News Column

Scrapbooks: The Facebook of the 1800s

Oct. 30, 2012

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

Scrapbooking

Before Pinterest, before Facebook and before blogs, there was scrapbooking. Not the scrapbooking as sport that some domestic fanatics take on, with store-bought accoutrements. Scrapbooking with scraps of newspapers. In the 19th century, newspapers were cheap, abundant and disposable -- and considered valuable, Ellen Gruber Garvey said during a talk about strategic scrapbooking Monday in the Rare Book Room of Rubenstein Library at Duke University.

Some people made scrapbooks with much enthusiasm, filling hundreds with newspaper clippings. What they chose to cut and paste, and how they repackaged that information, remade it, Garvey explained. An English professor at the New Jersey City University, she is the author of "Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance," just published by Oxford University Press.

Scrapbooking in the 19th century was a democratic practice, Garvey said, and people of all classes kept them. "It required very little money," she said, and most people pasted clippings into repurposed ledgers or agricultural reports. Mark Twain, however, did invent a self-pasting scrapbook. Some people kept scrapbooks of themselves in the news, like Abraham Lincoln, public speakers and actors. For others, like those who saved newspapers from 9/11 or the election of President Barack Obama, it was about "living through momentous times and keeping a record of it."

Scrapbooks aren't always appreciated by libraries, Garvey said, and they're hard to preserve. They're like the ancestors to Internet bookmarks, she said. But in "Writing with Scissors," she includes information from two scrapbooks in the libraries of Duke University and UNC. Duke has a scrapbook by the Solomons family of Savannah, Ga., which was made during the Civil War from 1861-63 in a used ledger from the family business. Clippings from the same battle are pasted again and again of a Confederate victory. The types of clippings chosen show the attitude of the person making it.

"She chooses. She doesn't take everything she sees," Garvey said. "It's her life, circulated and filtered through her ideas, through the newspaper."

White newspapers of the time assumed its readers were white as well, and shared views on lynchings, black voter oppression and the like, even after the war. Frederick Douglass first found the meaning of "abolitionist" in a pro-slavery newspaper, she said. Black scrapbooking was a way of speaking back to scrapbooks like Solomons'.

"They write with scissors," Garvey said. Black scrapbooks were used to analyze media with juxtaposition, as written commentary and as black history, she said. North Carolinian Charles Hunter, an African-American teacher, writer and principal in the 1800s, used his scrapbook to compare newspaper clippings of similar criminal accusations, with the black people punished and white people freed. The clippings were pasted near each other. Using the language of juxtaposition is the basic grammar of scrapbooks, Garvey said.

William Dorsey, an African-American historian in Philadelphia, made 400 scrapbooks. Once, called "Colored Centenarians," was full of clippings of African-Americans who lived more than 100 years.

"Dorsey created a black history out of the hostile white press," Garvey said.

Women's rights activists also recorded the suffrage movement's history, with clippings of their own involvements. In homes, scrapbooks bridged public and domestic life, Garvey said.

Compared to the present day, scrapbooking was very much like reading and saving at the same time, like Facebook, she said. "In many respects, it was similar to LexisNexis -- a way of sorting material."

"Writing with Scissors" is available for Kindle.



Source: (c)2012 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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