Welcome to the Scrapbook History website and blog. Here you’ll find materials on how ordinary (and extraordinary) people took media into their lives over a hundred years ago, through their scrapbooks. The site supplements my book, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. I hope you’ll comment and contribute.
Traveling in France, I met Ivanne Barberis, who in 2008 found a set of notebooks in the trash on the Lower East Side of New York, made by a nurse, Annabelle Baker. From her writings and the magazines she had collected, it appeared that she was African American. Her notebooks were from nursing school, where she’d graduated in 1973. Baker had gone back since her schooling and written commentaries or other notes in her notebooks. Ivanne was unable to find out more about her, but found the life hinted at in the notebooks, and the notebooks themselves tantalizing — in the way that scrapbooks by unknown people often are: They hint at a set of interests and concerns, at a mode of schooling and work. Ivanne is a nurse, and so also felt a professional connection to Baker.
Ivanne had been reading Patrick Modiano’s extraordinary Dora Bruder, which tells of the author’s being intrigued by an odd news clipping from a newspaper published during the Occupation in Paris, and trying to find out more about Dora Bruder, the subject of it — who was her family, who was she? What happened to her during the war? Modiano’s search and its dead ends are part of the story he tells, along with his own family’s experience during the war, in some of the same spaces Dora moved through, and his own movement through the spaces of present-day Paris.
Instead of digging up more on Annabelle Baker’s life (as I probably would have tried to do), however, Ivanne invited other artists — writers, visual artists, performers — to create pieces in some way about Annabelle Baker, as she emerged for them in her notebooks, magazine reading, and Ivanne’s experience finding the materials.
The work was performed and displayed in 2011, at La General, an artistic, political, and social cooperative. http://www.lagenerale.fr/?p=1091
I wish I’d been able to see it. I think the idea was to explore what makes found objects, fragments of person’s life, intriguing, and how it opens space for the imagination. But it disturbs me that that space might be full of reductive stock images, of received generalizations about black people in the US, even while one amazing quality of scrapbooks and notebooks is the range of quirky interests they embody. And does this work rescue a life’s work carelessly discarded, or does it expose something a person meant to throw away?
Does anyone know of similar projects, with some grounding in historical documents, but which develops them freely, in an imaginative rather than historical dimension?
So excited to be giving my first talk on scrapbooks for the Public Scholars in the Humanities program of the New York State Council for the Humanities, which has 31 scholars giving talks around the state. I have been completely wowed by those I met at our workshops last summer — Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who speaks about the foster care system, Sally Roesch Wagner, who speaks on the 19c women’s rights movement, and the cartoonist Robert Sikoryak who graciously shlepped to my university in Jersey City to give a brilliant presentation on the history of cartoons/graphic novels, and two dozen more. Just looking at the list of speakers again is inspiring. If you’re in NY State, your organization can invite one! Or more!
Tomorrow I head upstate to speak about scrapbooks at the History Center of Niagara, hard by the Erie Canal, with stops in Glen Falls along the way. I hope people respond to the invitation to bring their scrapbooks (50 years old or more — the scrapbooks, not the people). I’ll bring some of mine, too. And yes, I’ll talk about how people without much power — African Americans, women’s rights advocates — used scrapbooks to speak back to the media.
Thursday, May 19, 7 pm. Niagara County Historical Society, 215 Niagara Street, Lockport, NY 14094. Looking forward to seeing you!
Heading off to Pittsburgh tomorrow to give two talks at U Pitt, before joining the Nineteenth Century Women Writers Study Group for our discussion on 19th and early 20th century women journalists: Nellie Bly! Sui Sin Far! Miriam Michaelson! Elizabeth Jordan! Sarah Winnamucca! and more — the other side of the newspaper, finally: not the clippers but the writers. Jean Lutes had a very difficult time choosing readings, because there was so much good material.
Wednesday I’ll be speaking in the English Department and Humanities Center on “Cut-and-Paste Pedagogy: Hand, Scissors, Pen, Scrapbook.” Looking forward to talking about that project with people who know a lot about 19c textbooks, like Jean Ferguson Carr and Steve Carr.
Thursday, Ron and Mary Zboray have invited me to speak at the Popular Print Working Group. My talk there is on Hidden Histories: African American and Women’s Rights Scrapbooks. I haven’t seen Ron and Mary since Writing with Scissors came out, and I’m sure they’ll have a lot to tell me about scrapbooks they saw in their years of digging in diaries. With Emma Goldman on the website looking over the proceedings!
Google is using Frederick Douglass’s image for one of their doodles, or special logos of
the day, for the first day of Black History Month. They probably don’t know that he participated in the 19th century’s mode of organizing information. Yes, Frederick Douglass made scrapbooks. You can read some online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collection. And one linked here, pasted into a Bureau of Indian Affairs report. (Like many scrapbook makers, he repurposed other books for his scrapbooks.
While it’s framed as advice to present-day scrapbookers on what not to use or paste in (cellophane tape, glitter, materials that attract insects and much more). It makes me wonder why the many 19th century scrapbooks I’ve seen that used flour paste as an adhesive weren’t thoroughly nibbled by mice. Mucilage, on the other hand (other brush?), sometimes resulted in clippings too discolored to read, and there was some 19th century scrapbook-making advice against using it. No one mentioned rocks, though.
Monmouth used the cover of the odd crowd-sourced anthology, Heart Throbs: The Old Scrapbook. The editor asked newspaper readers to send in their favorite poems, etc., with the idea that they were tucked away inside scrapbooks. The white-haired scrapbook
user is a figure of wisdom, while scrapbook makers are usually shown as young people, storing up wisdom to use later. The talk is Thursday, Nov. 12.
Monmouth’s great title for their series on print culture, Ink and Electricity, is a reminder of how our perceptions of media are shaped by the technology of the moment. For 19th century scrapbook makers, scrapbooks were a new technology — as were the 1890s file folders and vertical files, that eventually displaced a swath of newspaper clipping scrapbook making. I’ll be speaking on how 19th century activists repurposed media in their scrapbooks. 6-7:30, Wilson Hall, Room 104. Arrive early for refreshments. Thanks to Kristin Bluemel for arranging this.