Monday, May 2, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - THE Diary

[This is my catharsis. While personal and international events of the present tug me in negative directions, I look to the past for grounding.]

A few weeks ago I found a diary in an antique shop on Route 13 in northern Massachusetts. The location isn't important, except that the shop was an unexpected stop on the way home from a history conference. I am learning to stop at small antique stores that may not look like much from the outside. I almost went right by this very non-descriptive little dilapidated building, but the treasure I found within is something I've been seeking for a year - since I began searching antique shops with purpose. I collect interesting images and other items to illustrate courses I teach, books I write and postings on this blog. I had hoped to find a diary.

I have been keeping my own diary since I was 11 years old. Soon thereafter I read my first published diary. "The Diary of Anne Frank" pulled me into an alternate world, helped me understand my family better, and showed me that little girls are basically the same on the inside, whatever their circumstances. In college I took a women's history course that taught me more about diary writing. I read "A MidWife's Tale" with interest. I sometimes come across them in repositories when I do survey work. Diaries are always on my mind as a form of personal expression and as a strong link to the past. I get excited whenever I come across one.

As an aside, about ten years ago I had a conversation with my former college advisor. I often reflect upon our discussion. She too is a diary keeper. I mentioned to her that I write in my journal with a thought in the back of my head that someone may read my words one day. I do not think that I censor myself because of this thought, but it sometimes helps me to see a bigger picture. I can get out of my own head to be a little more object about some things I might be inclined to just spit out. My advisor had an immediate negative reaction. She said that she never thinks about those who may read her words in the future. Her diary is for her alone and she felt that she couldn't be open if she thought about an audience. I found that interesting coming from an historian. I have often wondered where other diary writers stand on this and I read diaries wondering if the author has thought about an audience.

In my opinion, among the most delightful treasures of an archival repository is THE diary. This primary source form gives us a look at history in a way that no other source does. It is personal and I suspect that most diary writers do not think about their legacy while they write. (Or, at least they didn't. This is changing thanks to the Internet.) An old diary transports us to another time, place and another mind.

So, sitting on a crowded counter, a little book caught my eye. I picked it up and peeled apart the pages. Inside I found almost seven months worth of entries dating from January 1882 to July of the same year. The brown ink was exciting. The messy handwriting made the writer instantly come to life for me. (I can identify with messy handwriting.) I brought my little treasure home and began transcribing it. I expected weather reports and little else. I got a whole lot more.

Here are a few excerpts that I've shared on the Facebook Life in Context page:

      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon ‎"January 10, 1882 - At about half past nine this morning the alarm of fire was given, which proved to be (?) Boothby’s(?) house. We were early on hand with the engine and saved the farm and would have saved the house had the water held out. As it was only partly burned. We pumped dry two ponds [a few illegible words here...]. Don’t know how it caught, probably through by friction."
        April 17 at 8:54pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon Another gem... "January 24, 1882 - This has been the coldest morning for many years. 24 below zero. No fears of an Ice famine now. Nell went home this afternoon to stay all night. her mother is very low. They think she cannot live but a day or two. Olman Perkins is very sick, they think he cannot live. Eddie Perkins they think is in a consumption."
        April 18 at 3:27pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        The diary contains reference to Norfolk Jubilee Singers. Based on a small bit of Internet research I learned that they were a band of former slaves. I've narrowed the diary to Maine. There are lots of reference to Maine cities and talk of o...See More
        April 19 at 2:13pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon My diary writer is sarcastic with strong opinions, keeping me smiling - "March 6, 1882 [re: town meeting] E___ Gordon was there and showed himself to be a consummate fool. He is certainly a great addition to the town. He and his ___ are a set of worthless fellows."
        April 19 at 5:57pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        This diary is making me so thankful that I didn't live in the 19th century. many, many deaths due to diseases about which I've heard - (consumption, pneumonia), but also some that are new to me such as Eyresipelas and Brights Disease. This ...See More
        April 21 at 5:35pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        Here's another bit from the diary. It seems appropriate to post today while we are getting snow in New Hampshire. "May 24, 1882 -This has been quite a nice day, but tonight it is growing colder. Last week in Portland on Munquy(?) Hill 5 lar...See More
        April 23 at 10:59am · 

The diary contains many names and I've been able to narrow the location to Maine, somewhere between Biddeford, Saco and Portland. My fun summer project is to head up the Maine coast to do a little research with my daughter. We will begin searching through city directories to try to get more information.  I'll search through the local papers for events. A couple of incidents stand out for me, but I am going to begin with a focus on an alleged abortion that took place. The doctor who was involved was being "investigated." I also plan to search health records to learn more about all of the illnesses and deaths that occurred that winter. In the end,  I hope to identify a town and maybe even the diary's writer.

It is perhaps an unusual project for an archivist, but I'm excited to have a bit of my own historical research to do. My latest book will be wrapping up (hopefully), I'll be between consulting projects, and this will be a fun and productive diversion. We'll see where this journey takes me. For now, I am honored to be the one who gets to connect in this way with a person from the past and to share this compassionate experience with my child. May I always remember that I am here because of those who came before me.


  1. What a great find! I can't wait to read more as you continue to transcribe it!

  2. What a co-incidence as I've just been reading about another dairy find and wrote about it on my blog! That must have been such an exciting find!

    Even from the extracts you've included above it sounds like it must be a harrowing read at times. Like you say, so many illnesses and diseases. I'll look forward to hearing about more of your finds and discoveries from the diary!

    I love your plans to do further research into the diary, and a field trip! I think all archivists are large part detective anyway,or wannabe detective, or is that just me!?

  3. We're definitely part history detective. We always need to make connections to create better collections and to properly document communities. It is nice to have a special piece of history that is not yet part of a collection though. It will be nice to make those connections from scratch and to find other primary resources that relate to this one.

  4. I'm imagining this project developing into a book about your journeys with L to track down the stories behind this diary. What fun! :)

  5. ;) yep. me too. but I'll just let it gently unfold and see where it goes without too much planning at first.

  6. I just noticed your comment about all of the diseases. Fun to see the old names. We still have all of those diseases, we just call them different things. Erysipelas we now call cellulitis, an infection of the skin. (This was easily treated when people started using penicillin, but your diarist lived in the pre-antibiotic era.) I think Bright's disease referred to just about any kidney disease before people started understanding that there are lots of different types of kidney disease.

  7. The diseases are fascinating. When I worked as an archivist in Waltham MA, we maintained health records from 1917 when there was a massive flu outbreak. The documentation was really amazing. I am interested to see if any of the diseases mentioned in my diary were more widespread than the diary reveals. It seems like someone died in this presumably small town every week. There seems to be a lot of elderly, but I wonder if something else was going on. Disease and death was so much more common back then, but the recording of it in this book seems disproportionately large even considering the era....just another possible avenue for exploration and learning.

  8. You've probably already figured this out, but the reference to Mun___ Hill, Portland, is Munjoy Hill. This is fascinating stuff. Enjoy your trip up the coast. I, too, loved "A Midwife's Tale."

    Simmons, Class of 1977

  9. Thanks Pam! I haven't made a second pass through the diary yet to try to figure out things I didn't get the first time. I am also not yet up on my Maine geography, so I had not figured out Munjoy Hill. I appreciate the help :)

  10. This is interesting, the first time I am coming across an antique diary shop.

  11. The shop had all kinds of things and just one little diary - now MY little diary...but an antique diary shop would be very, very fun! I don't think there are enough diaries to go around though and I'd rather see all of those diaries in an an archival repository somewhere ;)