originally published in the Concord Monitor, October 30, 2013
These days when we think of a diary we think of juicy tidbits from a person’s private life. We imagine it kept locked and hidden away, and its keeper scandalized should its contents be revealed. Last year, much was made in Great Britain about the publication online of Queen Victoria’s journals. That is, the expurgated version. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, went through her mum’s diaries after the monarch’s death and edited out anything that might be upsetting to the Royal Family. Then she burned the originals.
For the most part, the diaries of ordinary souls were kept to mark weather and events, and the prosaic routines of daily life. An old diary can be an invaluable tool to the historian, documenting when things happened and to whom.
One of my favorite examples from my own home town is how the actual date of the first Deerfield Fair was pinned down. The History of Nottingham, Deerfield and Northwood, published in 1878 by the Rev. Elliott C. Cogswell, is considered one of the best sources for historical and genealogical information on this area. The good Reverend had the date for the first Deerfield Fair as 1877, something locals contested but couldn’t prove. Then the diary of Hannah Cram for the year 1876 turned up in the collection of the Deerfield Historical Society, and proved the locals were right. Hannah talks about Deerfield holding its first fair in that year, one year earlier than Cogswell had it.
Let that be a lesson to you: Books and transcripts are great, but you can’t beat original sources.
A good many old diaries are, to be candid, pretty darn boring. Entry after entry of “Cold. Stayed home.” Or “Sunny. Went to town.” Or, “George and Ray went out and hayed.” But some, even though the entries contain no scandal, are still an intriguing insight into the small dramas of people’s lives.
Take the example of the diary of Etta S. Chase for the year 1950 which came into my possession thanks to former selectman John Reagan who thought I might find it interesting. I did. No juicy tidbits, but I found a lot of familiar names and places mentioned in it. Etta made frequent references to Florence, in whose house she was staying, and to whom she paid board amounting to $1 per day. Florence went to church regularly every Sunday and attended Woman’s Relief Corps meetings. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was Florence Young, who was a member of the WRC, and whose face appears in photographs of WRC events in the Historical Society’s collection.
On Wednesday, April 5, Etta and Florence went to a meeting of the Rebekahs, which were the women’s branch of the Odd Fellows, an organization who met in the building in Deerfield Center which now houses the Lazy Lion Cafe. You can still see their symbol, the three links, on the chimney. Two days after attending the meeting, Etta reports that she and Florence were not feeling well.
April 9 was Easter Sunday, and Etta and Florence had to have Dr. Fernald in. You’ll note that not only did Dr. Fernald make a house call, but he was willing to come on Easter. Both women were coughing and feeling sick. He sent them to bed. Etta stabilized, but Florence got worse. Dr. Fernald had to come twice more the next day, and pronounced Florence to have pneumonia. A friend, Mabel Earle, came to stay with them to look after things, relieved over the next few days by Kate Rand and Gusta Burke. You didn’t have Visiting Nurses in those days; you had friends and neighbors.
On Tuesday, Florence was sent to Exeter hospital. Etta remained bedridden, looked after by friends. She records that Florence Young died in Exeter Hospital at 7:15 pm on Friday. Her funeral was the following Sunday, but Etta was still too sick to go, and sent flowers. She then was moved to the home of Flora Windridge (another member of the Woman’s Relief Corps) where she stayed, paying $1 a day board, too sick to go out. “Dull time,” she records. No television or Netflix with which to beguile away the hours.
Etta finally recovered after almost a month, and goes on to faithfully record the events around her, from who got elected at Town Meeting (Carl Fogg, Selectman, E.B. Hersey Tax Collector) to local news (“Kimball’s house at James City had a fire this am”), small milestones (“John Kyle is 84 years old today; Daisy Mae Chase is 16 yrs old today”), and the comings and goings of people(“Went with Pike Chase to visit Roscoe in Candia; Bernice and Uncle John have gone to Concord this pm; Nancy Stevens called here today”). It’s interesting to note the price of goods, services and even charitable donations (“pd. Guptil $1 electric light bill; called at O’Neal’s store, pd. 26 cents for prune juice; gave $1 to Red Cross”).
As a writer, I find this sort of thing invaluable because it is real, first-hand information. But it also gives us valuable perspective. In this era of break-neck speed, communication and information overload, and innovation too exhausting to keep up with, it is helpful to touch another life, a different reality, that wasn’t so long ago.