When Copy and Paste Reigned in the Age of Scrapbooking

Today’s obsession with posting material to Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter has a very American history

Gregory Reid

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.

Newspaper clipping of the Sweethearts of Rhythm in Chicago. Gushiniere / Chicago Defender / International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection / Archives Center / NMAH, SI
Jolie Gabor (mother of actresses Eva, Zsa Zsa and Magda) scrapbooking in the 1950s. Bettmann / CORBIS
Newsclipping from The New York Times with a photo of King George, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. Western Union Telegraph Company Records / Archives Center / NMAH, SI
Newspaper ad for the Apollo Theatre. Frank Schiffman Apollo Theatre Collection / Archives Center / National Museum of American History, SI

“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.”

As with today’s language of “tweeting,” “pinning” and “posting,” scrapbooking developed its own lingo. You “scissorized” a newspaper; your valuable clippings were your “gleanings.” Meanwhile, inventors created high-tech products to aid in scrapbooking. In 1872, Mark Twain got in on the trend by inventing and patenting an innovative “self-pasting” scrapbook that had gummed strips preinstalled. It was the Tumblr of its time, and became a profitable side business for Twain: An 1885 news story claimed scrapbook sales accounted for 20 percent of his publishing income. After President James Garfield was shot, his staff used a Mark Twain scrapbook to compile newspaper clippings documenting the incident. (In fact, Twain popularized the verb “scrapbooking” itself. Before him, hobbyists said they were going “to scrap.”)

Scrapbooking even affected the way newspapers themselves were produced. Newspapers began printing short, nugget-size items and urging readers to clip them, by putting them in sections with names like “For the Scrapbook.” It was the “please retweet” button of its age, and indeed, newspapers themselves were avid cutters-and-pasters. Their content was often clipped and pirated straight from other, far-flung journals. (One Chicago paper actually called its overseas news section “Scissors and Paste.”) Authors weren’t much happy with the new regimen of clipping, since they often discovered their writings were being used far and wide without credit—or profit. It was very like how today’s publishers and writers complain that the Huffington Post aggregates news from other sources, profiting from the content without paying for it.

Scrapbooks also took on civic dimensions. They were a way of parsing and interacting with the great political issues of the time—by plucking out the parts that mattered most to the collector. Black scrapbookers saved newspaper reports of lynchings to document that history; libraries were segregated, so blacks couldn’t count on being able to easily look up accounts of these crimes. Aware that a scrapbook was an act of self-definition, Frederick Douglass enjoined the readers of his abolitionist newspaper in 1854 to keep copies of a story about “black heroes” (“Colored men! Save this extract. Cut it out and put it in your Scrap-book”). William Henry Dorsey, an astonishingly productive black scrapbooker, produced nearly 400 books of clippings about black life—often with a heavily ironic editorial intent, as when he pasted clippings about African slaves alongside news stories of black soldiers fighting for the North in the Civil War.

Suffragists, too, compiled scrapbooks of clippings, of their public appearances, speeches and newspaper articles, with an eye to preserving their own role in history. “You could put them on the parlor table and the rest of the family could see what you were doing,” Garvey says.

In essence, scrapbooking “turned us into documentarians,” Tucker adds. “People always had this impulse to remember, and to guard what they knew.”

In the early 20th century, scrapbooking changed. People still clipped from publications; indeed, clips of favorite celebrities boomed. But they also increasingly saved trinkets and scraps recording their own personal experiences—tickets of shows they’d seen, wrappers from candy bars, snapshots taken with the new and inexpensive Brownie camera. Publishers created “memory books” to encourage Boy Scouts, college students and new mothers to save tokens of personal experience. Poet Anne Sexton was a particularly avid personal scrapbooker: After her marriage, she taped in not only a photo of herself with her husband on the beach at their honeymoon, but the actual physical key to their hotel room.

In a sense, scrapbooks became more like diaries, a way to forge one’s identity—in sometimes complicated, Instagram-like ways, says Jessica Helfand, a Yale University critic in graphic design and author of Scrapbooks: An American History.

“I saw one with a young woman who has a picture of Rudy Valentino next to picture of a prayer card, like a ‘Hail Mary’ thing—and it’s like, ‘Am I a teenage girl in love, or am I a Christian?’” Helfand jokes.

Scrapbooking also became more female, Tucker says. “Women are charged with memory. Men were taking the photos, but who was guarding that memory? That was women,” she adds. “That was part of the caretaking role.” This is true of many of today’s digital sharing tools: About 80 percent of the users of Pinterest are women.

Today, scrapbooking is transforming. Paper scrapbooking surged in the 1990s, propelled by a growing interest in genealogy, and companies like Creative Memories (now renamed Ahni & Zoe), which, like Mark Twain a century earlier, adroitly produced a line of easy-to-use supplies. But many hobbyists say the pastime is becoming digital, and the rise of online tools like Pinterest are shrinking the urge to save physical scraps. Academics like Helfand aren’t so sure. Actually touching records of clipped, physical stuff is still emotionally intense, she says, and hard to capture with virtual bits.

“Facebook just doesn’t have that power,” she says.

Indeed, when a really earthshaking event happens, people still turn to very old-fashioned media—like the newspaper. The day that Barack Obama won the presidency, the New York Times printed extra copies, but even those quickly sold out. They couldn’t keep up with demand. “People wanted the paper,” Garvey says. In a digital age, sometimes we still want to hold the scraps of history in our hands.

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