Strategic Scrapbooks: Media Sharing in the 19th Century

How do you save and share media? Do you have a Pinterest page for pinning images you like? Perhaps a Tumblr for reblogging others’ posts? Maybe you just add links to articles you found particularly poignant to your Bookmarks on Google Chrome. Indeed, with today’s technology, there are myriad ways to experience, share and hold on to media, be it articles, videos, pictures or something else entirely. While the technology we use to do these things has evolved rapidly over the past twenty years, saving and compiling articles and publications (a la Buzzfeed) goes back to before the computer was even invented and can be found in nineteenth century use of scrapbooks.

Two old newspaper images, one of a woman, one of a US map that says "Votes for Women"

On Tuesday, March 5, the BCRW hosted English Professor and Historian Ellen Gruber Garvey for a presentation entitled, “Strategic Scrapbooks: 19th Century Activists Remake the Newspaper for African American History and Women’s Rights.” Garvey shared with attendees the research for her most recent book, “Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.” Going into this panel, I could hardly conceptualize what a strategic scrapbook would look like; my associations with scrapbooks were ones of family photos, personal letters and cute photo corners. As it turns out, in the nineteenth century, scrapbooking was an incredibly common and popular form of documenting and circulating information and ideas, and primarily consisted of cutting and pasting newspaper clippings into any sort of book that was no longer needed. In this way, people of this era documented war happenings, obituaries, articles, poetry and more while curating their own versions of the press in order to remember and share responses to media.

Fascinatingly, because it required only a limited degree of literacy (Sojourner Truth, who was allegedly illiterate, had her own scrapbook), the pastime transcended class and racial lines, becoming an important tool for those not in the elite class to interact with public discourse. Garvey’s presentation focused on the scrapbooking practices of women’s and African American rights activists, which she termed as “strategic scrapbooking.” Strategic scrapbooking, as Garvey defined it, involved the deliberate collection of press clippings in such a way that told the stories that were untold by the press. Garvey discussed the use of juxtaposition as a way of analyzing media. For example, one African American man clipped two articles from the same newspaper at different dates and pasted them next to each other. One of the articles reported that a Black man had been accused of raping a white teenager, received no trial and was lynched as a result, and the other was another report of an accused rape, this time by a white man who was brought to trial and acquitted. Here, without writing any words at all, the scrapbook maker demonstrates the inconsistency and injustice he observed in his society.

For African Americans, who were excluded and marginalized by the white press, clipping and scrapbooking was also a way of preserving an often undocumented history. Garvey told us about one of the four hundred scrapbooks made by William Henry Dorsey, entitled “Colored Centenarians.” In this scrapbook, Dorsey collected dozens, if not hundreds, of obituaries of Black individuals who lived past one hundred. Many of these obituaries briefly mentioned how these individuals were directly or indirectly involved with pivotal figures and moments in United States history, such as contributions to the Revolutionary War or serving famous historical figures. By curating a large collection of these obituaries, Dorsey painted a broad narrative about Black people’s contributions to United States history, contributions that were ignored and obscured by the mainstream press and historians alike.

Women’s rights activists also strategically scrapbooked in various ways. Many critiqued the condemnation of women speaking publically in their scrapbooks. For example, Susan B. Anthony pasted an article condemning women’s public speaking on the page across from her own teacher’s license, an official document sanctioning her ability to speak publically, in the classroom. Other women (as well as men) pasted articles and transcriptions of speeches they had given, both to document the press’s hostile reactions to them, as well as to simply memorialize the speeches themselves.

Although scrapbooking was an important and accessible way for the “common American” to engage with media and politics while documenting history through their own lens, it bears noting a lack of African American women’s scrapbooks that remain from this era. Mary Church Terrell was the only African American woman who made it into Garvey’s presentation (in addition to a brief mention of Sojourner Truth’s scrapbooks, which are no longer extant), and when asked, Garvey told us that in her research she did not come across very many remaining scrapbooks made by Black women. This fact is likely due to the lack of leisure time afforded to Black women that would have been necessary to make scrapbooks. In addition, Garvey noted, so many scrapbooks were probably lost due to war-time calls for citizen contributions of old paper and books. Nonetheless, although so much has been lost, through the preservation and appreciation of scrapbooks that were kept, we are given the privilege of reading alternative histories not archived by newspapers or libraries. By seeing and understanding how people from that era interacted and responded to media, the parallels between then and now are strengthened in a way that deepens our connections to the past.

More about Garvey’s scrapbook history research can be found at her blog, Scrapbook History.

Dina Tyson is a research assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and a Senior at Barnard, majoring in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and concentrating in Race and Ethnicity Studies.

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One thought on “Strategic Scrapbooks: Media Sharing in the 19th Century

  1. scrap booking was extremely popular. I remember even in my elementary school days we use to scrap book, however with the expansion and growth of technology we have found easier ways to keep track of things, although easier not as much fun.
    Great Article