Writing with Scissors

English professor Dr. Ellen Gruber Garvey of New Jersey University discusses her latest book, “Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance” at this week’s American Studies lecture and Women’s Studies colloquium. 


PROVO, Utah (Sept. 11, 2014)—What does scrapbooking have to do with 19th century abolitionists and women’s suffragists? Perhaps more than one might think.

Ellen Gruber Garvey, English professor at New Jersey University, addressed this topic at the Fall American Studies Lecture and Women’s Studies Colloquium, identifying the study of American scrapbooks as a realm of writing that has barely been explored.

Garvey said, “We hardly know it today, but in the 19th century many people wrote books with scissors, that is, they wrote scrapbooks.”

During her lecture Garvey emphasized that during this time people of all races, classes, and genders kept newspaper-clipping scrapbooks. Her research on American scrapbooks reveals that great insight can be drawn from the scrapbooks of not only famous activists, but also ordinary people processing media in their own spheres.

Garvey related her impressions of a farmwoman’s scrapbook she once encountered while conducting research at the University of Nebraska. “It had articles about curing scaling rashes in children and a clipping about how to cure foot rot in sheep,” said Garvey. “All of the stuff that might catch a farmwoman’s eye.”

Garvey continued, “Then I discovered when she made the scrapbook, she was an unmarried, childless woman teaching school in the East. She was not homesteading

in the West as I assumed reading the scrapbook. She was planning to. Her scrapbook embodied her aspirations. It was something like today’s Pinterest where people will put up pictures of their wedding gowns when they’re not even interested in anybody.”

Much of Dr. Garvey’s research shows that scrapbook makers of the past allow us to draw parallels from how individuals use information today. People try to create their own identity and public voice through social media by processing the information around them.

In a similar light, abolitionists and suffragists were also concerned with their public image, and used scrapbooks in strategic ways to refine their public identity. She said, “These readers armed with scissors used scrapbooks to articulate their concerns and to reach others with them.”

Garvey said, “Activists used scrapbooks in so many inventive ways. African Americans and women’s rights activists collected, concentrated and critiqued accounts that they did not own and did not control to create unwritten histories in books that they wrote with scissors.”

To learn more about Ellen Gruber Garvey’s work, visit her website or read her book, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.

–Sylvia Cutler BA English ’17