Diaries at the MHS (and the Archivists Who Love Them)

By Susan Martin, Collections Services

As a manuscript processor here at the MHS, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of personal and family papers, but I particularly like to work with diaries. Not usually intended for a stranger’s eyes, many of them are highly revealing and deeply moving. MHS collections include diaries by men and women, young and old, rich and poor, kept throughout the centuries for a variety of reasons.

Harriet Stillman Hayward, for example, was a young 19th-century woman who clearly kept her diary as an outlet for her loneliness. She was envious of her older sister Louisa’s many social engagements and, on 21 Feb. 1850, wrote in a confessional, emotional vein: “I wonder if people will ever care more for me than they do now […] I do not think that my highest aim in life is to have every one like me, but if I could feel that one person loved me […] I should not feel entirely forgotten. […] I must continue to bear in secret, while I appear outwardly indifferent […]”

Persis Seaver Bartlett’s diary documenting the decline and death of her son from consumption falls into this category, as well. Many devout people also used diaries to work out their feelings about God and salvation.

On the other end of the spectrum are those diaries that consist of an impersonal and unembellished account of daily activities. William Wharton began every morning with a detailed description of the weather, then noted the day’s errands and appointments—the dentist, the bank, etc. On fishing trips, he recorded the size of his catches. His diaries are almost uniformly mundane and unemotional, except for the entries he wrote at the time of his wife’s death.

Printed “line-a-day” diaries, with only a small space for each day and little room for introspection, lend themselves to this kind of strictly functional record-keeping. For example, the diaries of Jane Cummings:


Travel diaries were very popular and were kept by everyone from traveling salesmen to wealthy Bostonians on the traditional Grand Tour of Europe. My colleague Anna Clutterbuck-Cook has been following one woman’s travels in Egypt. Young Charles Phillips Huse only went as far as Essex County, Mass. on a trip with his grandfather, but he made a careful record of all their adventures, illustrated with photographs pasted onto the pages. Of course, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam set the standard for illustrated diaries with her elaborate sketches and watercolors.

The diary of Eliza Cheever Davis, a personal favorite of mine, is a travel diary, but also a kind of literary exercise. Davis had fun with descriptions and built suspense into otherwise ordinary anecdotes. Her entry from 9 June 1811 sounds like something out of a Gothic novel: “Behold me then in a large room or rather Hall, the Chimney boarded up, on one side a small door which I ventured to unlock which led into a dark gloomy place in which there was not light enough for me to discover what it contained, but it looked very full of wonders […]”

Obviously most diaries were not meant to be seen by anyone but the writer (though very public figures, like John Quincy Adams, certainly knew their words would be read in later days). But some people did write directly to friends or family members in diary entries. Eliza Davis used this device, but the most striking example I’ve come across is the 1864 diary of Lillian Freeman Clarke, who frequently addressed her intimate friend Emily Russell and wished her a tender “good night” at the bottom of each page:


Some diaries are unfortunately unattributed. Some are shared, with contributions by more than one person, perhaps a husband and wife. The fascinating papers of John Wells Farley consist primarily of typescript pages of diary entries dictated by Farley to his secretary, who couldn’t resist adding the occasional quip or correction.

Diaries at the MHS are cataloged by year, so researchers interested in a particular historical event can get a cross section of opinion. We also use subject headings to group diaries by the types of people writing them, for example: “Students—Diaries,” “Politicians—Diaries,” and “Farmers—Diaries.” We hope you’ll visit our Reading Room and take a look!