Scissors paper paste


FACED with an array of nineteenth-century scrapbooks, historians will likely nod in agreement with one of the more intrepid investigators of such specimens, who pronounced them both “tantalizing” and “impossibly frustrating.” While a scrapbook promises a window on its creator’s private past, the practice of scrapbook-making also obscures, even destroys, the context and sometimes the substance of its sources. The ambiguity of scrapbooks–whether conceived as personal memorials, as archives, as vehicles of control or resistance–will often leave us guessing at the nature and significance of what their creators discarded or obliterated, and when, how and with what intentions the preserved items were selected and arranged.1

That so many hours of William A. Whitehead’s very busy life were spent on this activity is hard to fathom. Yet, while some of his scrapbooks are probably lost forever, and many of the rest show the ravages of mishandling and long neglect, no student of Whitehead can ignore the glimpses that these survivals afford into “a life of reading and saving.” His scrapbooks are treasuries of items he valued, or thought destined to be valued in the future. Enigmatic and intractable as they sometimes are, they mirror at different periods his seemingly limitless but gradually evolving interests. While still a young man, Whitehead began to deposit his own writings into scrapbooks, placing his learning at the service of scholars who would come after him.2

Between the covers of a trio of friendship albums in manuscript, produced during Whitehead’s teenage years, one finds dozens of poems and some prose varying in theme and genre, writings which appealed to his circle of then mainly female friends. These juvenile anthologies are dominated by the English authors whom the albums’ creators most admired: they have in them more of penmanship than original composition.3

The friendship books, though handwritten, come out of an age marked by a proliferation of newspapers, an easy and cheap medium not only for commercial and political communication but for access to serialized novels and poetry. Most of the pieces anthologized probably came to the group’s attention through newspapers. Therefore it’s no surprise that in the scrapbooks of Whitehead’s younger years literary content predominates, and newspaper clippings fill them to the exclusion of almost all else.

There’s scant hope of determining the precise chronology of William Whitehead’s surviving scrapbooks. Most older items have had their dates and source information trimmed away. Occasionally, the contents do have dates–within Whitehead’s first few years, or even before his birth–that suggest older family members or friends may have gathered the clippings, leaving to young William the pleasant chore of pasting them within the covers of a book. They may well have been arranged and rearranged based on their length or content, and even whole pages could be reordered. The sequence of items needn’t follow that of reading and collecting, and Whitehead could have worked on more than one scrapbook at a time.

For all these uncertainties, it’s clear that Whitehead’s scrapbook habit was acquired early on. But as he passed from his teenage years to young adulthood the results hint at a considerable evolution in his choices. He repurposed a century-old account book, apparently received from Ann Hude Kearny before 1826, to house a burgeoning accumulation of poetry, anecdotes and witticisms cut from newspapers.4 He likewise adapted two other discarded ledgers, calling them, on their new title pages, “Scrap Book No. 2 1828–29” and “Scrap Book No. 3 … 1829 & 30.” Although the items in “No. 2” were mainly literary, Whitehead’s very selective guide to its contents (no doubt a later addition) imposes only two classifications: “Philosophical Notices,” covering scientific and pseudoscientific topics such as “Source of Salt in Sea Water” and “Craniology”; and “Anecdotes of distinguished persons,” featuring characters as varied as Aesop, Michelangelo and Andrew Jackson.5

Scrap Book No. 3, in keeping with its subtitle “Miscellaneous selections for the grave and the gay,” is another quite eclectic compilation. Although the contents seem to diverge widely in date, yet it shows signs of its creator’s awakening to more focused and somewhat more worldly interests. This volume may well have accompanied Whitehead on his first trip to Key West: it includes a printed map based on the survey he completed of the island in early 1829, as well as an article on salt production, a leading impetus to the Whitehead family’s investment there. (There’s also a poem clipped from an issue of Key West’s earliest known newspaper.) If this scrapbook did indeed sail to the tropics, Whitehead’s pasted-in drawings of farmhouses and thatched cottages, real or imaginary, may have served to recall his younger days, spent happily sketching in the gardens and lanes of home.6

The largest and densest of the known Whitehead scrapbooks signals a more decisive turn from the sentimental to the practical. It embodies a fervent interest in the founding and early history of the American republic, and the intent of assembling material to form a useful tool of reference. The tome’s heft befits its title: “Scrap Book intended as a receptacle for Articles relating to the History, &c. of the U. States, and Biography of distinguished American Citizens, Statistics, &c.” In contrast with prior volumes, the contents of this compendium are far more apt to have dates (corresponding closely to Whitehead’s years on Key West) that either eluded the compiler’s shears or were added by hand.

Literature in this scrapbook has all but given way to firm fact. While Whitehead allowed a few pages for clippings recalling past historical events, and faithfully inserted remembrances of the nation’s founders and Revolutionary War veterans, he devoted the bulk of the “Historical” sections to issues that weighed more heavily on his generation: the nullification and banking crises dominating Andrew Jackson’s years as president, and growing dissent and discord over slavery.

The “Statistical” portion of this work is nothing less than daunting: mortality figures for New York, Baltimore, Charleston, London, the world; trade passing in and out of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, the entire U.S.; public expenditures and public debt. Topics, too, in which Whitehead seems to have nursed an interest before, during or after the pivotal Key West years: whale fisheries; the anthracite coal trade; the speed of the mails; mortality and sickness at Key West and on the army post there; numbers of newspapers and periodicals by state; school funding; Newark’s population in the year it was incorporated as a city. All of these matters are presented statistically, and overwhelming though the section is as a whole, it contains nothing that wasn’t clipped from a newspaper of the day.7

While in command of the Key West custom house from 1831 to 1838, and as editor of the island’s lone weekly The Enquirer in the middle years of that decade, Whitehead possessed as good an opportunity as anyone so remote from the centers of power and influence of securing other cities’ newspapers. Clippings from the New York, Washington and Charleston presses all found a home between the covers of his largest scrapbook.8

Editorial duties made Whitehead a writer of newspapers, not just a reader. In this capacity, his scrapbook-making habits could only have helped. To gather “scraps” from the columns of other papers and reprint them in one’s own was, throughout the century, an accepted and expected practice. Whitehead, however, looked and was perhaps forced to look, not only to newspapers printed far away and sometimes sporadically delivered, but to his own personal store of clippings. These he mined for moral pronouncements, historical curiosities and the occasional bit of humor, publishing them across at least five separate issues of the Enquirer under the heading “Excerpts from the Scrap Book of a young gentleman about town.”9

As Whitehead’s Key West sojourn drew to a close, he continued to gather material for scrapbooks, some of it destined for at least one disused record book from the custom house. It was another standard technique of the century to repurpose bound volumes once their contents were considered out-of-date or otherwise disposable. Scrapbooks made in this way were effective and economical, and Whitehead continued the practice into the 1860s.10

Such methods, while originating in an impulse to cultivate and preserve the past, produce artifacts exceedingly troublesome to historians and archivists. Clippings pasted over a book’s original content obscure and even destroy that content. Pages are entirely lost if the creator, wishing to keep the recycled book to a manageable thickness, cuts them out. In the case of printed works of which multiple copies exist, the losses may be minimal. But Whitehead’s early scrapbooks are different: all consist of handwritten volumes whose original content is entirely unique; one of them appears to be a ledger once used by his own father.11

Well after his Key West years, Whitehead’s continued association with newspapers would generate new scrapbooks, devoted wholly or mostly to his own writings. His “Letters from Havana,” a series of columns published in 1838 by the Newark Daily Advertiser, were gathered into a volume that has never come to light.12 Over the next two decades more than three hundred book notices and articles, the latter chiefly about New Jersey history, flowed from his pen and into the pages of the Advertiser. The clippings fill another large scrapbook, with the single word “Contributions” embossed on its spine. It’s the first that Whitehead equipped with a complete table of contents.13

Controversies sparked or fueled by Whitehead’s scholarship also played out in the press, though with more civility than today’s media seem to allow. Substantial sections of later scrapbooks, and sometimes entire volumes, thus record disputes in which he was embroiled: over a publicly funded survey of colonial documents, or the land claims of Newark’s Trinity Church, or New Jersey’s boundaries with New York.14

A lifelong preoccupation with “usefulness” seems manifest in the scrapbooks of Whitehead’s middle years. Here, the earlier sentimentality largely gives way to system. Complete lists of contents become the norm. Entries are sourced and dated, their authorship often specified. The latest known scrapbooks, five volumes entitled (with some variation) “Miscellanies Historical and Biographical relating to New Jersey,” link their compiler and his fellow scribes to unsigned pieces featured in the Daily Advertiser or elsewhere. The “Miscellanies” claim our attention right from their title pages, inscribed with Whitehead’s assessment, “Matter valuable, as much of it is original and not obtainable in Book form.”15

After his death in 1884, his library was found to contain 15 volumes of scrapbooks, but scarcely half the items in a postmortem inventory match the titles of the ones known to exist.16 Of those not appearing in the inventory, two were apparently in the hands of Cortlandt Whitehead when his father’s collection was surveyed.17 It’s possible, though unlikely, that others will be found. Most of what survives, which I describe here in a manner Whitehead would probably call “desultory,” entered the library of the New Jersey Historical Society as bequests or donations from their creator and his family. They were acknowledged and praised at the Society’s May 1885 meeting for their arrangement and indexing, their interest and value, and “not only for their contents, but for the testimony which they give to the love of the lamented donor for the work to which he devoted all his leisure moments.”18

A bookplate inside one of Whitehead’s scrapbooks.

Copyright © 2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] For the quotations in this and the following paragraph, and for welcome guidance in grappling with the scrapbook as archive and artifact, I’m indebted to Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with scissors. American scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press 2013) (hereafter “Garvey, Writing”) 14, 212-213 et passim.

[2] Over the years, these books have borne a succession of markings and numberings, somewhat a reflection of the difficulties scrapbooks posed, and continue to pose, for libraries and archives. I created this synopsis of renumberings from an examination of Whitehead scrapbooks in the collections of the New Jersey Historical Society:

Whitehead’s designation “Rare Scrap Book” Later numbering Current numbering
No 6 MG 709 MG 941
Scrap book no. 2 1828–29 No 7 MG 1494 SB 42 vol. 2 MG 724 Box 2
Scrap book no. 3 1829 & 30 Miscellaneous selections etc. No 3 MG 1494 SB 42 vol. 1 MG 724 Box 1
Scrap book intended etc. No 5 MG 709 MG 1494 SB 34
“Rare Miscellaneous Clippings” No 4 [MG 1494?]
SB 41
MG 734 vol. 2
Contributions MG 1494 SB 10
Miscellanies etc. N974.9 N423 MG 1494 SB 94
Controversy etc. MG 237 vol. 5

[3] For some account of these albums, now at the Key West Art & Historical Society, see my previous post The parting hour.

[4] “The leaves on which the scraps are pasted,” Whitehead added inside the volume’s back cover, “are part of an account book presented to me by Mrs. A. Kearny, the items of which bore date 1713 & 14.” Whitehead would write of Ann Hude Kearny that “many of the present generation cherish a pleasing recollection, from having witnessed that suavity of manners, and that mild, amiable, Christian deportment, which in old age she retained to a remarkable degree.” Widowed before Whitehead’s birth and “having remained a witness to the change of times and circumstances,” she died in 1828 at the age of 90. William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 91. The book, now partially disbound and with several pages’ worth of clippings detached and filed in separate folders, was a ledger belonging to merchants who dealt mainly in cloth and notions. A few entries later than 1714 are found among its pages. On the inside front cover, Whitehead wrote “1826 & 7,” presumably the years in which it was his sole or primary scrapbook, but there are substantial numbers of clippings from the years 1823-1825 and several date back much further. John Cruger & Elias Neau Account Book 1713-1715 / William A. Whitehead Scrapbook, 1821-1826, Manuscript Group 941, New Jersey Historical Society.

[5] The older inscription “William Whiteheads Ledger No. 1,” found on an inner flyleaf of the volume, and visible entries ranging in date from 1794 to 1802 make this in all likelihood an account book that had belonged to Whitehead’s father. As the original content is obscured by its reuse, it’s difficult to determine whether the ledger includes details of his New York City furniture business (on which see my previous post What’s in a name) or merely contains household accounts. Manuscript Group 724, Box 2, New Jersey Historical Society.

[6] The ledger entries are mostly obscured, but dates in the 1740s are visible. Whitehead drew his subtitle from an anonymous English novel first published in 1821, Happiness; a tale, for the grave and the gay. Manuscript Group 724, Box 1, New Jersey Historical Society.

[7] Possibly the earliest of Whitehead’s scrapbooks not to use the pages of a repurposed volume, this may have proved, in the end, too ambitious a project. As a “receptacle” of American history, biography and statistics, its usefulness is limited by lack of pagination and a table of contents. Scrapbook Collection, Manuscript Group 1494, SB 34, New Jersey Historical Society.

[8] On the newspaper exchange system, which made other papers available postage-free to editors like Whitehead, cf. Garvey, Writing 29-36. For the difficulties occasioned by their irregular delivery to Key West, see my earlier post Together apart.

[9] During 1835, Whitehead published 44 excerpts from a scrapbook in The Enquirer of 21 and 28 March, 11 and 18 April, and 6 June. An earlier Key West paper had promoted a forthcoming compilation of “original pieces in Prose and Poetry, to be called the SCRAP BOOK,” but this appears to have been the work of a “young gentleman” of St. Augustine, and unrelated to Whitehead. I’m unaware that it was ever published. Key West (Fla.) gazette 2 May 1832 3:1.

[10] A record of Key West custom house bonds (judging from markings in ink on the spine, dated from 1833 to 1837), was repurposed, beginning probably in 1838 or 1839, to receive clippings on much the same plan as the monumental SB 34 (note 7 above). Whitehead attempted to separate the historical from the biographical or statistical, but with less satisfactory results. Clippings in a separate section of “New Jersey Scraps” exhibit dates from 1839 to 1845. John Whitehead and William A. Whitehead Papers, Manuscript Group 734, vol. 2, New Jersey Historical Society. See also note 15 below.

[11] See note 5 above.

[12] “Letters from Havana” appeared in 1838, in 15 issues of the Daily Advertiser from 31 July to 26 September, and in its companion paper The Sentinel of Freedom from 7 August to 2 October. A memoir composed near the end of Whitehead’s life mentions that the articles could be found in “a small scrap-book in my library….” “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which transcriptions are held by the Florida Keys History Center, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 43 contains the reference.

[13] Whitehead was called upon for (or himself offered) brief assessments of scores of recent books, from the momentous to the obscure. The Prelude, William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, elicited a comment that, while the work would much enhance the poet’s fame, “some portions will be found below the average of his previously published works.” On the other hand Whitehead found nothing to dislike in a translated French treatise on fish breeding, saying, “It is no unimportant matter to have one’s dinner always ready at hand on one’s own premises.” While most of the scrapbook’s content is his own work, Whitehead’s wife (signing herself “M. E.,” her first and middle initials) authored two articles preserved here for the Protestant Churchman.  Scrapbook Collection, Manuscript Group 1494, SB 10, New Jersey Historical Society.

[14] Beginning at page 47, “Contributions” includes a section of “Matter prepared or communicated with the view of obtaining a list of the Colonial Documents in England,” including newspaper reports and vote tallies from the failed movement to gain legislative approval. (On this effort see my previous post Our man in London.) The 1859 Trinity Church dispute is presented in a half dozen columns Whitehead clipped for one of his New Jersey “Miscellanies”; see note 15 below. The boundary dispute with New York inspired his arrangement of eighteenth-century documents in three quarto volumes, to which is added a small scrapbook of 1865 clippings and other matter entitled “Controversy respecting the Eastern Boundary of New Jersey.” New York and New Jersey Boundary Dispute, Manuscript Group 237, New Jersey Historical Society.

[15] The five betray no definitive order. Three of them are repurposed volumes: one is a former railway directory for 1863, another a Land Office report of 1866, and a third a book of baggage tickets, presumably from Whitehead’s years as a railroad executive. The bulk of their contents dates to the 1850s and 1860s. Among the revelations is a series of unsigned columns Whitehead contributed in 1860 to the New York World. Scrapbook Collection, Manuscript Group 1494, SB 94, New Jersey Historical Society. Whitehead may also have repurposed an 1855 catalogue of the publisher D. Appleton & Co. as “Sketches of Friends and Notes Historical & Biographical of West Jersey.” The title page, at least, is his work. Scrapbook Collection, Manuscript Group 1494, SB 96, New Jersey Historical Society.

[16] “Bound Volumes from the Estate of Mr. William A. Whitehead.” William A. Whitehead Papers, Manuscript Group 177, Box 2, Folder 10, New Jersey Historical Society.

[17] Flyleaves of both “Contributions” and “Controversy respecting the Eastern Boundary of New Jersey” (notes 13 and 14 above) record their donation to the Historical Society by Cortlandt Whitehead, his father’s executor. “Proceedings in New Jersey in the year 1672,” a scrapbook of 15 dueling articles by Whitehead and Jonathan F. Stearns published by the Newark Daily Advertiser in 1855, came to the Newberry Library from the private collection of Edward E. Ayer. To these may be added Whitehead’s copy of Walter C. Maloney’s 1876 A sketch of the history of Key West, in which he pasted clippings of his thirteen Reminiscences, contributed in 1877 to the newspaper Key of the Gulf. On this volume see my previous post Together apart.

[18] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 2, 8:4 (1885) 154; cf. 152-153.

Images: 1) “Siftings”: Baldwin’s monthly 10:5 (May 1875) 2. 2) Bookplate: William A. Whitehead, Scrap Book No. 2.

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