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Step 1 — Artifact analysis

diary

diary-cover

  1. Describe the artifact. What does the cover (right) appear to be made of?
  2. Describe the artifact’s special qualities. What special references and sections does it contain?
  3. Uses of the artifact:
    • What sort of information might be recorded in it?
    • Who might have used it?
    • When might it have been used?
  4. What does the artifact tell us:
    • What does it tell us about the technology of the time in which it was made and used?
    • What does it ell us about the lives and times of the people who made and used it?
    • Can you name a similar item today?

Step 2 — Provide a description of the artifact and provide some context

This diary was the property of Julia (and LeRoy) Thompson of Londonderry, Vermont. The diary was started in 1875 — their first year of marriage. It appears that the diary was primarily Julia’s, although LeRoy makes an occasional entry as well.

The diary is very small: approximately 5 ¾” tall by 2 ¾” long. It is less than ½” thick and the cover is made of cloth. Each day and date is centered. The portion allotted for each day’s entry is only 1 ½” long and the lines are 1/8” apart.

There are some other references and sections contained in the diary including: interest tables, time differences, value of foreign gold and silver coins, ascertaining the length of day and night, and postage and money order prices. There are sections for monthly cash accounts and a significant number of pages allotted to “Memoranda.” Julia uses this space to calculate gallons and pounds of milk and one page is titled “Thompson Brothers Milk.” She also jotted down several recipes including one for cider pie.

It is very difficult to read an entire day’s entry. The writing is tiny and cramped and they wrote exclusively in pencil. It is possible to put together bits and pieces of entries to glimpse what Julia and LeRoy’s lives were like. Like many diary keepers, they didn’t make entries every day and entries are more frequent and lengthier toward the beginning of the year. For some reason, LeRoy records the birth of both their sons in the diary. Both entries appear under August 23, 1875. Evidently the birthday of their first son: “Julia’s and my little baby boy was born and he weighed 9-4 lbs. at ten minutes of one.” Beneath this LeRoy made his own centered heading “1887 Feb 26” followed by an announcement similar to the first one: “Julia’s and my little boy was born at 6:35 weighed 7lbs 14oz.

At some point, a child got a hold of the diary and scribbled on various pages as well as practicing his/her capital A’s.

Close to 100% of Julia’s entries start out with a brief comment on the day’s weather followed by what work and/or activities she and other family members participated in that day. In a typical week, Julia washes, irons, and sews a great deal. She speaks of scrubbing the floor. She talks about making sheets and pillow slips and hemming napkins and mending overalls. She is happy when “Roy” (she never refers to him any other way) brings her a length of fabric from the village. She talks about Roy and his brother logging and how many logs they fell on any particular day. Julia mentions once that Roy made a bank deposit of $100. There seems to be quite a bit of going to the village although it seems to be Roy and his father, brother, and mother that go. They do have company now and then and one of Roy’s brothers and his wife are mentioned so often it is possible that they were living there as well. On several occasions Julia mentions Roy doing dishes, making the bed, or helping with dinner. Not everyone goes to church every Sunday and Julia usually mentions which of them (if any) attend and offers no explanation for why others didn’t. There is a period of several days when everyone except Julia is ill.

Roy’s entries are for the most part about what work he has done: breaking the roads out in bad weather, helping with fences, etc. He also mentions paying the school tax. One Sunday he notes that he and Julia “kept house” all day although he provided no other details.

Roy and Julia eventually move to “York State”, while his brother and wife retain the family farm.

A sample transcribed entry of Julia’. Monday February 1, 1875: “Very pleasant but cold. Emma (Walter’s wife) and I did our washing. Lenny (?) worked on his bracket in the afternoon Walter (Roy’s brother) went to Jamaca (her spelling) Bank and deposited one hundred dollars. Came home with the headache.

Step 3 — Consider the artifact in its historical context

The Thompson Diary in the context of the Gilded Age. Considering both the artifact and your knowledge of time period, answer the following questions:

  1. How typical did Julia and Roy’s lives seem for farmers at the time? Was there any information that surprised you or didn’t fit in?
  2. Although Walter and Emma apparently stayed on the family farm and other siblings had farms in Londonderry as well, Roy and Julia eventually moved to “York State” assuming that this move was to leave farming and get a job in manufacturing or as a craftsman Julia and Roy would have been part of the industrialization of rural America. What changes in farming might have prompted their decision. What were the effects of industrialization on rural America? Consider both benefits and costs.
  3. Considering the effect of the Gilded Age on women, explain how Julia’s life might have changed in the following years?

Step 4 — Final narrative

This is an interesting artifact because it is an original source and puts human faces on one extended family that was farming during this period of change. Although the entries are not as legible, lengthy, and detailed as one might like, it still provides insight into the daily life of an average couple and the things that were important to them. The fact that Julia uses a bit of her limited space each day to comment on the weather lets us know how important it is to their daily activities. Will Roy and Walter have to break out the roads? Will Julia and Emma be able to do and dry laundry? The quantity of things seems to be important as well: How many pounds of milk? How many logs felled? This was probably directly related to obtaining cash for taxes etc. It is probably rare and scarce as an artifact because it was primarily recorded by a female; although the teaming of Roy and Julia in this effort was interesting as well. Roy and Julia might well have left the farm as modernization occurred they wouldn’t have needed so many people to run it, or perhaps they didn’t modernize and the farm could only sustain Walter and his family. It is interesting to speculate how their lives might have changed with the progression of the times.

Lesson plan and commentary by

Cynthia Finn
Pownal Elementary School
Pownal, Vermont