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Activist scrapbook.
(Alice) Maud Arncliffe Sennett, English actress and suffragette, arrested four times for her activism. Shutterstock/Wikimedia

The radical history of scrapbooks – and why activists still use them today

You might think of scrapbooks as nothing more than a relic from the Victorian period, or an activity from your own childhood, but you would be wrong – because scrapbooking has a long and rich history connected with activism.

Indeed, in the run-up to the recent COP26 climate conference, the UK’s largest women’s organisation, the Women’s Institute (WI), asked for contributions to its “climate scrapbook”. The public affairs team invited anyone, members and non-members alike, to use their “knowledge, experience, and creativity” to respond to a short but powerful question – “why does the UK government need to make COP26 a success?”

Answers could take various forms: a short piece of writing, a photograph capturing how climate change had impacted their local area, a drawing, painting, or piece of embroidery. These contributions would be photographed and uploaded to a digital scrapbook for WI members to browse and consider. A few copies would be printed and delivered to key government ministers, using a chorus of voices to call for greater urgency in dealing with the climate crisis.

It may surprise that the WI chose a scrapbook over a more conventional report or letter as the way to deliver its call to action. Or maybe the scrapbook was the perfect choice for an organisation that has celebrated women’s craft skills since it was founded in 1915. Either way, it shows how, for many communities, scrapbooking is still very much connected with activism.

Write with scissors

Scrapbooks are a democratic form of archiving, available to anyone who can buy (or make) a scrapbook, scissors and glue. They are, to use English professor Ellen Gruber Garvey’s apt phrase, a way for activists to “write with scissors”, by rescuing items such as newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, badges – anything at all to chart their activist lives.

A scrapbook is a blank canvas upon which any activist can paint their story. It’s for this reason that campaigners have used this genre to document their worlds. Activists from all shades of the campaigning spectrum have used scrapbooks to capture their activist energies: whether it be recording hunger marches, strikes, fascist political activity, or the work of women’s peace camps.

Scrapbooks from the past, (author’s own collection). Author provided

Throughout history, many activists have used scrapbooks as a powerful act of protest. Unlike published memoirs or autobiographies, there is something intimate and tactile in the process of both compiling and reading an activist’s scrapbook. Sometimes these scrapbooks are private volumes. Other times, campaigners presented scrapbooks as gifts to each other, or used them to speak to a larger, public audience.

This was the case for (Alice) Maud Mary Arncliffe Sennett (1862-1936), who was not only a suffrage campaigner but an actress and businesswoman. She joined fellow suffrage campaigners organising marches, writing to newspapers, smashing windows, and forming her own organisation, the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage, after suffragette Emily Davison famously collided with a horse at the Epsom race course in June 1913. She also kept 37 scrapbooks where she documented her activist life on her own terms in rich, vibrant detail.

A scrapbooking suffragette

The pages of Sennett’s scrapbooks were somewhere for her to collate all her various readings on the suffragette movement sourced from pamphlets, newsletters and newspapers. Newspaper clippings record her window-smashing campaigns in 1919, while a police telegram chronicles the date of her court hearing, and letters share her joy at gaining the vote in 1918. Her 37-volume scrapbook collection was somewhere for her to talk back to writers, responding with her own views in the margins.

Force feeding a suffragette.
A suffragette on hunger strike in the UK being force-fed with a nasal tube in Holloway Prison, 1909. Wikicommons

The pages of her scrapbooks are like an emotional rollercoaster, with her frenetic layering of material visually presenting her activist world. Her strident, angry outbursts compel you to turn the next page, eager to see who or what is the subject of her next outburst. Alongside newspaper clippings, Sennett scrapbooked on her frustrations and loneliness, ranting against the Pankhurst family for excluding her from a large gathering of suffrage campaigners on Women’s Sunday in June 1908. In this way, activists’ scrapbooks are not just celebratory archives, but spaces that capture the messy, complicated lived experience of campaigning and political activism.

Nearly a century later, as a researcher sitting in the Reading Rooms of the British Library, I can request her scrapbooks, touch the newspapers Sennett read and feel the objects that meant something to her as a suffrage campaigner. Her scrapbooks are like time capsules, transporting us back to her busy, complex campaigning life.

While scrapbooking might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of activism, it has been a persistent way in which activists have amplified and archived their voices for the past, present and future.

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