How much media do you see in a single day?
God knows there’s more than ever being produced. In the next 24 hours, for example, the New York Times will write more than 700 stories, the Huffington Post will post 1,200, Forbes and BuzzFeed will generate 300 to 400 and Slate another 60. Of course, this is just the smallest sip from the fire hose. Throw in, say, YouTube, and you’ve got 144,000 hours of new video to watch every day.
How do we sift through this onslaught of news and information? Largely by using social media. People now routinely cull through their favorite sites for photographs and bits of news, then post them online. Collectively, we’ve pinned more than 30 billion items on Pinterest, shared a staggering 400 billion photos on Facebook and tweeted more than 300 billion times so far.
Cutting, pasting, collating: This feels like a new behavior, a desperate attempt to cope with a radical case of information overload. But it’s actually a quite venerable urge. Indeed, back in the 19th century we had a similarly intense media barrage, and we used a very similar technology to handle it: the scrapbook.
“Scrapbooking was the blogging of that period,” says Ellen Gruber Garvey, an English professor at New Jersey City University, and author of Writing With Scissors, an erudite history of scrapbooks. “It has all these parallels to what we do today.”
We don’t often think of the 19th century as a frazzled period, but it had its own explosion of media. When the one-cent newspaper debuted in 1833, daily print suddenly became a mass phenomenon—and in barely a few decades, large cities like New York hosted up to dozens of daily newspapers. Meanwhile, this crazy new technology called “photography” emerged, producing its own blizzard of curious new forms—such as cartes de visite, pictorial calling cards.
And we panicked. Much as with today’s web, people complained there was too much to read. “We have so many old newspapers that we cannot afford house-room for them all,” as one woman fretted in 1873. Worse, this new flow of news and journals seemed unsettlingly transitory—news that vanished the day after it arrived. “The magazine, in a generation that must run as it reads, takes the place of the book,” as a columnist wrote in Harper’s New Monthly.
“There was tremendous anxiety about how much people were reading this fleeting material,” Garvey adds.
The solution to overload? For tens of thousands of Americans, it was the scrapbook. It let them take this ephemeral media, find the best parts, and give them permanence—and gravitas—by pasting them into a book.
It was a new gloss on an old habit. Avid readers for centuries had kept “commonplace” books, in which they copied out quotes to reread. But with scrapbooks, you didn’t copy things out. You literally snipped the material out itself, capturing its pretty typography and page design. Our modern habit of “cut and paste” was born.
For many, scrapbooks became a proto-Wikipedia—a way to retain information that might be useful or interesting later on. They were used in all walks of life. The schoolteacher Frances A. Smith hoped to marry a farmer and move west, so to prepare a pile of knowledge, around 1870 she began clipping and pasting everything a farm wife might want—ranging from remedies for children’s scaly rashes to details about cows and lightning rods. A 1920s homemaker, Mary Shultz, created a database of stains and how to remove them, by saving actual scraps of besmirched cloth next to recipes for cleaning that specific glop.
Meanwhile, newshounds cataloged their obsessions, one of which was death. A Midwesterner morbidly collected a scrapbook of obituaries, including articles with delightfully gothic titles like “Hid Their Victims in a Ditch” and “Two Weeks With a Corpse: A Senile Mother Alone in a Farm House With Her Daughter’s Remains.”
Scrapbookers were also aesthetes. Enchanted by the sumptuous graphic design on display in this new world of daily publications, they clipped and saved color prints and advertisements. The mid-to-late 19th century “was the first time the average person saw something in color,” says Susan Tucker, an archivist and curator at Tulane University and co-editor of The Scrapbook in American Life. “These seemed too precious to throw away.”
But was all this clipping good for you? As with today’s new media, scrapbookers and pundits debated the cognitive effect of this new hobby. Did it make you too focused on trivia? Did it improve your memory, or make it worse?
One enthusiast, E. W. Gurley, claimed that scrapbookers would make more attentive readers, because they were constantly looking for things to save. “We read for a purpose, look for something and keep it when found,” he wrote. Many serious authors agreed. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, claimed her copious clippings had informed her novels: “The habit of reading with a pair of scissors in my hand,” she wrote, “has stood me in good stead for much of my literary work.”