The Original ‘Cut & Paste:’ Scrapbooking’s Cultural History

DeKalb Historical Society Scrabook
A scrapbook from the DeKalb Historical Society that relays the history of the county from the 1880’s – 1955 (Image courtesy of Samantha Mooney)

“My dad takes most of the pictures in our family, and he makes scrapbooks. This means he gets to figure out what’s important for us to remember… I guess my mom could make a scrapbook, but she doesn’t. And I could do it and so could my brothers… I know the scrapbooks we’d make would be different from Dad’s. But the person who does the work gets to write the history.” – Holly Sloan, Short

Scrapbooking seems geared to a mature audience. Younger generations rarely develop nostalgia because they live in the present. Age causes a greater cognizance that time is fleeting. This can cause a desire to capture special moments, either for those who will live beyond or as a hobby for the self, a genie-in-the-bottle cure-all to commemorate important things in daily life.

Early scrapbooking was a method to sift through and organize the onslaught of information. Beginning in the 19th century, reading proficiency grew exponentially. Newspapers became a cornerstone of society, creating a populist literary culture. Yet, people fretted about the transience of new literary forms such as magazines and newspapers. Colored ink became widely available, and people liked its rich aesthetic potential. In a culture that was changing, readers needed a way to capture the best parts so they pasted and collated them into the familiar form of a book. Interests ranged widely: housewives documented effective stain removers and home remedies while morbid newshounds made clippings of the most gruesome obituaries. Newspapers began featuring columns named “For the Scrapbook.” This was a “retweet” button before its time, a way to influence popular thought. Newspapers tried to anticipate what scrapbookers would be most interested in and competed to garner the widest circulation. 

Scrapbooking was a precursor to social media. It had the functions of Pinterest or Tumblr, a method organize the onslaught of information and preserve the most important for later access. A whole lexicon developed around practices. Like “pinning,” tweeting, and “posting,” scrapbookers preserved “gleanings.” Scrapbooking is perhaps the most like Tumblr, a curated way to display the things that people were most passionate about. Moving into the twentieth century, people began collecting items from their own life. People often ‘causally’ left their scrapbooks in high traffic areas such as the parlor table where people would just ‘happen’ to see them. This allowed for a curation of lifestyle akin to Instagram and Facebook.

A design scrapbook featuring a sketch of a 1950’s dress and photo (Samantha Mooney)

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