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)
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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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