For Private Eyes Only: Why We Write Diaries

I’d like to return to the diary of Ann Winchester in my final blog post of the series. In the 1940s, UConn final exams took place during the final week of January, several weeks after students returned from their holiday break. Ann’s feelings toward her final exams vaguely resemble my own:

January 25: Got up at 6:30 to study bac[teriology] but couldn’t take much of it (had gone stale). Final was at 8:30  I thought it was easy. Lab final was at 11:00 – it was a practical and rather hard…Studied psych again tonite but not too enthusiastically.

Ann’s exam week ended five days later after suffering through a “stinking, unfair” Education exam.

Though I’ve spent the semester reading and writing about various different journals, I’ve occasionally returned to Ann’s because her entries are so relatable. Though practical details of life at UConn in the 1940s are very different from the realities of modern life, the experience of being a student here remains the same in many ways. RebeccaThis semester, I reviewed four diaries, each unique in their description and purpose: there was the daily chronicling of Ann, the chatty 1940s UConn co-ed reflecting on her present, past, and future; the superficial impressions recorded by Mr. Dean Walker, a 19th-century bourgeois American traveler making his way through Europe for the first time; the shared sentiments of friendship collected by Mary Clark, a young lady from Massachusetts ostensibly preparing to depart for school; and the four-year attempt made by Sherwood Ransom, a working-class seamen in the New London whaling industry, to maintain some semblance of privacy while living and working intensely in the same, shared space.

My goal in researching each of these diaries was to understand the reasons why people have written diaries now and in the past. I wanted to challenge the oft-repeated contemporary assumption that a diary is simply a place for superficial, personal reflection. This assumption can hurt our understanding of diaries as historical objects and sources, and it obscures our understanding of the various reasons why people committed their thoughts to paper.

So why do we write diaries? The answer ultimately hinges on the writer and the context of their world. But there are similarities between all four of these that gets us closer to a more general answer: we write journals to disclose, to reflect, to collect objects and thoughts of importance, and to pass the time.

Still – there are at least a dozen more journals in this collection that I did not read, which means there may also be at least a dozen more answers to this question. Writing is always situational. We learn the purpose of a diary to its writer by reading its contents, not by assuming that its “personal” nature gives it a universal purpose.

And as for my own writing? My interest in keeping a journal relates to something author Joan Didion wrote about her own journal-writing tendencies: “My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. For her blog series For Private Eyes Only she spent the Fall Semester studying diaries available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center and exploring the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

For Private Eyes Only: Between East Haddam and Otaheite – A Nineteenth Century Whaling Journal

In February of 1845, Sherwood B. Ransom of East Haddam, CT visited the Island of Otaheite (Tahiti) in the Northern Pacific Ocean for his second time in two years. At the time, Ransom was sailing as a crew member aboard the Morrison, a whaling ship bound from New London, CT on what would become a lengthy cruise for whales through the Indian and Northern Pacific Oceans.

At Otaheite, Ransom was greeted by a pleasant surprise: here, he reunited with “Henry and Lyman,” two friends from home. Henry, probably Henry C. Griffens of East Haddam, had sailed with Ransom on a previous whaling voyage in 1842 aboard the New London ship Indian Chief, when Ransom made his first visit to Otaheite. “Lyman” (William Lyman Cole of East Haddam) was a “green hand,” or first time whaler. Ransom writes the following about his encounter with his friends:

got into the harbour about Eight[.] found three New London Ships there the India, Jefferson, and Neptune[.] went aboard of the Nep. Saw Henry and Lyman, found them well…came aboard about dark and started for the Sandwich Islands…Lyman likes whaling first rate[.] we had a first rate visit[.] I took dinner with them, and shall see them at the S. [Sandwich] Islands again.

This run-in with friends, though rare, but not unlikely, with so many New London ships at sea following similar voyage paths in the 1840s.

Opening page of Sherwood Ransom's journal. The whale stamps at the top were typically used in whaling logbooks to provide a visual record of the number and type of whales caught.

Opening page of Sherwood Ransom’s journal. The whale stamps at the top were typically used in whaling logbooks to provide a visual record of the number and type of whales caught.

I was over the moon when I saw that the diary collection in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center included a whaling diary from a New London ship. In my other life as a student, I am researching the history of New London-based whaling in the southern Indian Ocean for my University Scholar project. During the nineteenth century, New London, CT became the second largest whaling port in the nation (New Bedford was the largest), employing men to sail throughout the Atlantic, and later the Pacific and Indian oceans in search of whales to kill for their blubber. When boiled, the blubber became oil that was used for lighting and as an industrial lubricant.

The Morrison’s journey lasted a total of four years (September 1844 – May 1848), but the majority of Ransom’s diary is composed of daily entries from 1844 and 1845, with a few entries penned in 1847. Ransom served as a boatsteerer on this voyage, a “promotion” from his previous work on the Indian Chief. Though not quite an officer, boatsteerers commanded authority on whaleships, different from regular crewmen in that they were hired for their specialized ability to harpoon whales and to steer the small “whaleboats” deployed from the main ship from which the whalemen hunted whales.

For Ransom, writing in a journal seems to have been both a refuge from the claustrophobic realities of whaling life as well as a way to pass the time. The majority of working time during a whaling voyage was spent performing mundane, shipboard duties or boiling blubber on a ship’s “tryworks” until a lookout sighted whales to hunt. In between, there was plenty of time to write. That being said, with the routine of the ship always contingent on the whims of nature (the availability of whales or changing wind patterns that made it necessary to adjust the sails) leisure time could easily transform into work time.

The lack of distinction between work and leisure is clearly evident in Ransom’s journal, with daily entries including both personal details and descriptions of routine shipboard work. “No[t] all hands to day and not much doing except two hours scrubbing decks and two spells setting up some of the head gear” he writes on September 22 (1844). “[H]ave had a good wash and shave and feel much revived after the operation. Stiff breeze as yesterday.” A report on the direction and strength of the wind is included in each of Ransom’s entries.

Ransom also scribbles details about latitude and longitude, as well as any whales captured on a given day in the margins of his journal. These details, normally committed to official ship’s logbooks, suggest that Ransom was understandably doing a bit of unofficial record-keeping himself. With the ship being both his workplace and his home, details that were important to the ship’s work became important to him; they determined his routine, his fatigue, and his happiness on any given day.

The regular timing of Ransom’s journaling suggests that writing became part of his shipboard routine, but was uniquely one of the only activities that afforded him a sense of privacy and security. The sense of refuge gained from writing in his journal is indicated by Ransom’s use of the diary to disclose intimate concerns. His entry from New Year’s Day 1845 reveals his feelings about missing home and family:

This is the first day of the year[.] how I wish I was at home to enjoy it by meeting in the social circle of young friends and to greet them a Happy New Year. But fate was so ordered that this poor devil is to be here in the ship Morrison many thousand miles from home and friends[,] though not friendless I hope and if my life is spared will be here twelve months from this. I have thought of home much to day, and of the past summer which I spent in East Haddam and how differently I am situated from what I was then.

However, the refuge provided by writing was only temporary; the intrusion of life at sea is continuously present. A page, smeared with ink includes the following note: “While I have been writing the foolish old ship gave a lee lurch and capsized. My ink on my book and has made a pretty spot so I think I will below and wait for better weather.”

As the voyage progressed, Ransom used his diary to voice frustrations about the officers on board, notably Captain Samuel Green. He writes the following after Green scolds him for an unsuccessful whale hunt:

Friday 25th [May 1845]: …I darted at him [the whale] but did not get fast and off he went as if the Devil was after him[.] came aboard and the old man [Capt. Green] was savage Enough but who cares for his lip[?] I do not[.] if he does not like my boat steering he can get some one else and I shall tell him so if he says anything more on the subject.

It is likely that writing these frustrations in a diary was the only way that Ransom could safely voice them without running the risk of being overheard, which would have resulted in him “catching it,” or being punished, by one of the officers.

At one point in 1845, Ransom, fed up with his captain, work, abysmal living conditions, and the inexperienced “fools” who were his fellow crewmen, threatens to abandon the operation altogether: “..[I]f ever I get into a good port,” writes Ransom, “I shall ask him [Captain Green] for my charge and if he does not give it to me he must keep a good lookout for me[.] he is a drascal as has ever lived these are my feelings at the present.”

The lock of hair and letter of reference for George Ransom included in the back of Sherwood Ransom's whaling journal.

The lock of hair and letter of reference for George Ransom included in the back of Sherwood Ransom’s whaling journal.

Whether or not Ransom ever did abandon the voyage is unclear – his journal ends abruptly in 1847.

Though his quick promotion to a boatsteerer indicates he was a competent whaler, it seems clear that Ransom was more interested in returning to East Haddam to work and live. Close ties to home are suggested by his New Year’s lamentations and his excitement over seeing Henry and Lyman at Otaheite, but they are also a physical feature of his journal. Tucked in the back pages are military papers and a letter of reference written for his father, George Ransom, as well as a lock of hair, likely belonging to a deceased family member.

Though these were likely added by Sherwood or another family member upon his return, their presence in the journal is tantalizing and indicative of a larger trend – most whalemen did not stay in the whaling industry for all of their lives. Many worked as whalemen for only a few voyages before earning enough money to return home and start a family; it appears Sherwood did this, marrying Abbie Payne, a woman from Colchester, CT in 1851, and living out the rest of his life on land until his death in 1893.

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. In her blog series For Private Eyes Only she studies diaries available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center and explores the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

For Private Eyes Only: Signature Albums – Collecting Expressions of Shared Sentiment

They say you are who your friends are. To anyone reading Mary Clark’s 1835 signature album, this statement is almost literally true. Presumably a resident of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1830s, we know very little about Mary’s life, except what friends wrote about her and to her in her signature album, now a part of the Diaries Collection.

Signature albums, more commonly referred to as autograph albums, are pieces of nineteenth century ephemera, commonly owned by women. In the analogous spirit of a modern high school yearbook, signature albums were used to collect personal sentiments from friends. During the nineteenth century, these sentiments “while rarely original,” generally took the form of transcribed poems about friendship, or Bible verses.[1] Friends signed, dated, and included their hometown at the bottom of each entry.[2]

mapClarkThe entries in Mary Clark’s signature album are not chronological. They are scattered throughout the album, separated by empty pages; all date between 1834 and 1838. Though Mary does not seem to have written in her own album, her book includes items that appear to have been created or collected by her, including a carefully drawn map of Eurasia (pictured). Female friends wrote most of the entries, though her album includes an entry from an “Oliver Brooks,” presumably a male friend.

Historian Anya Jabour thinks that autograph albums were particularly important to women during moments of transition in their lives, such as following commencement from school or in the weeks leading up to a marriage, allowing “young women’s friendships with each other to survive separation and even death.” [3] Mary’s album includes an undated “Quarterly Bill” (report card) from Bradford Academy, an institution in Bradford, Massachusetts, which operated as a women’s college between 1836 and 1931. Most of the entries are written by friends from Lowell, suggesting that perhaps Mary’s signature album was a way for her to stay connected with friends from home while she was attending Bradford.

The content of the entries in Mary’s album reflects this purpose. messingerAn 1836 entry from an “S.J. Messinger” of Lowell (pictured) includes the following handwritten poem borrowed from a Scottish author:

Though many a joy around thee smile

And many a faithful friend you meet

Whose love may cheer[e] life’s dreary way

And turn the bitter cup to sweet

Let memory sometimes bear thee back

To other days almost forgot

And where you think of other friends

Who love thee well Forget, me not!

Other entries, expressed in common language of Christian “virtue” suggest how these women conceived of, and dealt with such separations. An 1834 entry from Eliza Brooks of Lowell, MA, potentially the wife or sister of the aforementioned Oliver Brooks includes a poem, copied from an unknown source, that imagines a world where “virtue round us ever shed/The influence of her gentle light.” The poem’s author then goes on to admit that such a world will never be possible, nor desirable, for if the world was always virtuous:

We then might never thoughtful turn

Our minds to nobler scenes above,

Nor let within our bosoms burn,

Aught purer than an earthly love.

But Dearest Friends [author’s emphasis] are from us riven,

And pleasures gayest hours are brief;

And hope by stern misfortune driven,

Will wither like the Autumn leafe.

Then may we seek an endless Friend

Whose smiles are never shaded,

And hope for life that never shall end

Nor fade, as earthly scenes have faded

And calmly on life pathway move

To those Blest Mansions far above.

Eliza Brooks underlined “Dearest Friends,” in the fourth line, suggesting that this sentiment refers to Mary specifically. The “endless Friend” in this poem is assumed to be God. This poem is then one of several entries in Mary’s album recommending religion and investment in virtue, charity, and humility as ways to transcend the reality of being separated from friends, and the pain that comes with that separation. Other entries refer to virtue, Godliness, and eternal blessings outside of the context of friendship, suggesting a shared common experience and concern with upholding Christian values.

Presumably, Mary read these entries. This considered, her album becomes a dialogue between friends and herself, a place to receive and reflect on shared sentiments regarding friendship, separation, Christian virtue, and happiness.

But is this a journal? So far, I have been unintentionally vague about what I mean by a journal or diary, assuming (until now) that the term didn’t really need a definition. In my first entry, I described diaries as “something extremely personal, a continuous letter to self.” Mary’s signature album differs from previous diaries I’ve discussed in that she did not write in it, and other people did; it is not “a letter to self,” but a series of entries written to Mary by others. But it is personal, in the same way that a scrapbook or a signed yearbook is personal. The entries she collects from friends are a physical manifestation of existing friendships and interests.

Furthermore, this album differs from, let’s say, a collection of letters, in that it is contained in an album, and Mary’s presence is discernible through materials she’s intentionally inserted into it, including her map and a typed, published entry intended “For an Album” that has been removed from a primer or magazine and carefully glued to her album’s opening pages. Though Mary was not this album’s scribe, she was its owner and curator. Her album then, though not a journal, serves many of the same purposes, reminding us that diaries, in the traditional sense, are not the only self-curated historical documents that were used to record and reflect on the intimate details of a person’s life.

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. In her blog series For Private Eyes Only she studies diaries available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to explore the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

[1] Anya Jabour, “Albums of Affection: Female Friendship and Coming of Age in Antebellum Virginia,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 107 (1999): 128.

[2] Lisa Ricker, “Performing Memory, Performing Identity: Jennie Drew’s autograph Album, Mnemonic Activity, and the Invention of Feminine Subjectivity” (Proquest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2011).

[3] Ibid.


For Private Eyes Only: Describing “The Most Curious” – A Nineteenth Century Travel Journal

In August of 1851, Mr. Dean Walker, a Massachusetts man, visited Liverpool, England for the very first time. His initial impression of the city could be described as underwhelmed:

Saturday [August 2] – I have spent the day in travelling about the town. Find the people looking better than I expected. I do not think there are more dirty shabby looking people here than in New York, or more of the low classes here than there. They do not appear to be employed here, they only come from Ireland to ship to New York and other places. I went to see the “Great Western” start for New York. Those who were going I think were the most dirty-looking people I ever saw. A few ragged people are begging in the streets but not as many as I expected to see.

Liverpool was the first of many stops Walker made in a multiple-month-long “European trip,” during which he visited parts of England, Ireland, Scotland France, and Italy. During his travels, he recorded his initial impressions and quick observations on European life, landscape, and people in a journal.

Crystal Palace (engraving),  Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 1852).

Crystal Palace (engraving), Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 1852).

Walker’s journal is one of several travel journals within the Diary Collection. Travel journals are personal, narrative accounts of an author’s travels – broadly defined here as experiences that involve long or short-distance movement across a geographic space. The four travel journals contained within this collection were all written by Americans traveling through Europe during the late nineteenth century.

Walker, whose age is unknown, lived during a time when travel between the United States and Europe was accelerating – literally. He left Boston bound for Liverpool, England on July 15, 1851 in what was likely the packet ship (or “clipper ship”) Daniel Webster, built and run by the Boston-based Enoch Train & Company line.[1] He arrived in Liverpool after sixteen days of travel on August 1, a “fast passage” according to the Webster’s captain. Clipper ships, the iconic speedy cargo ships of the nineteenth century, are one of several signs of the nineteenth century transportation revolution, alongside railroads and steamships, evident in Walker’s journal.

Though we know little about Walker, we do know that he was likely a man of means, as he was able to afford passage as a “cabin” (or “first class”) passenger during his journey to Liverpool, on a shipping line popularly perceived as “expensive.” [2] As historian Daniel Kilbride notes in his book Being American in Europe (1750 – 1860), even though the cost of trans-Atlantic travel was declining by mid-nineteenth century and many Americans counted themselves amongst the ranks of the “comfortable” middle class, European travel was still a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthiest citizens.[3]

We also know that Walker was not alone in his travels. In fact, I was first drawn to Mr. Walker’s journal because of its suggested co-authorship. The inside cover of its first page reads, “Journal of European trip made by Mr. Dean Walker + Addison P. Thayer (July 1851).” At early points in the journal, when Walker describes his passage to walkerdiaryEurope, he occasionally uses the pronoun “we,” suggesting the presence of a companion; however, he describes most of his experiences using the singular first person pronoun “I.” It isn’t until Walker reaches France, several weeks into his journey, that he mentions: “Mr. Thayer was with me.” Their relationship remains unclear.

Perhaps this is because Walker is largely concerned with using his journal to discuss other matters. He focuses on describing his new experiences and his impressions of things that seem particularly “curious” to him. He notes seeing “black fish” porpoises and whales during the voyage to Liverpool, seeing his first Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, and taking a meal at the Mechanics Eating House in London – significant to him because he could enjoy a book from their large library with his meal. His interest in using his journal to describe the extraordinary material things he sees is evident from an entry he writes about his visit to the Crystal Palace in London to see the “Great Exhibition of 1851,” a “World’s Fair” housing display of technology:

Tues. [September] 26th: I went today for the third time to the Glass Palace…I thought I would today begin and go through and [write] down the prices and try to give a description of the most curious things I saw, but I directly became discouraged and gave it up as a bad job. The best way I can give one an idea of the things is to describe some of the most extravagant things and some of the most simple, and then have any one form an idea from the size of the building how much was to be seen.

He goes on to describe several extraordinary and expensive objects he sees at the exhibition– a large diamond, expensive furniture. His interest in wealth is telling, as his the suggestion that he may be describing these objects “for someone else.” Unlike Ann Winchester, it seems as if Walker may have had an audience in mind for his diary – perhaps family and friends back home, who would read his journal upon his return.

Walker’s journal is filled with comparisons, as well as descriptions. As evident in the above-quoted passage about the Irish immigrants passing through Liverpool on their way to the United States, Walker frequently compares European people, as well as landscape, architecture, food, and habits to American ones. In a few instances, he also compares his experiences in each European nation he visits to his experiences in other places in Europe. Consider the following excerpt from his journal, in which he describes a train ride he takes on his way from Hull, England to London:

[August, around the 16th]: The land on the rail-road for the most part is well cultivated, but not as neatly as in Ireland. The hedges looked much more uneven – a considerable woodland – the trees not large, and when we were within 10 miles of London it looked more like Massachusetts than it had at any time, on account of the wood.

Some of the comparisons Walker makes are purely descriptive, such as his recognition of the British landscape as very similar to that of Massachusetts. But there are many more that are qualitative in nature, including his comment included above about the “neatness” of British “cultivation.” Walker’s journal is therefore a place where he evaluates the quality of European culture, food, and conditions, by comparing them to the quality of American goods. As a person clearly cognizant of status and quality, this seems consistent with Walker’s character; as an American in Europe for the first time, it may have been Walker’s self-conscious attempt to understand America’s place in the world.

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. In her blog series For Private Eyes Only she studies diaries available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to explore the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

[1] The Daily Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts); July 14, 1851, pg. 4.

[2] Boston Semi-Weekly Courier (Boston, Massachusetts), July 17, 1851, pg. 2.

[3] Daniel Kilibride, Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press) 2013, 83.


For Private Eyes Only: A Place to Record Continuity and Change

Ann T. Winchester was not looking forward to returning to school on September 28, 1943. She has written “Doom Day!” next to that date. Her entry continues:

Fooled around all morning getting ready for the great trek back to Storrs. We started at 2:00. [T]ook Jane and Mrs. Schafer – she gave me a beautiful blue cardigan and a white wool kerchief. We found my room in Wood – small but a single.

“Wood” in this case refers to UConn’s very own Wood Hall, which currently houses the History Department. Ann, a resident of Windsor and student at the University of Connecticut from 1941 to 1945, had lived in Holcomb Hall on East Campus during the Spring of 1943, but moved into Wood Hall for the 1943 – 1944 school year.

Ann was a student at the University of Connecticut during World War II when the ratio of male to female students on campus was at its lowest (nearly 1:1) since the University’s inception, due in part to the significant numbers of young men fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Notably, she was also one of the first students to graduate from the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing, which accepted its first class in September of 1942. nutmeg_1944_0035She was a member of the Nursing Club, worked in the infirmary, and participated in an in-residence nursing training program at Backus Hospital in Norwich during the summer of 1943.

I once heard a writing professor define a diary as “a place to record the highs and lows of the day.” Ann’s diary, a series of short entries written daily from January 1, 1943 through December 31, provides consistent insight into the highs and lows of each of her days. A typical entry reads as follows:

May 7, 1943: After physics this a.m. – I went out on the roof for a couple hours of sunbathing. Hot and muggy today. Looked like Coney Island out there. Fooled around the rest of the day except for going to nursing class. Tonite we painted quite a bit. Then we took a walk up to the restaurant up the road and had coffee and doughnuts and smoked. Was fun – the nite is swell – warm and smells good. The peepers were singing for all they were worth.

In this way, each daily entry can read as a stand-alone record of one day’s events. But when read in its entirety, we start to see that Ann’s journal became a place where she recorded continuity and changes in her life over days, weeks, years, and semesters. Take, for example, the following excerpts from entries Ann writes over the course of three days in the Spring of 1943 about “an escapade,” which seems to have involved co-authoring a controversial note about one of her fellow house-mates (Flavia) with her roommate, Jane (May 4). This got her into particular trouble with a “Mrs. Davis,” presumably the house mother in Holcomb Hall, where she was living at the time:

April 28: Tonight Jane and I went to the House Council Meeting not expecting too much bad. Mrs. Davis gave us hell and threatened us with suspension. Not only the note was brought up – but working on shreds of truth, she told wholesale lies about us – “we’re vulgar.” Forbade Flavia to associate with us. Mrs. Davis is absolutely low and treacherous. In short she nauseates me!!!!

April 29 – I wrote mother about last nite – hope she’ll stand up for me! This place is stifling me – the petty minds and the cats that abound…Now Davis says [Flavia] can eat with us, but not come into the room. We’d corrupt her. I’ll get even with Davis some day!

And finally:

May 1: Both [Jane and I] went down to see Mrs. Davis this aft – she was too sweet to us. Well, maybe she thinks a little better of us. But you never can tell. To bed early.

These successive entries indicate that this issue remained a feature of Ann’s life over the course of several days. blogAnnWBy reading each of these entries, then, we see that Ann used her journal to record her changing thoughts on the consistent features in her life, and perhaps gain insight into the relative importance of each of these concerns to her. Certain topics, including her relationships, class work, habits, and career goals, seem to be of greatest concern to Ann because she writes about them at length. Some aspects of her life – such as her ongoing battle with her physics and chemistry classes – are easy to recognize as important to her because she writes about them explicitly and frequently.

But there are other continuities, such as her on-going friendship with her roommate Jane, which we know are important to her, even if she doesn’t say so explicitly. Ann never writes, “Jane is an important part of my life.” We simply know this, because she mentions her nearly every day. Their friendship is so pervasive that as I read her journal, any time Ann used the pronoun “we,” I automatically began to assume it meant “Jane and me” – even if this wasn’t always the case. More ambiguous is the relative importance of the War to Ann’s life, which we recognize only through passing references to rationing, war-time movies, blackouts, and a visit by Mrs. Roosevelt to campus in March of 1943.

Long-term change, as well as short term change, is also a feature of Ann’s diary. During her summer (June – August 1943) spent as an in-residence nursing student at Backus Hospital, Ann befriends a “Miss Classé,” an instructor at Backus. Taken with her, Ann writes, “She looks like the perfect nurse. I’ll have to pattern myself after her” (July 16). Later, in October, when she attends a Nursing Club lecture given by an ex-Navy nurse, she confides to her journal that, “I rather think I would like to be a navy nurse” (October 25). In this way, Ann uses her diary to anticipate and project her present life into her future, particularly as it relates to her career – unsurprising for a young person in school.

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. In her blog series For Private Eyes Only she will study various diaries available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to explore the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

For Private Eyes Only: Why Write Diaries Anyway?

Rebecca D’Angelo is a senior undergraduate student in History and Anthropology. In her blog series For Private Eyes Only she will study various diaries available in the Dodd Research Center’s collections to explore the history of journal writing and reasons why we write journals.

I have a confession to make: I’ve been reading other people’s diaries.

I didn’t feel guilty about it at first. The diaries I’ve been reading are part of the Dodd Center’s Diaries Collection. Most were written over one hundred years ago. Unlike other collections which tend to be organized by donor, the Diaries Collection houses an eclectic mix of personal diaries, daybooks, copybooks, and ledgers, many written by New Englanders. The collection spans one hundred years of journal writing, the earliest diary in the collection dating to 1851. Two diaries, which both date to 1943, are the latest in the collection; both were written by Connecticut women, one, a painter with the surname Whitlock living along the Connecticut shoreline, and the other, a University of Connecticut student named Ann T. Winchester who was studying to be a nurse during her time at UConn.

diariesAt first I viewed the diaries in the Dodd Center’s collection purely as sources. I was interested in the stories they could tell me about the past and about the people who occupied it. I was also interested in the quite literal range of forms and colors present in this collection. Some, like Ann Winchester’s are handwritten in a book printed with “Diary” on the front. Hers is bright red. Others are written in tiny notebooks, and others in leather-bound volumes. Some only include personal entries. In others, notes on the writer’s day are included alongside general musings and business records.

Then I saw this message, inscribed on the inside cover of one diary written by S.E Warren, a young Massachusetts man training to become a school teacher in the 1850s. It read:

“All of my journals[,] To be read by no one but my parents in case of my death as a single man or widower. Others may see the index only, and may have such portions read to them as are not marked Private. Or else my relict or heirs only shall see them as above directed.”

 Suddenly I felt like one of those TV sitcom dads who gets caught snooping through his daughter’s diary. The person who wrote this diary didn’t intend for me to read it. As a historian, I tend to forget that sources are generally not written for me. It’s true that some historical accounts or objects are created “for future posterity.” But generally, artifacts are the surviving residue of a past life, lived day-to-day, with little concern for what a history student writing about them in a blog would think about them one hundred years down the line. After all what is a diary, if not something extremely personal, a continuous letter to self? I’m guessing that S. E. Warren didn’t intend for future historians to read his journal. Then again, he clearly anticipated that someone other than himself, his parents, or his heirs might pick it up. Why else would he have included such a preface?

As I continued browsing through these journals, I started thinking about my own journal-writing. I keep several irregular journals to explore my thoughts. I imagined S.E. Warren, Whitlock, and Ann T. Winchester each had their own similar motivation for writing in their respective journals. I thought back to other historical journals I had read. Growing up, I valued Anne Frank’s diary for the story it told and for the perspective it offered me into the lives of Jewish German nationals forced to flee Germany during World War II. Now I began to wonder: Why did Anne value her diary? Realizing that I read other people’s journals even though I barely go back and read my own, I started wondering why I kept mine. Why does anyone write in a diary or journal?

Today, psychologists and writers extol the benefits of journal-writing. A quick internet search on “why we write diaries” reveals a laundry list of blog articles encouraging me to keep a journal for various reasons – to reflect, to project, or simply to practice writing. In 2007, the New Yorker published a fabulous review piece that pondered this very question. “Diaries,” the author suggests, “are exercises in self-justification.” He ultimately concludes, “We write to appease the father. People abandon their diaries when they realize that the task is hopeless.”

I am no psychologist and will not pretend to be one, but I am a historian and I’m interested in these questions – why did we write diaries in the past? Why do we continue writing them today? I intend to use this blog series to help me answer these questions. By reading, researching, and analyzing the range of diaries available through the Dodd Center’s Diaries Collection I hope to explore the different forms diaries take on, the stories and details we entrust them with, and the function they serve in our lives.