Open Thread: Bloggers – A History, We Has It

Abolitionists, feminists, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson — Christopher Benfrey at NYRB reviews “Scrapbook Nation”:

I had been making my pleasurable way through Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance when Nocera’s eloquent snippets appeared. Garvey argues that scrapbooks—which everyone seems to have kept during the nineteenth century—“are the direct ancestors of our digital information management.” Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers. During the Civil War, one Northern scrapbooker was “struck by the vast amount of information, on all points and of every grade of quality, which flowed in a continuous stream” from the telegraph-aided daily papers. “Stacks of newspapers were unwieldy and obsolete,” Garvey writes. “The modern household kept scrapbooks.” …

Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores, and, incidentally, its more recent origins in the genealogy-affirmative Mormon community. “For members of the Church,” as a Mormon website puts it, “creating memory books seemed to come naturally.” …

20 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    I wish I had done a better job preserving my own history.

  2. 2
    WereBear says:

    Dear heavens, if there is a vision of hell, it’s me being forced into Mormon housewifery.

  3. 3
    Maude says:

    I throw everything away. My history isn’t worth remembering. I have no sordid past to gloat over. What a shame.

  4. 4
    Mike in NC says:

    I recall reading a comment by Mark Twain that he considered the Book of Mormon to be “Chloroform in print”.

  5. 5
    Baud says:


    My history isn’t worth remembering.

    That’s what I used to believe about myself. Even though I know better now, I can’t get into the habit of doing something about it.

  6. 6
    Maude says:

    I’m not sentimental about anything except Voyager1 and 2.
    I do live in the present which wasn’t helpful when I went to a new doctor.

  7. 7
    pajaro says:

    My first job working in DC 40 years ago for a lobby group required me to, literally, keep the scrapbook. My job was to read the important newspapers here and abroad, the foreign broadcast summaries, clip (literally) the articles on the subject that were most important to us and to paste them (again, literally) into our own reference source.
    I guess I was a blogger.

  8. 8
    Baud says:


    What’s your connection to the Voyagers?

  9. 9
    Redshift says:

    I’m terrible at keeping my own history, too. The problem with all of the online methods is that they’re so ephemeral, either intentionally (like Twitter) or because you never know when the platform is going to go belly-up. The other problem is that all of the online scrapbook replacements are designed to be public (or at least you can’t trust them not to be), and if I limit personal history only to things I want to talk about in public, it ends up being so banal that I’m rarely motivated to do it.

  10. 10
    Roger Moore says:

    The 19th Century saw a rapid move from a society that couldn’t get enough information where it needed to go on time to one that was overwhelmed with too much information getting everywhere nearly instantly. That created the need for tools to filter and aggregate data (i.e. the scrapbook) that hadn’t been so important before. The technology has changed a lot since then, but the basic need hasn’t.

  11. 11
    Spaghetti Lee says:

    Nah. It’s not really blogging unless someone can come in uninvited and start hawking footwear and peen pills. Can scrapbooks do that? Hah! Didn’t think so.

  12. 12
    sb says:

    @Mike in NC: Worth quoting in full. From Roughing It:

    All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the “elect” have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

  13. 13
    Jay S says:

    The facebook and twitter analogy is a bit off. Today’s electronic scrapbook is likely fodder for the obsolete format shredder. It’s not nearly as durable as a scrap book. Or nearly as private.

  14. 14
    Maude says:

    I liked Saturn as a tiny tot. When The Voyager twins made their flybys, I got to see Saturn for real. It also proved my pet peeve about scientific theory that they really don’t know, they keep repeating the same stuff over and over.
    The braided ring of Saturn blew up the theories and we were back to we don’t know.
    They are out there beyond the solar system and still reporting their locations.

  15. 15
    WereBear says:

    I guess I don’t get the scrapbook thing. If I have trouble remembering it, it must not have been that great.

  16. 16
    Baud says:


    That’s cool. Nothing better than to live during a time when you can explore something that fascinates you.

  17. 17
    vogon pundit says:

    Very cool! Right now I am trying to keep track of 3 or so different scientific directions, so– of all things– I keep a scrapbook with figures from papers, or from our own results. There is really no way I could keep track without something similar.

  18. 18
    aimai says:

    Thanks so much for this link. Not only am I in the middle of thinking about attempting to scrapbook the memorabilia from our own “tramps” abroad but my mother has a marvellous flea market find of a 19th century scrapbook built on the foundation of a (then) old railway timetable. Its incredibly cool because she was repurposing the book foundation (a hardcover railway timetable) and then gluing in bits of newspaper and ephemera.

  19. 19

    Great comments! Aimal, I found many such repurposed books when working on Writing with Scissors, and wrote about why people did that: not only did they get to dignify those little bits in a nice substantial book that looked great on the shelf, but they got the book for free — often from the US government. So the govt. subsidized scrapbook making! And Vogon Pundit, you’re in good company! Lots of scientists and doctors kept scrapbooks, and were encouraged to do so, for many reasons. It was a way to keep up with the too-fast moving press, or with their notes.
    The scrapbooks I wrote about are very different from the current family-preoccupied one. The 19c scrapbooks looked outward, to the materials of the public press.

  20. 20

    @pajaro: Clipping services, and private companies with a clipping dept, like what you describe, grew out of scrapbooks — they are the missing link between scrapbooks and our digital ways of handling (too much) information. Writing with Scissors has a chapter that goes into this.

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