Scrapped Histories: Why and How Scrapbooks Matter

April 18, 2016 | Bridget Moynihan.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘scrapbook’? Why might an archive save a scrapbook and why would researchers turn to archived scrapbooks as objects of study? What can we possibly learn from scrapbooks? The answers to some of these questions might be a bit surprising.

Today, scrapbooks are often thought of as personal photo albums filled with vacation photos and ticket stubs, and are sometimes even written off as the output of housewives with too much time on their hands. However, scrapbooks have a long history going back to the nineteenth century, and they have been used to collect a wide range of materials, not just photographs. The popularity of scrapbooks increased rapidly due to the advent of mass publications, the availability of cheaper paper, which made both printed information and blank books easier to access, and, yes, eventually, the development of photography. With so much new information circulating at faster and faster rates, scrapbooks were a way of managing this information and saving the pieces that mattered most to the collector. Scrapbooking soon became an activity that people from all walks of life engaged with, including, for example, Mark Twain, who scrapbooked so frequently that he patented and sold his own design for self-pasting scrapbook albums in 1872. Despite this initially diverse range of participants, however, scrapbooking gradually became associated with domestic, and even feminized, activities, and this association has been used to devalue scrapbooks.

If we look a little deeper into how scrapbooks have been used, though, it becomes clear that such a devaluation is invalid and, in fact, risks impoverishing our historical records. Because scrapbooks are a form of self-publication that anyone can undertake as long as they have paper, scissors, and glue, many people who aren’t able to tell their stories through publication or other mainstream methods turn to scrapbooks. Still others use scrapbooking to subvert dominant media messages, including an assumption of heteronormativity, by collecting clippings and images that disprove these messages, or by finding latent, unexpected meanings in the messages themselves.

One example of a subversive scrapbook collection is that of Monte Punshon (1882-1989), who collected several scrapbooks from the 1920s through to the late 1950s—well before she publicly discussed her sexuality at the age of 103. As Ruth Ford, a critic who studies Punshon, describes, the scrapbooks “reveal the range of cultural images [Punshon] drew on, none of which included the term ‘lesbian’” (118) but that nonetheless “affirmed and expressed her own desires. The collection of news clippings depicts women’s same-sex love in different forms—women friends and partners, passing women, ‘single’ independent career women” (120). In the absence of a cohesive source of representation that she identified with, Punshon was able to use scrapbooking to carve out such a space, and in so doing, provides us with a record of identity-formation against the grain of dominant society.

Archival research continues to unearth scrapbooked histories like Punshon’s. There are the 300 scrapbooks of historian and archivist L. S. Alexander Gumby (1885-1961), which document black history in America throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As critic Kirstin Gilger explains, these scrapbooks use historical records alongside a “collage aesthetics to help forge a diverse collective identity across eclectic spheres of black America” before the Civil Rights Movement (111). There are also the scrapbooks of Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), writer and friend of literary stars like Gertrude Stein, which mix homosexual “private erotica” with “articles and photographs clipped from magazines and newspapers that were made for a general public” in order to subvert mainstream, heterosexist cultural messages (Weinberg 28–29).

When scrapbooks are used in these counter-cultural, subversive ways to form communities and spaces of representation,  I argue that they begin to function as what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called a “minor literature”, that is, a political, collectively relevant and assembled literature that is constructed both within and against a “major language” (16). When we acknowledge scrapbooks as sites of minor literature for people and stories that are not always private by choice, but rather made to be private due to oppression and discrimination, the necessity of breaking down the misconceptions of these scrapbooks as solely private, domestic, and idiosyncratic documents becomes clear. It also becomes clear that scrapbooks are absolutely worth being archived, preserved, and studied as rich, cultural documents that tell stories from our past that might otherwise be lost.

About Bridget Moynihan

I am currently a PhD researcher in English at the University of Edinburgh studying the archives and scrapbooks of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. I have a passion for printed texts that push the boundaries of what it means to “be” a book, and am fascinated by the emerging role of digital media in our cultural imaginations. Running this site is my first foray into academic blogging, but it certainly won’t be my last!

Article edited by Matthew Tibble.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Réda Bensmaïa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Print.

Ford, Ruth. “Speculating on Scrapbooks, Sex and Desire: Issues in Lesbian History.” Australian Historical Studies 27.106 (1996): 111–126. Primo. Web.

Gilger, Kristin. “Otherwise Lost or Forgotten: Collecting Black History in L. S. Alexander Gumby’s ‘Negroana’ Scrapbooks.” African American Review 48.1-2 (2015): 111. Web.

Weinberg, Jonathan. “‘Boy Crazy’: Carl Van Vechten’s Queer Collection.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 25–49. ProQuest. Web.

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