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“Dear Diary”: American Lives in First Person

Radcliffe Magazine Summer 2024
Ruth Teischman's pink plastic diary was found in the trash. Now it lives in the Schlesinger, where it has become part of Kathryn Allamong Jacob's The Diary Project. Photos by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute; graphic by Melissa Rico/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

The Schlesinger Library is home to more than 3,000 volumes of personal diaries. One former curator is on a mission to read—and describe—as many as she can.

Author By Kathryn Allamong Jacob Published 06.07.2024 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

“Dear Diary, Today I bought you,” wrote 12-year-old Ruth Teischman in her new pink diary on September 3, 1959. “I am going to tell you loads of personal things and I’m going to write in you all my feeling and emotions.” Over the next four months, she assessed the boys she liked (“Michael—when we dance sometimes he smells”), pondered the existence of God, and compared her “bosoms” to those of her friends. 

Ruth’s is just one of 3,000-plus volumes of diaries in the more than 4,400 archival collections at the Schlesinger Library. Ranging from single volumes like hers to 50 volumes or more, spanning decades, their contents are heartbreaking, hilarious, sometimes exhausting.

Lucy Clapp, single and 27, described her chores on the family farm in Ohio one day in June 1872: “Baked 5 pies, 1 cake house cleaning the rest of the day I finished the papering put the carpet a sokeing washed all the dishes Im very tired Retired at 9 1/2 Fine weather.”

And they are surprising. Into a description of 4-H activities in 1956 Versailles, Indiana, 18-year-old June Calender dropped this bomb: “The story about Winnie Lemons is shocking and unbelievable but, apparently, very, very true. She announced her engagement to a fellow she had gone with for nine months. Then Friday he was caught stealing cars, which is bad enough, but they also discovered he was a girl. It certainly seems unbelievable that she could date “him” 9 months and not know beyond doubt it was a girl. Poor Winnie must feel that she is a complete ass.”

Each diary at the Schlesinger is unique. But they don’t speak only for themselves. They speak to class, race, gender, motherhood, activism, and sexism.

Each diary at the Schlesinger is unique. But they don’t speak only for themselves. They speak to class, race, gender, motherhood, activism, and sexism.

The diary of Annie Leland Barber—alphabetically, the first Radcliffe graduate in 1883—speaks to both her own experience at the college and attitudes toward educating women. If Mr. J. H. Wheeler, who taught Greek and Latin, thought his students hadn’t picked up on his low opinion of them in the fall of 1880, he was dead wrong: “He spent about three quarters of an hour in trying to find what ‘we distinctly preferred’ to read and finally gave out five sections of Herodotus. After a few obvious hints to the effect that we were only sophomores, who are always idiots &, that in all probability, being girls, we were idiotic above the average, he parted with us to our mutual satisfaction.” 

The Library’s diaries open windows onto different times, places, and points of view. Through them, one sees the humming textile mills in antebellum Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Armenian genocide unfolding in the Ottoman Empire. Shirley Graham DuBois wholeheartedly embraced Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution during diaried visits to China in 1967. And while singing the praises of the chivalrous South and condemning the “wrongs” of the North, Ann Reeves, a widow, left Delaware with her four children for a plantation in Arkansas in 1860. Later, in scenes straight out of Gone with the Wind, she wrote of burying the family silver and of Yankee soldiers stealing the “beeves” (cows). 

Although I only kept a diary for a few weeks when I was 10 (a black cat with rhinestone eyes graced the aqua cover), stopping when I lost the key to the golden lock, I’ve long been drawn to the genre, and I’ve used diaries in my own work. Diaries have the power to enhance scholarship by adding richness and depth. They are strong magnets pulling readers deeper into a story. During the 20-plus years that I was curator of manuscripts at the Schlesinger—working with donors, scouring dealers’ catalogs, even bidding on eBay—I helped bring several hundred volumes of diaries into the Library. As I evaluated potential new acquisitions and dipped into diaries for exhibits, I felt certain more of their special powers could be unleashed with more detailed descriptions of their content. Not that the Library’s diaries aren’t described. They are indeed, and well, but, by necessity, briefly: archivists are trained to describe collections in bulk, and deep description of items is beyond the usual standard of collection description. And with several hundred linear feet of new archival material flowing into the Library every year, it’s impossible for the archivists processing them to go much deeper. 

Impossible for them, but not for newly retired me. And so The Diary Project was born in 2021. Starting from scratch, and after many drafts and suggestions from historians and my former Schlesinger colleagues, I created a database in which to enter in-depth descriptions of the diaries in the Library’s collections—one that now includes 37 fields—all in service of making them more accessible to researchers.

So far, Jacob has read 136 volumes of the diaries of 26 women and two men spanning from 1796 to 1987. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

There are database fields for life stage, race/ethnicity, gender identity, religion, etc. Since many of the Schlesinger’s diaries were cataloged long before Google, Ancestry, and Find a Grave, trips down rabbit holes often lead to greatly expanded biographies. Fields also describe when, from whom, and how a diary got to the Library. Some were found in the trash by the curb. Other fields describe the physical volumes. Some women diarists repurposed old ledgers. One used a wallpaper-sample book. Eleanor Cash, living in a women’s shelter, used the only thing at hand—toilet paper. 

The most important fields are for the Library of Congress (LC) subject headings that I am assigning to each volume and to the quotes I’m pulling from each volume—where once there may have been five or six, now there may be two dozen or more. This is the deep dive, the most important “value added” aspect of the project. It’s also the biggest challenge for me, a historian, not a librarian or archivist. I’ve never tried to find just the right term out of the 400,000+ possibilities continually supplemented by the LC. Now I have even greater respect for those who do.

Several teenage diarists refer to other girls as being “stuck-up.” But “stuck-up,” I discovered, isn’t an LC subject heading. Nor is “conceited,” “snooty” or “snotty,” “vain,” “arrogant,” or “egotistic.” Ah, but “snob,” “snobbism,” “snobbishness,” “snobbery” are. After much trial and error, I’ve also learned that “threesome sex,” “obsession, sexual,” and “lovers (paramours)” are all legit.

Thus far, I’ve read 136 volumes of the diaries of 26 women and two men spanning from 1796 to 1987. I’ve steered clear of the big names—women like Judy Chicago, Susan B. Anthony, and Angela Davis, whose diaries researchers have used and will use without any help from me. I’ve focused on the “ordinary” women rather than the “extraordinary,” women known only to their families, friends, and, in the case of perpetually aggrieved Effie McGrew, her enemies (“I intend to grease that store floor with her guts when I get hold of her,” she wrote of a nemesis in 1917).

On the pages of their diaries, they wrestle with morality, mortality, and spirituality. They write of illness, uncaring husbands, abortions, and aging parents. They revel in discovering leadership skills; they sing, paint, and dance. They knew nothing of the National Organization for Women, but they write about unequal pay and harassment in the workplace. They didn’t write The Feminine Mystique, but Betty Friedan wrote about these women and the crushing boredom of suburban routines that many describe.

With the Schlesinger’s strong commitment to diversifying its holdings in mind, I also wanted to include diaries from under-documented groups in the first diaries I read. Among them was Robin Kilson, one of few women and few African American graduate students in the Harvard history department, who grappled with multiple sclerosis and devastating break-ups and in 1984 wrote plaintively, “I think that some lives, some people are just destined to be outside, always different and off-course. And I am one of them.… Someone made a mistake when they put me in this world.” 

Robin Kilson documented perpetually feeling like an outsider in her 1984 diary. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Mildred Jefferson, the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, a surgeon, and the founder of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, was 34 in 1960 when she wrote in the only diary in her collection about traveling around Europe alone in a little rented Peugeot. And while Anna Chen Chennault became an influential hostess and wielded power in Republican circles in 1960s and ’70s Washington, DC, her earlier diaries tell of her move to the United States from China after she met and married the swashbuckling US General Claire Chennault, 30 years her senior, in 1947. In 1958, Anna, distraught over her husband’s terminal lung cancer diagnosis, prepared for a hasty move to Washington from Louisiana before he died so that the state’s anti-miscegenation laws wouldn’t interfere with his will.

I have only grazed the tip of this diary iceberg, but it’s clear several themes unite these disparate women. All of them were literate, although sometimes just barely. All of them had time or made time to write. Several women apologized to their diaries if they missed a day. Their reasons for writing varied, but all of them had the strong desire to put pen to paper. For some, writing about their lives gave them a sense of importance. And writing out pros and cons helped some make decisions, big and small. Others viewed their diary as a confessional to record stumbles on the path to self-betterment.

Over time, I have become invested in the lives these diaries chronicle. After 28 volumes of Evelyn Wallace’s diaries, following her from frugal young wife through satisfying midlife career as a teacher, I knew her children, her husband, her favorite movies. Year after year, she was clear-eyed and wry, even after a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1974. But in the summer of 1981, after a massive seizure, her entries grow infrequent and ragged until one last heartbreaking scrawl: “Became too hard to manage. Couldn’t seem to fill in and dates. Needed lines. Generally disorganized. Some days better than others. Must have lines.” She was dead within weeks, and I was in tears.

In November 1957, Anna Chennault wrote about her sense of not belonging anywhere and feeling caught between cultures. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

I’m currently in the middle of a diary that I can only read for a few hours at a time, it’s that frank—and disturbing. The folders of papers that Eleanor Cash—the homeless woman who wrote on rolls of toilet paper—called her diaries begin in 1953, when she was 16. I’ve read 34 years thus far and have 31 to go.

She married young, and she and her husband grew to hate one another. She writes of knock-down-drag-out fights, electroshock therapy, and a string of sexual obsessions, the first with her 15-year-old paperboy.

Then in 1965, this entry: “I am not going to allow the … kids to get away with this sass business even if I have to knock them down to the floor and sit on them… ____ [her younger daughter] threw the cook book at me the other day when I tried to slap her for sassing me. Then I chased her into her room and got hold of her arms and pinned her to the door and then after she stopped screaming, I told her I wasn’t going to hurt her but I wasn’t going to put up with this sass business.”

Days later, this daughter doused herself with gasoline and set herself ablaze. She survived for four days, telling firefighters that she wanted to kill herself because her mother hated her and her homelife was unbearable. For years, into the 1970s, where I am now—after divorcing her husband and beginning a journey of “sexual self-discovery” that included picking up scores of lovers, mostly much younger African, African American, and East Indian men in the name of promoting racial harmony—Cash was still denying any responsibility for her daughter’s death, trying to convince herself that it was not suicide but an accident.

In 1986, Eleanor Skelton Cash spent time in a New York City women's shelter; without access to writing paper, she used rolls of toilet paper to chronicle her experience there. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

When I reach 200 volumes, I’ll work with staff to figure out how to share the details I’ve been recording more broadly, by perhaps adding them to catalog records and finding aids. They have already proved useful to researchers, a writer working on a book on diaries, and colleagues who work with students. This was my goal from the start. One diary of Anna James, a pharmacist, was featured in the Library’s recent In Their Own Voices: Black Women’s Lives from the Archives exhibit.

There are lots of questions still ahead. Are blogs diaries? They are hardly private writing, once a characteristic of a diary. But for now, thousands more paper-based diaries await. 

I’ll close with Ruth Teischman’s sign-off on New Year’s Eve, 1959. There’s no question what she got out of writing in her “Di!”

“I have had fun writing in this. I will always refer back to it and read it whenever I can. I have told you my problems Di, and I felt much better when I did. Thank you. Well, so long, & HAPPY NEW YEAR. Love & kisses, Ruth...OOOXXXXXXOOO.” 

Kathryn Allamong Jacob is an associate of Harvard’s Department of History and the former Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library.

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine home page.

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