life. His collection drew admiring comments from newspaper reporters who were pleased to see their own newspaper writing presented in such a dignified form.

Other scrapbook makers, like Susan B. Anthony, pasted the newspaper record of her career as a speaker and writer for suffrage into substantial used bookkeeping ledgers. She thanked the businessmen of Rochester for them. Still others repurposed such works as a book of Puritan sermons, implying a repudiation of its tenets by pasting over the sermons in the 1880s with cheerier stories endorsing a domestic religion of making home happy.

Embossed albums used as scrapbooks were often valued possessions. Girls with album, circa 1880s. Source: Author's collection.

Despite the abundance of free volumes to repurpose, some scrapbook makers bought specially made blank books, like the girls posing proudly with their album in the 1880s. Such albums were suited for display on the parlor table. Some scrapbook maker pasting over the Patent Office Report for 1873 might have paused, glue brush in hand, to learn of the self-pasting scrapbook that Samuel Clemens had invented and patented: Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrap-Book, with pre-glued papers that needed only to be moistened to have clippings affixed to them. He advertised it as a highly moral invention, that would forestall profanity when scrapbook makers could not find the gluepot, and it was available in many sizes, some suitable for cutting and pasting while traveling.

Label inside the Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap-Book gives instructions for use. Source: Author's collection.













Although these scrapbooks look very different from present-day productions and they served very different purposes, present-day scrapbookers decorating and elaborating their albums share the desire to save and preserve, to pull something out of the stream of time and create something for the future, even if that future was the next day. In their books, nineteenth century scrapbook makers wrote passionately about their interests, desires, disappointments, and anger. They wrote those books with scissors.

Ellen Gruber Garvey is Professor of English at the New Jersey City University. She is the author of Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance and The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s.

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5 Responses to “Writing and recording with scrapbooks”
  1. Liza says:

    Fascinating. Thank you. I knew that scrapbooks had been popular, but not how varied they were, or of the kinds of people who made them.

    Today we have the huge success of scrapbooking with workshops and classes and, of course, many accessories and supplies for sale. What are folks saving? My guess is that they are mostly interested in their own families. Not much more. I could be wrong, but they seem a bit narcissistic, although passed down through generations, narcissism becomes history.

    And now we have Pinterest, which also has as many uses as there are pinners to create them.

  2. Julie Freestone says:

    Very interesting and timely and photos are a wonderful bonus!

  3. Really is fascinating. My niece and great niece (or is it grand niece) are, in their words, avid scrappers. I wish Samuel Clemens was around to invent a way to lessen my use of the f word while on the computer.

  4. Mary says:

    My great aunt was an avid scrapbooker and she also repurposed old books very much like this. One of my favorite lines is “rather than have them stand idle”…Pleased to see that the boring tomes got a new lease on life!

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