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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, by Ellen Gruber Garvey

In my previous blog I mentioned a brief history of scrapbooks, and several books on the
subject. Writing With Scissors is probably the most scholarly of these, focusing as it does on some of the most historically significant albums and collections.  

Hooked on the subject by the discovery of a farm woman’s scrapbook of clipped articles dedicated to the environment of the home that she discovered in a used book store, Garvey went on to explore the world of scrapbooks housed in libraries, archives, and historical societies. Scrapbooks are often extremely personal, miniature archives of daily life not meant for public consumption. “Every scrapbook is its own world,” she writes, “compelling and impossibly frustrating.” She quotes from James Tate’s poem “Horseshoe” to describe the experience of puzzling over these volumes, 

          I can’t read the small print in the scrapbook:
          does this say, Relinquishing all bats, feeling faint
          on the balcony? There is so much to be corrected here,
          so many scribbles and grumbles, blind premonitions.
          How does one interpret, on this late branch, the unexpected? 

Not only is some of the written material in a scrapbook difficult to decipher, so too is the intent, substance, history, and sometimes the identity of the record-keeper. These old albums do not much resemble the attempted artistry of today’s modern memorabilia scrapbooks. They were often kept in old ledgers, printed books of minimal interest (agricultural reports, books of sermons, catalogs) or home-made constructions, or, as the early fad progressed, in manufactured “scrap albums” with highly decorated covers, pages designated for records of baby development, school progress, etc. (Often the designations were ignored for more personal record-keeping.)

It is difficult to understand today just what the introduction of inexpensive color reproduction meant to our Victorian ancestors. There was an explosion of printing when color lithography produced prints, book illustrations, trade cards, calling cards, postcards, greeting cards, and other brightly-colored graphics. Until then, color work was done primarily by hand, painted in watercolor by professional artisans and therefore expensive. Needless to say, there was a frenzy of scrapbook-keeping of these items, sometimes represented by real artistry in the arrangement of colorful ephemera.

There was a similar response when newspapers became plentiful and inexpensive in the mid-19th century. Historically important records were pasted into scrapbooks, material that might not otherwise have survived the prejudices and politics of its day.

Scrapbooks kept during the Civil War represent both sides of the political issues and battles. Those kept by Abolitionists describe many of the conflicts and struggles on a personal level. Not only factual clippings, but letters, photographs, poems, short stories, engravings, and other memorabilia filled these volumes. Side by side, these records present a much fuller picture of this painful era in American History.

Garvey examines the histories preserved in African American Scrapbooks from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. She notes that these scrapbooks create an alternative to the historical records kept by white society that might otherwise have been neglected and lost. These scrapbooks, she says, witness the participation and contributions of African-Americans in the development of the United States; present a record of race pride with printed articles about struggles and achievements of black role models;  compile the evidence of oppression and mistreatment of African-Americans, often using the bigoted and biased white press as a “hostile witness” against itself; and finally, the scrapbooks helped define and support black communities by keeping their history, since they were often blocked from access to libraries and newspaper files.

These were not piddly incidental volumes. A Philadelphia janitor compiled over 100 huge pasted tomes starting in the 1850s. William H. Dorsey made nearly 400 scrapbooks between the 1870s and 1903, and created a museum in his home that also included books, prints, and other artwork that depicted black history. And there were other significant collections.  

Women’s activism in the early 20th century was another area that received biased press coverage, if any. Women who spoke and wrote publically about sensitive reforms such as Suffrage were often ridiculed, described as unwomanly, and otherwise derided. They were forced to develop public personalities that were more acceptably “feminine,” through means such as knitting in public when attending lectures and events . 

Garvey addresses each of these subjects in Writing With Scissors in depth, also analyzing the importance of the records to future historians. Although scholarly in format and subject, her enthusiasm creates a lively and enjoyable text that is both informative and satisfying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just saw this smart and coherent article on scrapbook history, and writeup of Writing with Scissors. That's an astute connection between the sudden abundance of colorful lithographed printing and the popularity of scrapbooks in the 1880s and the abundance of cheap newspapers and newspaper scrapbooks. Looking forward to more posts!