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The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives

January 21 through May 22, 2011

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Diaries of Elizabeth Eastman Morgan (born 1795), 1818–34. Archives of The Morgan Library & Museum.
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Spinning and Sausage-making: Elizabeth Eastman Morgan (b. 1795). Elizabeth Morgan tracked the rhythms of small-town life—from pig-butchering to candle-making—in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts.

About the Diary

Like many nineteenth-century Americans, Elizabeth Eastman Morgan jotted a few lines each day to commemorate the day's weather and activities. Unmarried, living with her mother in West Springfield, Massachusetts, Morgan spent her time working at home, managing household finances, visiting with family and friends, and attending town meetings. For her, keeping a diary was a personal discipline—much in the tradition of a tradesman's log or annotated almanac—rather than an exercise in self-exploration. Morgan and her two married half-sisters had each inherited $160 from their father, a justice of the peace, and she kept careful track of her income from the sale of butter and cheese.

From 1818, when she was twenty-three, until 1843, Morgan filled nearly five hundred pages in nine booklets folded and sewed by hand, dating each page neatly and drawing lines between entries. The newspapers that served as covers for some of her notebooks brought national and international news as well as concerns of the day, such as the need for "every farmer, gardener, and house keeper to declare a war of extermination against worms, bugs, and other mischievous and devouring insects." (The recommended killers included tobacco and old urine.)

Although little changed in Morgan's life over the course of sixteen years, she marked the rhythm of the seasons, noting the appearance of green peas in June and ripe peaches and whortleberries in August. In March she began to hear bluebirds; in April she would hear frogs "peep" for the first time; swarms of bees sometimes appeared in summer. Autumn was a time for making cider and applesauce, and a hog was generally butchered in December. Housework never ended: Morgan made soap and candles; picked, carded, and spun wool; baked, pickled, churned, and brewed; and spent a great deal of time washing and ironing clothes.

Morgan listed local births, marriages, and deaths, taking special note of unusual circumstances. In 1819, she described two suicides on a single page. "This evening we here [sic] the news that Mr John Dickinson of Granby has put a period to his life by hanging himself in his cornhouse with a rope, he was considered to be in a derangd state of mind." And Lucius Day was found with his throat cut; "they say he is apt to have crazy turns."

Elizabeth Morgan's great-great-grandfather, Miles Morgan, was one of the first Europeans to settle the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1644, and her cousin Joseph—who co-founded the Aetna fire insurance company during the period that Elizabeth kept these diaries—was the grandfather of Pierpont Morgan, the American financier.


 
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Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.