Scrapping up the Past: A View of the 19th Century through Craft

July 29, 2014 in Editorials

The amount of news and pictures being printed and distributed in the nineteenth century led to a great breadth and depth of collecting across economic classes, professions, localities, and beliefs. The discovery of lithography and the invention of the steam-driven printing press coupled with a wide availability of paper propelled the forthcoming obsession with news and pictures. In an effort to stay informed on scientific advances, neighborhood gossip, emerging trends, and the latest news from other countries, excessive attention was paid to prints and clippings of all sorts. Even advertisements were saved and used later as decoration in the home or added to a scrapbook with other similar clippings. The most successful marketers caught on quickly to the collection craze and produced trading cards that urged buyers to collect every card in the set.

One of the proudest ways for a family to display their collection was on a folding screen. Scrap screens are intriguing as they reflect volumes of the most divergent tastes and interests of the time. Pictures used on screens often depicted the lifestyles of high class society. This reveals a romantic notion that appealed to those of lesser wealth living within a different class. While at The Scott Antiques Markets in Atlanta, Georgia, I was fortunate enough to come across a few prime examples of screen decorating from the nineteenth century.

Upon initial examination, the first screen I photographed merely seemed to reflect the code of dress that was then so popular. However, upon closer inspection and some research I came to find that a few of the prints were actually of the famous and the revered elite during the later part of the century. For instance, British explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley earned himself top space in a collage of other prominent figures that were acknowledged. Stanley was a Welsh-born American that served on both sides in the American Civil War. Eventually he worked for the New York Herald whom commissioned him to search for the African Congo explorer David Livingstone after he had not been heard from for some time. Stanley found Livingstone and is said to have greeted him the now famous quotation, “Mister Livingstone, I presume?” Upon Livingstone’s death, Stanley continued in his footsteps exploring the Congo region. Unfortunately for the Congolese, Stanley also sought King Leopold II of Belgium for assistance in developing the region. King Leopold II was more than willing. Eventually, Leopold’s greed for ivory and rubber led to the slave labor and genocide of the native inhabitants. The cut-out to the lower right of Sir Henry Morton Stanley is, of my strong opinion, believed to be that of King Leopold II. It should be noted that Sir Henry Morton Stanley was indeed against slave trade.

Another interesting screen encountered at The Scott Antique Markets displayed The Conway Castle of Wales. Conway Castle was built along with several other castles during the reign of Edward I in an effort to extinguish Welsh uprisings. The castle was completed in 1287. In the early 15th Century the Welsh finally captured it and held it for a very short occupation. It was inhabited again during the English Civil War, but soon afterwards fell to negligence. The construction of nearby railroads and bridges led to increased interest of the castle during the nineteenth century when it attracted artists and other visitors that encouraged care and reconstruction. Today it is a popular attraction open to host events as well as for public tour.

On this same screen is a scene titled The Widow’s Mite. As the biblical tale is told, Jesus watches one day as the wealthy citizens casually throw their large contributions into the temple treasury, yet a very poor widow comes along and only puts in two small copper coins; not much at all. Jesus explains to his disciples that the widow has put in the most. Where the rich gave from their great wealth, the widow gave all that she had. The donation of the rich was proportionately less in comparison.

Ephemera is marginal compared to other, more imperative paper sources like rare books, diaries, documents, and letters, however, they chronicle just as much critical information concerning the time in which they were created. Although such screens are relatively rare, I am told they are seen often at The Scott Antique Markets in Atlanta, Georgia. These two screens provided a window into the nineteenth century, regardless how cloudy the panes of history had become over time. In presenting from only four prints we have learned of the centuries expeditions as with Henry Morton Stanley; it’s darker side of trade and power as with King Leopold II of Belgium; it’s desire to preserve architectural accomplishments that remain standing centuries later as with the steadfast Conway Castle; and it’s affinity for religious stories of sacrifice and faith. It is essential to understand that I have only barely scratched the surface!

Nevertheless, it is still important to heed caution when making assumptions about nineteenth century social values and norms through the prints collected. As explained by Bryan F. Le Beau in Art in the Parlor, some prints “did not necessarily picture America as it existed, but rather as it was imagined- how their patrons imagined it to be or to have been, or wanted it to be.” It is however, pertinent to look upon such ephemera as a highly valuable source for the study of social history. In many cases pictures can confirm events, or compliment written accounts. Prints, scraps, and clippings are both a cultural artifact and a research tool for new scholarship.

by Jessica Munday-McGee

scrap Screen