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Scrapbook Nation

Christopher Benfey
Everyone seems to have kept scrapbooks during the nineteenth century. Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers.
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A scrapbook advertisement from The New York Herald, December 11, 1876

After the Newtown school massacre, Joe Nocera published a column in The New York Times composed entirely of quotations from out-of-the-way sources like (“Relatives of a teen who was shot while playing basketball at a local park…”) and the CBS Boston website (about a man who shot his four-year-old Australian terrier, Lena). Titled “And in Last Week’s Gun News…,” Nocera’s verbal collage shows what can be done in a hurry with our cut-and-paste features online, where the argument—not a single word in the piece was Nocera’s own—resides entirely in selection and artful juxtaposition.

I had been making my pleasurable way through Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance when Nocera’s eloquent snippets appeared. Garvey argues that scrapbooks—which everyone seems to have kept during the nineteenth century—“are the direct ancestors of our digital information management.” Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers. During the Civil War, one Northern scrapbooker was “struck by the vast amount of information, on all points and of every grade of quality, which flowed in a continuous stream” from the telegraph-aided daily papers. “Stacks of newspapers were unwieldy and obsolete,” Garvey writes. “The modern household kept scrapbooks.”

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Columbia University Libraries

A page about Frederick Douglass from the scrapbooks of L. S. Alexander Gumby

Garvey is principally interested in politically motivated scrapbooks. She shows how abolitionists like the Grimké sisters, Quakers active in Philadelphia during the 1840s, worked in a manner that resembles Nocera’s column, scissoring Southern newspaper ads “rendered in the neutral language of commerce” that promised rewards for the return of runaway slaves. The Grimkés collected examples of what was intended to be a convenient method of identifying fugitives, and repackaged them as evidence of the mistreatment of slaves by their masters. Working with Theodore Weld (Angelina Grimké’s husband) they sorted their clippings into categories like “brandings, maimings, gun-shot wounds” and “mutilation of teeth,” and drew on them for their influential book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.

During the Civil War, Northern and Southern compilers of scrapbooks composed highly selective histories. Southerners combed the news for Confederate victories and sentimental accounts of happy darkies dreading the Northern invaders. The portrayal of black people changed overnight with the Emancipation Proclamation; liberated, they appeared in one popular poem as “brutal fiends, whose reeking knives / Would spare nor sex, nor youth, nor age.”

Northern newspapers interspersed grim reportage of Shiloh and Chancellorsville with sappy poems that lamented boys killed in battle. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, a sophisticated Bostonian scrapbook compiler who had lost a son in the war, was stunned at war’s end by the sentimental crap that he had assiduously clipped and pasted in the heat of emotion. “It is true the poetry is often very poor, maybe absurd,” he reflected. “I had almost said ridiculous, but one cannot ridicule a great woe.”

Garvey notes that Whitman and Dickinson “were not poets that Civil War scrapbook makers sought with their scissors.” True enough, and yet both poets extended what might be called the scrapbook culture of the nineteenth century in new and surprising aesthetic directions. A newspaperman by trade, Whitman wrote capacious poems that Emerson characterized as a hybrid of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. Like a reporter assigned to the Metro desk, Whitman proclaimed:

This is the city… and I am one of the citizens;
Whatever interests the rest interests me… politics, churches, newspapers, schools
Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, steamships…

Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life, including his years as a volunteer nurse in Union hospitals. While conceding that “the real war will never get into the books,” in Specimen Days Whitman tried to get at what he called the “interior history” of the war. Unlike more conventional scrapbookers with their impersonal digests of clippings from the distant battlefront, Whitman (who famously boasted, “I am large. I contain multitudes”) wrote himself into the proceedings. Sitting at the bedside of a young Irish boy, asleep, with a bullet hole through his lung, Whitman wrote that the boy

suddenly, without the least start, awaken’d, open’d his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn’d back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover’d near.

A hyperactive cutter and paster, Emily Dickinson also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work, shifting—like Whitman, or perhaps like ambitious Facebook compilers today—from consumer to producer. Late in life, she wrote dazzling fragments of verse and prose on discarded envelopes, chocolate wrappers, and stray bits clipped from magazines and newspapers. These scraps functioned as something more than convenient notepads, encouraging spur-of-the-moment poetic spontaneity and the creative challenge of fitting stray thoughts to odd shapes of paper.


She wrote poems about birds on the twin wings of envelopes and poems about houses across the roof-like flap. (These fascinating creations were recently published in limited-edition facsimile as The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems, with a list price of $3,500.) At times, she seems to be venturing into some new concept of poetry as visual art, as when she enigmatically deploys a serpentine poem about encountering a spider in an outhouse or a prison (“Alone and in a Circumstance / Reluctant to be told / A spider on my reticence / Assiduously crawled”) around a passage clipped from a review of George Sand and a postage stamp with an image of a train.

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Emily Dickinson Collection/Amherst College

One can see in such forays a foretaste of what Joseph Cornell (a huge Dickinson fan) did with scissored detritus from magazines repurposed for aesthetic ends, some dazzling examples of which—along with many Max Ernst works that inspired them—are currently on display at an exhibition devoted to Surrealist drawing at the Morgan Library. Here, we have crossed the bridge from merely culling information from newspapers to making clippings the very basis of art. The show is a reminder that many artists have “drawn with scissors,” and that Photoshop, in our own image-drunk culture, gives new meaning to Max Ernst’s remark that “It is not the glue that makes the collage.”

Among the most intriguing pages in Writing with Scissors are those in which political and aesthetic motivations intersect, as in the flamboyant scrapbooks of the gay African-American art collector L. S. Alexander Gumby (1885-1961). Stamped on their spines with gilded titles like “The Negro in Bondage,” Gumby’s scrapbooks were outfitted with black frames for the clippings and special pockets for additional material, and sometimes included his homoerotic bookplate of “three scantily clad men sporting with a book.”

Garvey includes a terrific page from Gumby’s bondage series, in which a black-framed ad for a runaway slave named Marcus, identified as “one of the House Servants at Mount Vernon,” is the centerpiece, with a warning that Marcus might try to pass as one of the slaves that Martha Washington planned to emancipate. The ad is surrounded by a newspaper clipping about Washington’s slaves (“The champion of freedom on the battlefield was the champion of slavery on the plantation”) and a tourist postcard of Mt. Vernon. In the absence of explicit commentary from Gumby, viewers are invited to draw their own interpretation of these ironic juxtapositions.

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Los Angeles Times

Mark Twain using his scrapbook, April 2, 1893

Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores, and, incidentally, its more recent origins in the genealogy-affirmative Mormon community. “For members of the Church,” as a Mormon website puts it, “creating memory books seemed to come naturally.”

Twain, as befitted his pen name, was ambivalent about scrapbooks. In Huckleberry Finn, he lambasted the necrophilic scrapbook of the amateur poet Emmeline Grangerford, filled with “obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering” along with her own morbid contributions—including, in one of Twain’s most inspired satirical creations, stanzas like this:

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

And yet, Twain’s loose and baggy non-fiction books Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad were assembled from his own carefully maintained travel scrapbooks, and retain some of the pleasingly serendipitous and fragmented feel of life on the road. “Anyone may compose a scrapbook, and offer it to the public with nothing like Mark Twain’s good-fortune,” as his friend William Dean Howells wryly observed. “Everything seems to depend upon the nature of the scraps, after all.”


Ellen Gruber Harvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance is published by Oxford University Press.

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