Writing With Scissors, American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Ellen Gruber Garvey. Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 304. Softcover. $29.95 . ISBN 978-0199927692.

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The following review appeared 26 January 3013 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2013 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Mark Twain, Willa Cather's aunt, a White House aide to President James A. Garfield, Charles Reade, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, Charles Sumner, Emmeline Grangerford, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and countless others all shared a passion--scrap-booking. But only Mark Twain dreamed up an improvement to the scrapbook, patented it, and then used his carefully honed brand name to promote it. Despite being Twain's most successful invention and one of his few profitable business ventures, the Mark Twain Scrapbook has never been treated at such length and in context within the history of American scrapbooking until this extremely informative study by Ellen Garvey, which focuses on the Mark Twain Scrapbook in the second of seven chapters.

Garvey traces the pastime of scrapbooking to its origins in the commonplace book, personal diary, and friendship albums. Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits Twain with using "scrapbook" as a verb, she finds several earlier usages, and describes who kept scrapbooks and why. Some were records of lives lived (African Americans), and others were used to prepare for lives to come (Willa Cather's aunt, who dreamed of a married life out west and gathered materials in anticipation of that life to come). Charles Sumner waved his own scrapbook during a speech on the floor of Congress to bolster his arguments, and a White House aide actually used a Mark Twain Scrapbook to preserve daily reports of Garfield's recovery from an assassination attempt--an exercise that did not have a happy ending. Scrapbooking was often a social activity (as pictured in some ads for the Mark Twain Scrapbook) and had a social value perfectly analogous to quilting bees. Garvey enumerates the variety of content found in scrapbooks--clippings, cards, photos, invitations, letters, programs, stamps, hair, etc., and makes the observation that the "cut and paste" methodology used in old scrapbooks has endured down to the present day as a computer icon.

Newspapers of the early nineteenth century included special sections for scrapbookers, and newspaper editors, also known as "scissor-swingers," circulated massive amounts of text from paper to paper through the "newspaper exchange" system, whereby cooperating newspapers sent each other their papers for the express purpose of gathering and spreading news and other content. Scrapbookers assumed that the more widely circulated pieces in a paper were more worthy of being preserved in a scrapbook and newspaper editors often made clear the sources (if not the authorship) of the texts they obtained through the exchange system. By choosing the content of their own scrapbooks, any reader could "write" their own book, tell a story, assemble their own history, document events of the day, or create their own anthology. Much of the material circulating in the newspaper exchange system was reprinted anonymously, but authors recognized that if their name stayed attached to a piece of their writing, it would enhance their reputation and market value, increasing the fees for their writing, lectures, or book deals. Mark Twain was keenly aware of this, and used his name like a brand, cleverly writing himself into his own writings as a character or narrator, making it difficult for editors to erase his authorship from a reprinted piece.

Mark Twain, like other authors, preserved clippings of his own writings in scrapbooks, and used them in his writings. Many of his early newspaper writings were preserved this way and came in handy when he gathered up his Quaker City letters when constructing the text for The Innocents Abroad. He also consulted his scrapbook when writing Roughing It. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain created perhaps the most famous fictional scrapbook in American literature, containing the morbid clippings of Emmeline Grangerford--so admired by Huck Finn. Twain used scrapbooks himself and understood how they functioned in American society. But scrapbooking was a slow and messy business, and always involved a glue pot and brushes, damp pages, long waits for glue to dry, stuck pages, and spilled glue. Commercial blank books could be used, but more often any old out-of-date ledger would do. Often a scrapbook began life as a patent office report or an agricultural report.

The branding Mark Twain had used to market his own writings extended to his self-pasting scrapbook when it was introduced into the market in 1877 (it had been patented in 1873), and he took advantage of the newspaper exchange to spread the word of his invention. In a shrewd ploy, he wrote a comical letter to Dan Slote, his scrapbook publisher and business partner, and counted on newspaper editors to circulate this letter through the newspaper exchange in the form of free advertising--and they did. In advertising leaflets there were illustrations of scrapbooking "before" and "after" the introduction of the Mark Twain Self-pasting Scrapbook. The "before" image shows an angry disheveled scrapbooker surrounded by spilt glue, a frightened cat and wife and child, spewing lightning bolts of profanity as he flings his old-fashioned scrapbook through the air; the "after" image shows a genteel Victorian family enjoying their Mark Twain scrapbooks in the tranquility of their perfectly appointed parlor.

Although the format of the Mark Twain Scrapbook scripted how an owner would have to arrange their scrapbook--the self-pasting pages had the glue printed on each page in columns that required the scraps to be arranged like columns of text--the convenience was appreciated and sales were brisk. Fortunately for Twain, patent law protected Twain's invention better than copyrights protected his writings, and his trademarked name, of no use in protecting the copyrights of his writings, could be used to protect a vendible product like his scrapbook. Not too long after it entered the market, Twain's own patented self-pasting scrapbook found its way into a work of fiction as a prop when an Irish servant is given one as a Christmas gift in an 1881 novel by Mary Rand. In the real world it was being used by some clever Rhode Island librarians to discipline young readers caught reading inappropriate materials like blood-and-thunder dime novels. The librarians filled a Mark Twain scrapbook with clippings about boys inspired to lives of crime by their reading choices, and using the implied authority of Mark Twain's name, made miscreants read those clippings enshrined in a volume bearing none other than Mark Twain's name on the cover. The popularity of the Mark Twain Scrapbook made Twain some money, and while the citations of sales numbers and royalties vary widely, it appears he made about $12,000 a year at the beginning, dwindling to less than $2,000 per year in the 1880s. Twain blamed Dan Slote's dishonesty and subsequent business failure for preventing him from making more money from this invention.

Garvey's discussion of the Mark Twain Scrapbook ends with observations on Will Clemens's cheeky scrapbook-like assemblage of his unauthorized biography of Mark Twain, and the catchy jingle by Isaac H. Bromley in "Punch, Brothers, Punch!" She describes the latter as "recirculation gone wild" and draws convincing parallels between that verse and "found poetry" and Marcel Duchamp's "ready-made" sculpture. The Mark Twain Scrapbook was heavily advertised on both the cloth and paperback bindings of Twain's Punch, Brothers, Punch! and Other Sketches (1878), and benefited from the wide-spread circulation of those verses.

Her following chapters concern Civil War Scrapbooks, scrapbooks kept by African-Americans and women, scrapbooks as archives, and a final chapter that describes early newspaper clipping services, and the remarkable career of newspaper dealer "Back Number Budd." She explains how scrapbooks fit into the history of media and data management. These final chapters are fascinating reading, but beyond the scope of the Mark Twain Forum.

Although Garvey does not include a bibliography or list of works consulted, her text makes very clear the archives and original sources she used in her research, and the index and footnotes are useful and informative. A few typos and small errors of fact deserve note--Will Clemens's biography of Mark Twain (1892) was not the first (p. 81), and General Grant was no longer living in June 1886 (p. 231). The work is abundantly and well-illustrated (full disclosure: one illustration is from this reviewer's personal collection of nearly 50 different Mark Twain Scrapbooks). The chapter on Twain's invention benefits mightily by being placed in historical and social context in this enjoyable and very readable history of American scrapbooking.