How Mark Twain Supported Women’s Suffrage

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on the intersections of U.S. literature, politics, & 19th-century scrapbooks, please check out Prof. Garvey’s blog, Scrapbook History.

The fight for US women’s right to vote went on for decades. Suffragists were always finding, adopting, and updating tools for the struggle. Data management was essential, and scrapbooks were the late 19th and early 20th century’s essential technology for keeping track of news and information. 

Thousands of American men and women made newspaper clipping scrapbooks during and after the Civil War. In them, they saved a record of fast-moving events, or tracked issues and movements they were involved with. Mark Twain, like other writers, used scrapbooks to save clippings of his own writings, sometimes holding them for reuse. Most people who took up scrapbook making after the Civil War frugally avoided spending money on them – instead, they reused old record books and outmoded textbooks to paste newspaper clippings into. Nicely bound government reports were special favorites. Congressmen sent them out to constituents free, and they looked handsome on the bookshelf.

Pasting over sturdy used ledgers filled with obsolete bookkeeping was popular too. Susan B. Anthony thriftily pasted the clippings of the 13-volume scrapbook she gave the Library of Congress into large used ledger books

Page from Susan B. Anthony scrapbook (made from ledger book).

Scrapbooks held the records of suffrage campaigns and strategizing. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, followed up the Seneca Falls convention by clipping the coverage it received in papers, and annotating the unsigned articles with the names of their authors, preserving information saying which writers were sympathetic to the cause, and pasting them all into what appears to be an unused notebook or ledger. 

After 1876, scrapbookers gained a new option. Mark Twain patented what may have been the only one of his several inventions that earned him money, his Self-Pasting Scrap Book. It had strips of glue imprinted onto the paper which could be moistened with a sponge, like the old type of postage stamp. The books were priced from 40 cents to an extravagant $5.00, depending on their size and the lavishness of the binding. 

Advertisment with Mark Twain’s letter, describing his invention. The letter went viral. Editors reprinted it and joked about it – publicizing the scrapbook without additional cost to Twain. (image of ad at Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

The Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Book offered convenience, as the ad suggests. It could be used without a paste pot and brush. That might have appealed to the prominent professional orator for abolition and then women’s rights, Anna E. Dickinson (1842-1932). She used Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Books for at least 20 years, into the 1890s. Her clipping and pasting followed the chronology of her lecturing and performance tours, and later a lawsuit she was involved in.

Anna E. Dickinson Scrapbook, from her 1895 lawsuit. Drawing in newspaper shows her performing as Macbeth. (Library of Congress Anna E. Dickinson Papers: Page 72 Addition, 1862-1933; Scrapbooks 1893-1896)
Anna E. Dickinson Scrapbook, index page with clippings over it. (Library of Congress Anna E. Dickinson Papers: Miscellany, 1863-1951; Scrapbooks circa 1877-1882)

Her 1879 memoir A Ragged Register (of People, Places and Opinions) chronicles endless travel experiences on trains and stopping alone at hotels. With the scrapbooks’ pre-gummed columns that required only moistening with water, she could while away the long hours on the train pasting down the newspaper clippings. She could not have done her pasting on the fly if she’d had to pack a messy glue pot! 

Twain was attentive to Anna Dickinson’s lecturing career, maybe because she was one of the highest-paid speakers of the time. Only a few months after he made his own lecturing debut, speaking about his travels in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), he wrote about Dickinson’s talk at Cooper Union’s large and prestigious Great Hall in New York, offering critical praise of her speaking style.

She talks fast, uses no notes what ever, never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself. Indeed, her sentences are remarkably smoothly-woven and felicitous. Her vim, her energy, her determined look, her tremendous earnestness, would compel the respect and the attention of an audience, even if she spoke in Chinese – would convince a third of them, too, even though she used arguments that would not stand analysis. She keeps close to her subject, reasons well, and makes every point without fail. Her prose poetry charms, her eloquence thrills, her pathos often moves to tears, her satire cuts to the quick, and she hath a certain grim humor that affords an uneasy sort of enjoyment – uneasy, because one feels that when she lightens that way she is going to storm directly. 

from Alta California (February 23, 1867)

He was less interested in her topic, work for women. But as a novice lecturer himself, he paid close attention to technique. How should one handle an applause line?

She has got one defect, which you may notice in all women who make speeches: frequently, after she has got her audience wrought up ready to explode with enthusiasm, she does not spring her grand climax upon them at the precious instant, but drags toward it so slowly that by the time she reaches it they are nearly cooled down to a dignified self-possession again. But perhaps she does not want applause – she never stops for it, at any rate, but goes on talking in the midst of it.

from Alta California (February 23, 1867)

Twain’s gendered generalization about speakers’ habits let him distinguish himself from women on the platform. 

Women speakers were rarely if ever humorists like Twain. He offered ambiguous praise for her preferred mode of comedic expression, sarcasm: “Her sarcasm bites. I do not know but that it is her best card,” and then turns it into an insult: “She will make a right venomous old maid some day.”

Her scrapbooks put her sarcasm on display, with scathing comments annotating critical reviews. 

Twain’s and Dickinson’s relationship was not a smooth one – he wondered if she would think him a boor, and she did. She was shocked at how much money he made from his writing – or at least at the reports of how much he made. But she was a loyal customer for one of his books, The Self-Pasting Scrap Book, which was the most profitable patent in his portfolio, by a rather wide margin.

A Midwestern Suffrage Leader’s Scrapbooks

Other women’s rights and suffrage speakers selected the Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Book for specific uses. Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, a prominent Midwestern suffragist and popular columnist in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, made multiple clipping scrapbooks, where she assembled different paper versions of herself. Some scrapbooks preserved records of both her writing and speeches, while one that she made as a gift for her mother focused on accounts of her marriage and childbearing, and on her writing – but omitted accounts of her public speaking, which was far less respectable for middle class married women. The scrapbook she devoted to orderly files of “The Woman’s Kingdom,” her weekly column from 1877-1884, is a Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Book. 

The cover of Elizabeth Boynton Harbert’s Mark Twain Scrap Book looked like this, and celebrates the act of gathering materials, with a cherub holding scissors and a net.

The scrapbook was convenient, but since Harbert kept other scrapbooks that required the gluepot during this same period, it is interesting to think about what using a Mark Twain scrapbook meant to her. The column she preserved in it often drew on other writers and encouraged a sense of community. It also created a community of sorts with Mark Twain – the scrapbook bore his name, as though they were co-authors. Perhaps the book with its association with a well known professional writer and speaker offered a kind of support, like wearing basketball sneakers the same brand as a sports star, to feel aligned with the athlete’s power and grace. 

Some editions prominently featured Mark Twain’s name on cover and/or spine, suggesting that some consumers coveted the association with the famous humorist…while others did not. (this edition is from the Mark Twain Project)

The Mark Twain Scrap Book signified organization and seriousness. It usually had tabbed index pages in the front, suggesting that the owner would classify and alphabetize the clippings, or at least intended to. The men and women who kept the several dozen Mark Twain Scrap Books I’ve seen all left the index pages blank or (like Anna Dickinson) pasted over some, but buying a scrapbook with such pages nods to the ambition to be organized. The scrapbooks of women’s rights speakers proclaimed order and professionalism through their formal qualities of organization, reinforced by the straight lines of preglued strips, along with their content.

For many scrapbook makers, moving on to scrapbooks they had to purchase marked a step into taking their work and history seriously. Mark Twain scrapbooks also allowed them to bridge home and work, tying public speaking and writing to domestic space and femininity. These scrapbooks fit into parlor decor. The covers were stamped with attractive designs, and sometimes with humorous images, usually executed in an elevated style. Harbert’s Mark Twain Scrap Book for her “Woman’s Kingdom” columns softened its allegiance to the business world with a whimsical cover of the cherub with scissors and net, while Dickinson (who had previously made scrapbooks using paste pot, brush, and blank books) chose the Mark Twain Scrap Book with a cherub knocking over a paste pot on its cover.  

Using a Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Book offered women’s rights speakers and writers a quirky association with Twain’s authorship and creative persona. They filled their own scrapbooks, but their labels proclaimed them Mark Twain’s. But they were a “great humanizing and civilizing invention,” as Twain wrote to his brother Orion, in originally describing the scrapbook. Forward thinking suffragists quickly adapted this cutting edge technology, for the cause. 

Ellen Gruber Garvey is a Emerita Professor at New Jersey City University and author of  Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013). She currently writes the blog, Scrapbook Historyusing the scrapbooks of the nineteenth century to elucidate resilient patterns in U.S. politics.