If you ever want to really know what life was like for those who lived in the past, might I suggest reading the journals, letters, and diaries of persons from the 19th century? It's by reading these thoughts, feelings, and events-as-they-happened that one can fully immerse themselves into the past, even, dare I say, more than re-enacting can. Which is why I read as many of the early-mid-and late 19th century diaries and journals as often as I can. They create an understanding of everyday life of the time-period much greater and more accurate than any historian can.
Nearly all journals and diaries available seem to be written by women. The few written by men (at least that I have seen) are mostly written by soldiers.
The first diary snippet I will present is of a young teen named Caroline Cowles of New York, written on a Friday in May, 1854:
"Reverend Mr. Dickey, of Rochester, agent for the Seaman's Friend Society, preached this morning about the poor little canal boy. His text was from the 107th Psalm 23rd verse. He has the queerest voice and stops off between his words. When we got home (younger sister) Anna said she would show us how he preached and she described what he said about a sailor in time of war. She said, "A ball came---and struck him there---another ball came---and struck him there---he raised his faithful sword---and went on---to victory---or death." I expected Grandfather would reprove her, but he just smiled a queer sort of smile and Grandmother put her handkerchief up to her face, as she always does when she is amused about anything. I never heard her laugh out loud, but I suppose she likes funny things as well as anybody."
This puts some flesh on the bones of those long gone, doesn't it? Couldn't you see (and even hear) young Anna imitate the preacher, with the grandparents trying very hard not to burst out laughing?
How about something a little closer to home (for us that live in Michigan) - here are a few excerpts from letters written in late 1832 and early 1833 by Elizabeth Chandler, a young Quaker girl born in 1807 and died in 1834:
"We have had fine weather this fall in Michigan, and it still continues so. The farmers are still ploughing, and may perhaps do so for some time longer.
Our country is filling up fast but the Indian war and the Cholera have been great drawbacks on emmigration during the last season. Although the hostile Indians were two or three hundred miles from us, many fabulous and exaggerated accounts respecting them were spread abroad sufficient to deter numbers already prepared from removing at that time, and immediately after the appearance of the Cholera in various places was a sufficient cause to arrest the tide of emmigration."
Michigan, at this time, was considered Indian country.
How about life in a factory working woman's boarding house? Let's look into a typical 1844 evening for a young adult named Susan who was staying in a boarding house in New York:
"We had tea, flapjacks, and plum-cake for supper. There was also bread, butter, and crackers upon the table, but I saw no one touch them. After supper, the tables were cleared in a trice. Some of the girls came in with their sewing, some went to their own rooms, and some went 'out upon the street' - that is, they went to some meeting or evening school, or they went shopping, or visiting upon some other corporation, all of which is 'going upon the street' in factory parlance.
I retained my seat with the girls in the great keeping room, for Mrs. C had company in her own sanctum. Some book peddler, shoe peddler, essence peddler, and candy boys came in and made very strenuous exertions to attract our attention. By most of the girls they were treated with cool civility, but there were some noisy self-conceited misses who detained them under the pretense of examining goods for purchase, but who were slyly joking at the expense of the peddler."
Let's go back further into history - back to August 20th, 1787, where we find a journal written by the local (Hallowell, Maine) midwife, Martha Ballard. All spelling is as was originally written:
"Clear. Mr. Hinkly brot me to Mr. Westons. I heard there that Mrs. Clatons child departed this life yesterday & that she was thot expireing. I went back with Mr. Hinkly as far as there. Shee departed this Life about 1 p.m. I assisted to lay her out. Her infant laid in her arms. The first such instance I ever saw & the first woman that died in child bed which I delivered. I came home at dusk. Find my family all comfortable. We hear that three children expired in Winthrop last Saturday night."
A mother and child dying, three more children dying and nary a sad word except, "at least my family is well"...just everyday life in the 18th century.
Here's something to show the glamour of traveling by wagon train in 1865, written by 24 year old Sarah Raymond:
"When we had traveled about an hour the rains came down. I was likely to get very wet before our wagons came, for they were among the last in the train; I took the saddle and bridle off Dick, sat down on the saddle to keep it dry, and to wait for the wagons. I was resigning myself to a drenching when Mr. Grier, driver of the front wagon, came and spread a great big rubber coat over me, so that I was completey sheltered and was hardly damp when our wagons came.
There are more pleasant things than camping in the rain. The water is so impregnated with alkali that I fear it will cause sickness; the stock are in greater danger than we, for we can guard against it."
The above words from the journals and diaries show everyday life of folks doing everyday things in their time. But, what about when something historic happens in your town? For example, did you ever wonder how the folks felt in the weeks before the carnage of Gettysburg? The following are snippets from the many journals and diaries released in book and pamphlet form that will put the reader right smack dab in the middle of the fear and uncertainty of living in the Borough of Gettysburg, June 1863:
SARAH BROADHEAD: “June 15, 1863 – To-day we heard the Rebels were crossing the river in heavy force, and advancing on this State. No alarm was felt until Governor Curtis sent a telegram, directing the people to move their stores as quickly as possible. This made us begin to realize the fact that we were in some danger from the enemy, and some persons, thinking the Rebels were near, became very much frightened, though the report was a mistake.”
SALLIE MEYERS: “June 20, 1863 – Some cavalry from Philadelphia who armed and equipped themselves came to-night. They are entirely and altogether volunteers.”
SARAH BROADHEAD: “June 23, 1863 – As I expected, the Rebels have, several times, been within two or three miles, but they have not yet reached here. Two cavalry companies are here on scouting duty, but they can be of little use, as they have never seen service. Deserters come in every little while, who report the enemy near in large force.”
NELLIE AUGHINBAUGH (while learning a milliner’s trade at the home of Mrs. Martin): “June 26 – Mr. Martin excitedly rushed into the work room, exclaiming that the Rebels were coming. ‘They’re at Cashtown now. Send the girls home,’ he told his wife. Several of the girls stopped immediately and left. I was working on a bonnet that Mrs. Martin, who was very particular, had made me rip twice that day and start over again, and I said ‘I’m not going home until I finish this bonnet, not if the whole Rebel army comes to town.’
Once more, Mr. Martin came running in and, hurrying over to me, he grabbed my work from my hands and exclaimed, ‘Go home, girl! The Rebs are at the edge of town.’
I did. As I reached the center square, the Rebels were riding into it from the other direction with yells and cheers. I was frightened and ran all the way home. I had to cross the square and go down Carlisle Street. When I reached the house, Mother was standing in the doorway, ringing her hands.
‘My God, Child! Where have you been?’
Never in my life had I ever heard my Mother use the Lord’s name in that way, and I always told her that she frightened me more than the coming of the Rebels because I thought she had suddenly lost her mind.”
TILLIE PIERCE: “June 26 – What a horrible sight! There they were, human beings, clad almost in rags, covered with dust, riding wildly, pell-mell down the hill toward our home, shouting, yelling most unearthly, cursing, brandishing their revolvers, and firing right and left.”
SARAH BARRETT KING: “June 26 – My father was sitting by a window, busily engaged reading a daily paper, little dreaming the Rebels were so close by. I said to him, ‘Here they come.’ He asked, ‘Who?’ I answered, ‘The Rebs, don’t you hear the yell?’ And he looked out and saw them in pursuit of Captain Bell. He said, ‘Bring the children in and close the door.’ I said, ‘No, I want them to see all they can of this’ and remained on the porch of the house.”
SARAH BROADHEAD: “June 26 – We all stood in the doors while the cavalry passed, but when the infantry came, we closed them, for fear they would run into our houses and carry off everything we had, and went upstairs and looked out of the windows. They went along very orderly, only asking every now and then how many Yankee soldiers we had in town. I answered one that I did not know. He replied, ‘You are a funny woman; if I lived in town I would know that much.’”ANNA GARLACH’s (speaking of her Grandmother): “Some of the (Rebels) asked her what she thought the Rebels were like (before they came to town), whether they had horns. And she replied she was frightened at first, but found them like our own men.”
SARAH BROADHEAD: “The Rebel band were playing Southern tunes in the Diamond (town square).”
HARRIET BAYLY: “June 29 - Looking west at night we could see camp fires along the mountain side eight miles distant, and it seemed as though the enemy was there in force.”
HARRIET BAYLY: “June 30 – The whole air seemed charge with conditions which go before a storm; everybody anxious, neighbor asking neighbor what was going to happen and what will we do if the worst should happen?”
MICHAEL JACOBS: “June 30 – (I) saw General John Buford’s Union cavalry division, including two brigades, riding into Gettysburg from the Taneytown Road, on the south. He flung one of his brigades directly north, along Washington Street; the other he dispatched to the west along the Chambersburg Road.”
TILLIE PIERCE: “June 30 - A crowd of us girls were standing on the corner of Washington and High Streets as the soldiers passed by. Desiring to encourage them who, as we were told, would before long be in battle, my sister started to sing the old war song ‘Our Union Forever.’ As some of us did not know the whole of the piece we kept repeating the chorus.”
SALLIE MEYERS: “June 30 - How they dashed by! Their horse’s feet seemed shod with lightning. Along the street we stood – all the girls and women of the town. We had prepared food in advance, and had baskets and trays in our hands. They came by, snatching in their hasty passage whatever they could lay their hands on – sandwiches, pieces of pie, cold meat, bread, cakes, cups of coffee, and bottles of water.
The eyes of the soldiers blazed, they smiled and some joined in the song. It was the last song many of those brave men ever heard, and the bite we gave was the last many ever ate.”
SARAH BARRETT KING: “July 1 – I heard two cavalrymen talking and one of them said, ‘Well the ball is about to open.’ "
SARAH BROADHEAD: “July 1 – I got up early this morning to get my baking done before any fighting would begin. I had just put my bread in the pans when the cannons began to fire, and true enough the battle had begun in earnest, about two miles out on the Chambersburg Pike. What to do or where to go, I did not know. People were running here and there, screaming that the town would be shelled.”
Many of you, I'm sure, have seen the movie 'Gettysburg,' but many more of you probably never gave a second thought to those folks who lived right there in the thick of it all. You can hear the fear as they wrote and told of their adventures. Again, something that the history books rarely, if ever, expound on.
I continue to search out these books written so long ago. They not only shed light on life once lived, but they truly flesh out the old sepia photographs and help one to realize that these were once living, breathing people like you and I. They had happiness, sadness. They laughed and felt sorrow.
It would do us good to emulate them as best we can, so we, as living historians, can give the patrons an even better, more accurate idea of what life was like in the past.