The Public Humanist

Pocket diaries, little windows to the past

AnnaPopeDiaryPg_400wI’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that many of the readers of “The Public Humanist” delight, as I do, in the process of drawing our own conclusions about the past based on primary source artifacts. There’s something enchanting about reading the unmediated words of people from the past, especially when those writings are unedited, brief, factual notations drawn from the writer’s daily life. Such snippets make up the contents of the “daybooks” and pocket diaries that have been kept by our fellow humans throughout history, and that enjoyed such popularity in 19th century America. Through these brief daily jottings, we are treated to an unmediated look at daily life long ago from the vantage point of a fly-on-the-wall, as people describe what they did, where they went, and who they saw – often, and notably, refraining from including “how they felt” and “what they thought” in the process.

A fly-on-the-wall in a 19th century kitchen would have observed the surface details of people’s lives, including some quite unfamiliar to a 21st century fly: the joys of sleighing, a full day of heavy labor to do the wash, renting a horse and carriage for a day trip, blindfolding a nursing infant to help (?!) wean him to a wetnurse (“March 9th, 1864. We blind folded Johnny the first day and he nursed, but it frightened him–“). The daily snippets sometimes touch on situations whose details are fully known only to the writer, mysteries that can sometimes be resolved through further research but that sometimes must remain forever unclear, which is part of the reality, part of the fun.

When I read in teenager Sarah Louise Lawrence’s unpublished 1869 pocket diary that she “attended church 3 times today and sunday school” – Sunday after Sunday – I couldn’t help but sense her committed religiosity, if not her spirituality. When she wrote that an acquaintance who died suddenly lacked sufficient religiosity (“Wed, Jan 13, 1869. Clara Norwood buried today after a short illness of one week in which she endured intense suffering. No shure evidence that she entertained any Christian hope.”), it wasn’t clear whether Sarah meant that Clara was defiantly anti-religious or simply free-thinking or even clinically depressed or perhaps just a bit laid back, given that she was living among folks who went to church three times per Sunday. To really understand this snippet, one would need to know more about religious practice and belief in this community in 1860s Beverly, Massachusetts, and more about Clara Norwood in particular. Through such evocative, off-hand statements, primary source documents draw us flies-on-the-wall into investigating the wider context in order to fully understand the snippet in question. In the case of Sarah’s doomed friend, one definitely wants to learn more (I’m having trouble right now resisting to head for the online vital records at NEHGS to at least uncover how Clara Norwood died – a lightening bolt perhaps??)* That irresistable lure to explore the wider context is one of the best arguments for providing primary source artifacts online, however spare their content, for students and interested others to ‘do history’ from scratch.

Many daybooks are preserved in libraries or archives and are discoverable through the “finding aids” that archives maintain to describe their holdings. In some cases members of the general public can request the transcript or even the original through the wonders of Interlibrary Loan services at their local or university library. WorldCat is an ever-growing link to these finding aids, using the OAIster union catalog of millions of records representing open archive resources. Nowadays, we also of course have the option – impossible a generation ago – to examine the original documents online in order to see for ourselves what the writer wrote. A number of individuals and historical societies have daybooks in their collections and have made them available online. In some cases the diary pages are transcribed in print publications only, in some cases they are available online but are not transcribed, in other cases they are fully transcribed online but the page images are not digitized and in some happy instances, they fully transcribed and digitized online. In all of these categories there are gems, and here follow some of my personal favorites.

Transcribed and published in print only:

Growing Up in Boston’s Gilded Age: the Journal of Alice Stone Blackewell, 1872 – 1874. Yes, this Alice was the daughter of two famous civil rights activists and came from a clan where merely describing a family gathering was an exercise in historical documentation. But she was also a smart, rough-and-tumble 15 year old Boston girl whose fresh way of describing her world is spirited and delightful and forever realigns readers’ presumptions about demure buttoned-down females of the 19th century. Alice’s diary was published many years after her death, edited and richly annotated by Marlene Deahl Merrill. This engaging diary is not viewable online, but must be read the old-fashioned way, from cover to cover, which of course has its own charms.

The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke” edited by Brenda Stevenson and published in 1988 as part of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, covers Grimke’s daily writings from 1854 (age 17) to 1892 (age 54) and provide a window into life as an activist, educator and poet. A preview of the journals is available through Google books, but the printed version is the only way to fully immerse oneself in Grimke’s day-to-day world.

Also in the academic vein, the Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press co-publish the “New England women’s Diaries” Series, which has produced 2 documentary editions, the 1833 diary of Anna Cabot Lowell Quincy and the 1831-32 travel diary of Mary Gardner Lowell. Like the journals of Grimke and Stone Blackwell, these diaries are more extensive than the writings of the average pocket diarist, which is doubtless part of the reason they were deemed worthy of documentary editing and publication.

Nonetheless, many, many pocket diaries have been published in limited print runs over the years by small historical societies or individuals, such as “An Amish Girl’s Daily Life: Mary Fisher’s Diary, 1885”, published in 1992 in the Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society (Der Reggeboge), Vol. 26: 1, or “The Short Diary of a School Girl: Louisa Salome Cutler, 1881”, published by the Florence Civic and Buisness Association Book Committee, Florence Massachusetts in 1993, or “Caught Between Two Worlds: the diary of a Lowell Mill Girl” (edited by Mary H. Blewett) and published in 1984 by the Lowell Museum in Lowell, MA. There are scores of these little pamphlet transcriptions of daybooks floating around in archives and historical societies, and it would make a highly useful project for students or volunteers to scan and OCR them for online publication!

Digitized page images, but alas no transcriptions:

The Library of Congress has countless fascinating artifacts in its collections, but often its diaries are presented with page images only, without transcription, e.g. George Washington’s 1760 jottings or the 1909 diary of Wilbur Wright or the 1906 and 1907 diaries of Joseph Sanders. Some, like John Powel’s description of his overland journey from Illinois to Oregon in 1851 do include both transcription and page image. The LOC offers over 100 diaries online in one or the other format.

Transcribed online, but alas without digitized page images:

Some transcriptionists are using the web’s blogging options to present snippets of daily life from the past. Samuel Pepys’ diaries are presented online by Phil Gyford in a fantastically well-organized effort that aims to post and annotate all online over the course of ten years, starting back on Jan 1 2003 with entries from Jan 1 1660. The Pepys diaries website is based on five interrelated Moveable Type weblogs (diaries, encyclopedia, in-depth articles, site news and the ‘story so far’ ) that provide relevant maps, annotations, weather information and an active user community that energetically analyzes and discusses the language, people and events of the Pepys’ day. George Orwell and other prominent figures are having their daily notes blogged by their respective repository managers. Microblogging formats can be great for presenting line-a-day diary entries; the relatives of Genny Spencer are posting her 1937-41 daybook entries on Twitter, and John Quincy Adams’s daily jottings during his 1809 trip to Russia are being tweeted daily by the Massachusetts Historical Society,

Transcribed AND digitized page images online:

Martha Ballard’s Online Diary is wonderfully annotated and contextualized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, with the added benefit of being fully digitized, transcribed and made available online with many helpful tools for delving into Ballard’s world. (Patricia Bruttamesso describes this inspiring resource here on the Public Humanist in the post “Personal Histories: the Written Record and How to Evaluate It“.) The completeness of the diary entries and the range of tools made available to explore them is unbelievably helpful for see-for-yourselfers, and constitute an example of ‘doing history’ done right. The site’s “Magic Lens” and transcription exercises highlight the fact that paleography can be quite a stumbling block in figuring out the scribbles of days gone by, overcome only through practice, experience and training.

It is wonderful to have transcriptions and page images available online for hundreds of daybooks and pocket diaries. It will be even better once data standards for interoperability are fully formulated and widely adopted so that everything out there can be simultaneously searched, explored, annotated and recombined. There is something a bit too ephemeral about Twitter postings that do not also reside somewhere within a more robust and permanent structures.

Since this is the final Public Humanist blog posting for 2009, I would like to propose this New Year’s resolution for 2010: that anyone who feels so inclined go out and find a little notebook and start chronicling the stuff of your own life on paper in short, mundane snippets, in your own handwriting. Our lives includes so many things that may or may not be recognizable to readers hundreds of years from now, things like oil-powered transportation, terror alerts, social media experiments, privacy considerations, household routines, social structures and so much more. No need to bare your soul, just jot down a few notes about where you go, who you see, what you do. Why? Because there may come a day when the Internet blows a fuse, so to speak, in which case hardy artifacts like those little leather bound books will provide our descendents with as much insight and enjoyment as our predecessors’ jottings do for us today.

* p.s. Clara B. Norwood was born in Washington, MA in 1852, and died in Beverly MA on January 10, 1969 at the age of 17. Cause of death: “Internal inflammation.” (Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910. From original records held by the Massachusetts Archives. Online database:, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2004.)

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