In 1979 the American Antiquarian Society purchased a small hard-covered account book containing a daily log from January 1, 1869 to June 2, 1870. Clues of the anonymous diarist’s identity began to reveal themselves in his cursive scrawl: a young blacksmith apprentice from Stow, Massachusetts working in Medfield.
Before sleep each night, the apprentice noted the day’s activities. This personal ritual, nearly a century and a half later, adds to a collection of once-a-day diaries that form a vital component of the AAS manuscripts collection and offers a valuable resource in studying United States social history.
The genre itself got a substantial public boost from A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analysis of Martha Ballard’s 1785-1815 diaries. Beyond the record-keeping tradition begun with the “daybook and the interleaved almanac” (8), Ulrich suggested that “Perhaps it was a sense of history or a craving for stability, perhaps only a practical need to keep birth records, that first motivated Martha to keep a diary”(20). The apprentice’s book echoes the duality of both practical and personal purposes found in Ballard’s diaries.
For all of our indiscriminate use of the delete key, the paper shredder, and the recycling bin, each of us creates a paper trail of memory in archived emails, credit card statements, tax returns, etc. that remembers our past. We also benefit from a society that encompasses our experience into a collective memory: vital records, newspapers, even the Weather Channel. The origins of the apprentice’s diary appear rooted in the task of creating his own paper trail.
Almost every workday entry begins with a nod to monotony: “Blacksmithing as usual,” “Blacksmithing another day,” Blacksmithing again,” with the occasional nod to playfulness, “Blacksmithing of KOARCE” (April 7, 1869). But often, the apprentice followed with specific descriptions of the horse cart, the wagon, even the fashionable velocipede, that occupied his time. These notes offer evidence and details of the types of skills, the long hours, the true practice of apprenticeship, that would create a skilled blacksmith. The diary becomes a log of his growing fluency with the trade.
Each day begins with his work and closes with a few short notes about his leisure time—croquet, church, letters home. For a young man having left his family but not yet starting his own, one senses his diary takes the place of the dinner table question, “How was your day?”
So here we replace 19th century printing technology with 21st century electronic technology; shaking this young man’s words into the Internet ether. Mind you, Twitter rejected the blacksmith. The 140-character limit axed any potential for 140-year-old-tweeting. But surprisingly it is a blog, with its ability to schedule posting times, that allow us to read his diary as he wrote it, with no peeking ahead. In consideration of a reading public, certain transcription liberties have been taken. Commas and periods have been added to increase readability and “[sic]” is used to indicate choices of the original pen instead of slips on the keypad.
From an anonymous beginning we hope you discover the personality of the young man in this diary, acknowledge the timelessness of the daily grind, and enjoy a modern-day avenue into 1869.
P.S. We figured out who the blacksmith was…will you?
- McCarthy, Molly. “A Pocketful of Days: Pocket Diaries and Daily Record Keeping among Nineteenth-Century New England Women” in The New England Quarterly. Vol. 73, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 274-96.
- Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.