The Projector

Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski

Writing with Scissors: A Review

Writing with Scissors:
American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance

By Ellen Gruber Garvey.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 320 pp. 62 ill. HC $115, Pb $31.95)







If you’ve been following this blog the past couple of years, you’ll know that I’ve increasingly tried to introduce students to new technologies, new theories and critical approaches, and new ways of researching and writing in my courses.  For the past five years, I’ve been teaching courses in Book and Printing History and Early America and have offered various assignments in which students actively engage in critical making, performance, and reenactment as a way to investigate their research topics.  Attached to these digital (or digitally-documented) projects, students are required to offer a short writing that critically explains their work and situates it within a scholarly or theoretical context.

The scrapbook–and scrapbooking– is a work, an archive category, a craft, an activity, and a process/practice that has come up somewhat frequently in recent projects.  Grounding these sorts of projects, we have worked through Ellen Gruber Garvey’s 2012 monograph Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.  The book has been such a hit with students that I’ve begun to assign selections of it in some recent classes.  It seems, on this occasion at least, that students’ growing interests match scholars’ and historians’ and the ever-expanding body of research on this topic.  Gruber’s book is just one title on this subject, which includes Susan Tucker and Katherine Ott’s edited collection The Scrapbook in American Life, Jessica Helfand’s Scrapbooks: An American History, and Studies in Ephemera: Text and Image in Eighteenth-Century Print edited by Kevin Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll.

Thomas Nast illustration, “The Press on the Field,” Harper’s Weekly, April 30, 1864.

Garvey’s book re-establishes the scrapbook’s significance in American history, literature, and culture, dusting off the old notion of these books as mere archival records “cut and pasted” into various, miscellaneous subject headings for the individual articles and clippings they collected.  For the author, this medium not only recorded history but also shaped it by giving voice to the disfranchised.  Garvey contends that these works “open a window into the lives and thoughts of people who did not respond to their world with their own writing” (4).  Although they is little actual (or rather original) “writing” in these collections, the “scraps” of newspaper / magazine clippings, trade cards, photographs, memorabilia and related ephemera were compiled for a wide array of  “professional, domestic, educational, and political use and for many more reasons” (10).  Read in their entirety, these works showcase both what various individuals and communities read and how they managed, interpreted, saved and re-processed the information published and circulating around them.  In other words, they show what people read, how they read them, and how they used them.  As such, the work will be of significant interest to those working on projects related to book and print history, reading practices and reception studies, network theory, and beyond.

The book is divided into seven chapters, which chronicle the development of the scrapbook genre throughout the nineteenth-century and the rise of the Industrial Revolutions, the emergence of the penny press, and the rise of literacy in America.  The narrative traces the scrapbook during and after the Civil War, via Mark Twain’s “self-stick” scrapbook, through African American communities, and among female activists and suffragists.  The final chapters slightly shift the conversation to (re)place the artifact and the genre both in the historical (material) archive of the past and in our digital realm that lay ahead of us.

In Writing with Scissors, Garvey herself fills in blank pages, offering literary critics, historians, archivists, and curators another lens through which to catalog, view, and use these collections.  But as her final chapter demonstrates, these works are also more relevant than ever if we look at them as the predecessors of “favorites lists, bookmarks, blogrolls, RSS feeds, and content aggregators” (4).  She calls on us to look at these materials as lessons for the ways in which we organize and process information.  For my own classes, I might extend this, emphasizing the ways in which the act of scrapbooking might serve as a model for writing and critical-making itself.



Harper’s Young People, Dec. 12, 1887.


*Those interested in hearing more about the title can visit C-SPAN, where Professor Garvey’s talk on the book (hosted by the American Antiquarian Society) was recorded in 2013 for broadcast.

One comment on “Writing with Scissors: A Review

  1. Pingback: Accidental Diarist: A Review | K. A. Wisniewski

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