Saturday, July 25, 2015

“Writing with Scissors”: The Scrapbooks of Alice Miner

A page from one of Alice’s scrapbooks
In the years after the Civil War, the American reading public found itself nearly overwhelmed by a flood of inexpensive printed matter. Daily newspapers, weekly journals, and monthly magazines constantly rolled off the printing presses and could be purchased for as little as a penny each. These publications were cheap and disposable, yet they contained much valuable information. The problem was, how to keep up with all this information and be able to find it again when you needed it? Anyone who’s ever found, then lost, a bit of information on the internet will sympathize with this problem. Just as we use bookmarks, RSS feeds, Pinterest, and Tumblr to organize digital information, nineteenth-century readers came up with their own solution to information overload: the scrapbook.

Just about everyone made scrapbooks—men and women, young and old, black and white, rich and poor—and Alice Miner was no exception. The museum’s archives hold three handsome cloth and leather-bound scrapbooks full of articles dating from the 1880s to the early 1900s. Alice saved articles and illustrations from Chicago’s daily papers and from monthly magazines like The Century, Scribner’s, The Critic, and Review of Reviews. Most of the items she collected related to the world of fine art, literature, and history, with occasional forays into religion and current events—thus giving us some useful insight into Alice’s interests in the years before she began the Colonial Collection.

A commonplace book kept by the Rev. Thomas
Austen in the 1770s, in the collection of the
Harvard University Library
The post-Civil War scrapbook has its antecedents in two earlier forms: the commonplace book and the friendship album. Commonplace books were used by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers to keep a record of their reading by copying out passages of texts; the technique of keeping a commonplace book was part of the curriculum at many colleges into the nineteenth century. Friendship albums, popular in the early nineteenth century, were portfolios of drawings, prints, verses, and signatures that circulated among friends.

As printed matter became more widely available in the second half of the nineteenth century, clipping and saving pieces of text emerged as an alternative to copying them out by hand. Many Americans began making scrapbooks during the Civil War, as a way of keeping a record of the momentous historical event they were living through. In the 1880s, technological changes in printing, paper-making, and transportation vastly increased the number and geographical range of newspapers and magazines. In 1880, there were 850 English-language daily papers; by 1900 there were 1,967. The large city daily papers might easily have half a million readers each.

An Agricultural Report repurposed as a scrapbook
“Many beautiful, interesting, and useful thoughts come to us through the newspapers, that are never seen in books, where they can be referred to when wanted. When they are gone they are lost.” So wrote E.W. Gurley, the author of Scrap-books and How to Make Them, a comprehensive guide to scrapbooking published in 1880. Gurley gave detailed instructions for choosing a book (he recommended repurposing old U.S. Patent Office Reports), finding and sorting articles, making one’s own glues, and finally pasting the clippings into the scrapbook (“Some will think that anyone can paste a slip of paper in a book, but every one can’t do it properly until they have learned how”). Once the scrapbook was completed, it could be used like any other book: “Read and re-read the best of them; study them and memorize their useful and pleasant thoughts, and you will never regret the time occupied in making your SCRAP-BOOKS.”

Page from Alice’s scrapbook with written
notation added
Historian Ellen Gruber Garvey notes that scrapbooks played an important role for “people in positions of relative powerlessness,” who used their books “to make a place for themselves and their communities by finding, sifting, analyzing, and recirculating writing that mattered to them.” For example, “African-Americans wrote histories unavailable in books by making scrapbooks of clippings from both the black and the white press....In massive compilations—dozens or even hundreds of volumes, in some cases—black people asserted ownership of news and culture.”

For people who, for whatever reason, did not express themselves in their own writing, scrapbooks became a way of “writing with scissors.” Though Alice Miner obviously was highly literate and did write letters and diaries, most of them have not survived to the present day. Her scrapbooks, then, are an important piece of “writing” that helps to fill in our knowledge of her early life. The magazines she read, the articles she saved, and the ways she chose to organize them, all tell us something about her inner life, as well as the way she wished to present herself to the world. In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at Alice’s books.


E.W. Gurley, Scrap-books and How to Make Them: Containing Full Instructions for Making a Complete and Systematic Set of Useful Books (Author’s Publishing Company, 1880).

Susan Tucker, Catherine Ott, and Patricia P. Buckler, eds., The Scrapbook in American Life (Temple University Press, 2006).

Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway, eds., A History of the Book in America, vol. 4 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Trainer Family Tragedy

Huron County Court House, Goderich
On April 8, 1870, Bernard Trainer paid a visit to the Huron County Court House. This should have been a happy occasion: he was going to register the births of his new son and daughter, born on March 16. But Bernard was also there to report the death of his wife, Louisa, just a week after the twins’ birth. Louisa was only 41 years old, and in addition to infants Isabella and Arthur, she was leaving behind eight other children between the ages of nineteen and four.

Sadly, the twins did not long outlive their mother. Isabella died in May 1870 and Arthur in July. The 1871 Canadian census, which also recorded the deaths that occurred in the previous year, gave “consumption”—tuberculosis—as the cause of death for both children. The tragic events that the Trainer family faced in 1870 make clear to us today what everyone in the nineteenth century knew: that childbirth was a dangerous time for women, and that the first year of life for infants was perilous.

In fact, Albert and Isabella were not the first children that the Trainer family had lost. Two years earlier, Louisa had given birth to another set of twins. Evelyna Euphemia and Herbert Patton were born on January 24, 1868. They, along with Alice and her younger brother William, were baptized at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Goderich on March 22. The Huron Signal reported that Evelyna died on July 25, 1868, but we don’t know exactly how long Herbert lived. Municipalities in Canada were not required to record births and deaths until 1869, and the microfilmed issues of the Huron Signal that I examined at the Library and Archives Canada were missing pages and sometimes very hard to read.

Justus von Leibig patented the first
commercial infant formula in 1865. By 1883,
there were 27 brands on the market.
It seems likely that Herbert also died in the summer of 1868. Summer was a particularly dangerous time for infants. Hot and dry weather meant that clean drinking water was in short supply and it was difficult to maintain sanitary conditions, especially in cities. If Louisa was unable to breastfeed the children or had to supplement with formula—a likely scenario with twins—the babies would have been vulnerable to a collection of diseases that historians identify as “weanling diarrhea.” 

Tainted milk, contaminated water, and unclean bottles all contributed to diseases of the intestines, malnutrition, and dehydration. Moreover, even those infants who survived bouts of diarrhea were nutritionally compromised and thus at increased risk of contracting, and dying from, other infectious diseases. Isabella and Arthur, too, may have been affected by weanling diarrhea, since they did not have a mother to nurse them. If they also suffered from tuberculosis, the effect of malnutrition would have been significantly multiplied.

Before she was seven years old, Alice had experienced the death of her mother and four siblings. We have no record today of what her feelings were, but it seems safe to say that it was something that affected her for the rest of her life.  Her particular concern for women’s and children’s health (memorialized today by the Alice T. Miner Center for Women and Children at CVPH) undoubtedly has its roots in that childhood experience, as well as the loss of her own child. 

We have no pictures of Louisa
Saunders Trainer. This photo of
her sister Ann may give us an idea
of what she looked like.
These events also clearly had a long-term impact on the other Trainer siblings, particularly Matilda, Bertha, and Louisa. Matilda, of course, was suddenly responsible for the care of nine younger siblings. When Bernard Trainer died in 1880, she effectively became the only parent. Fourteen-year-old Bertha must also have had to take on a new role, since Matilda continued to work as a teacher. One wonders if this early experience of the burdens of raising a family played into the sisters’ decision to remain unmarried. 

In 1930, Louisa Trainer endowed the Alexandra and Marine General Hospital in Goderich with $10,000 “to be used in giving hospital care and attention to the poor and needy of the Town of Goderich and vicinity.” This fund was to be known as the Matilda Trainer Endowment Fund. The hospital had come too late to help Mrs. Trainer, but perhaps other families would be spared thanks to Louisa’s generosity. And in naming the fund for Matilda, she honored the sister who became both mother and father.

Information about this chapter in the Trainer family’s history is drawn from the 1871 Canadian census, Huron County death and birth records, the Wesleyan Methodist baptismal registers of Huron County, and issues of the Huron Signal published between 1868 and 1870. Data about the causes of infant mortality in 19th-century Canada came from Larry A. Sawchuk and Stacie D.A. Burke, “Mortality in an Early Ontario Community, 1876-1885," Urban History Review 29, no. 1 (2000), 33-47.