Researchers studying topics in women’s history are sometimes discouraged by the fact that men’s writings make up the bulk of so many collections of family papers. Even in collections named for men, however, there are often rich veins of information about the central figure’s mother, sisters, wife, daughters, and sometimes friends. In collections of family papers, women’s voices and actions often appear not only in their diaries and memoirs, but also in correspondence, scrapbooks, and even financial records.
Diaries and Memoirs
Of all types of manuscript materials, diaries and memoirs provide the most direct insight into women’s lives. Memoirs recall past events in a continuous narrative, while diaries are written over time in discrete, dated entries. (Manuscript finding aids at HSP usually use the word “diary” to describe an account of life written in daily entries, while the term “journal” is reserved for a particular kind of business ledger.)
Some diaries are highly informative, containing details about the writer’s daily life, her interactions with family and friends, and her reflections on current events. Others are quite terse and consist mostly of notes about weather and meals. Some women kept diaries throughout their lives, but more often writers made entries only sporadically, or to record unusual experiences. Julia DeVeaux Powel, for example, started a diary to record her travels in Europe in 1831. Mary Rodman Fisher Fox initiated her diary writing in 1849, a day before her marriage to Samuel Fox. Mary wrote faithfully for the first several months of her marriage and vividly described her intense love for her husband, her sadness at having to leave her family in Philadelphia, her disagreements with her mother-in-law, and her dismay after realizing she was pregnant during the first month of her marriage. Mary's writing tapered off over time, but she periodically picked up her pen to describe other important events, such as the details of her three year-old son's death from scarlet fever in 1853, and giving birth to a new son just a few days later. (Logan-Fisher-Fox Family Papers, Collection 1960.) Another diarist, Mary Edith Powel was inspired by the onset of the Spanish-American War to begin a diary late in life. Through the course of the war she consistently recorded her impressions of current events and policies, and continued intermittently recording observations about her personal activities for another twenty years. (Powel Family Papers, Collection 1582.)
Some women also chose to recall their lives by writing memoirs. In addition to keeping a diary, Mary Edith Powel wrote detailed memoirs of her childhood, recording social events, family news, and some historical events from the 1840s through the 1860s. (Powel Family.) In 1906 Bertha Horstmann Lippincott Coles wrote a short memoir recounting the deterioration of her relationship with Edward T. Stuart. (Horstmann-Lippincott Family Papers, Collection 1899.)
Correspondence makes up the largest part of manuscript collections written by women. Even collections that emphasize men’s professional activities, such as the Irvine-Newbold Family Papers (Collection 1890), often include letters to and from wives and daughters. Even during periods when women could not themselves hold public offices, they often served as confidantes for their husbands. Letters addressed to and received by women are therefore often valuable resources when researching topics not categorized as ‘women’s history.’ General Irvine, for example, was more forthcoming about his views about Native Americans in letters to his wife Ann than in official correspondence.
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century correspondence from and among women tends to be rich in information about social and familial networks, courtship, childrearing, household management, medical treatment, travel, and religion. In those days, as now, women often had primary responsibility for maintaining the fabric of social connection, a task that required communication. Frequent, detailed correspondence was common among family members who were separated. For example, when Sarah (Duncan) Irvine left her family in Philadelphia for her husband’s property in far northwestern Pennsylvania, she wrote twice a week to her Aunt Emily, pouring out her affection for her husband Dr. William A. Irvine, her difficulties in finding and keeping servants, her worries about her children, and her efforts to establish a church and Sunday School in the area. After Sarah died, and Dr. Irvine sent the children to live in Philadelphia, the flow of letters reversed as Aunt Emily wrote to him at least once a week with detailed accounts of the children’s health and schooling.
The Jones and Taylor family papers include correspondence of Margaretta Jones Taylor (1809-1874) and Minnie Taylor McClung (1835-1902). The letters, most of which are addressed to Andrew M. Jones, discuss family events such as births and deaths, financial difficulties, current events, and a variety of other topics. The death of McClung’s first husband, William J. Taylor Sr., and her subsequent remarriage to Rufus McCling figures prominently in the correspondence, along with financial difficulties and the challenges of raising a family. The letters provide a richly textured picture of life in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Gertrude Gouverner Ogden Meredith was also an avid letter writer, and penned epistles to her husband William Meredith and to her son William Morris Meredith, when they were away from home. Her lengthy letters are noteworthy for their eloquent literary style and for their vivid portrayals of marriage, motherhood, and social life in early nineteenth century Philadelphia. Gertrude viewed marriage as a partnership, and being a good mother was one of her highest ambitions. She used the first several paragraphs of her letters to describe her daily domestic responsibilities but used the body of her letters to assert her female authorship. Several of her letters include excerpts from her poems and her literary critiques of works published in the popular Philadelphia magazine, The Port Folio. Gertrude, incidentally, also had some of her own writings featured in that publication. (Meredith Family Papers, Collection 1509.)
Some women's correspondence also highlights their commitment to activism during war times. For example, Sarah and Harriet Hallowell's correspondence to their relative T. Morris Perot Jr., documents their World War I and World War II reflief work in the small town of Moret, France. They volunteered at a local Moret hospital; converted their home into into a sewing house and crocheted clothing for fleeing refugees, for the people of invaded districts, and for soldiers; and secured donations from their American relatives to aid their relief efforts. Their letters also contain their impressions of France's political struggles, the German occupation of France, war-time conditions, and America's contributions to the Allied war effort. (Perot Family Papers, Collection 1886.)
Harriet Hallowell with soldiers in France during WWI.
Bertha Horstmann Lippincott Coles was another activist, and her letters documents her American relief work during the two World Wars. At the onset of WWI, she participated in the Red Cross convalescent soldier program, Navy Relief Society, and United Service Club. For these organizations, she donated blankets and medical supplies, volunteered her time to visit recuperating soldiers in hospitals, and opened her home for weekend visits in an attempt to aid recovery, boost morale, and help patients in their gradual readjustment to civilian life. Bertha became a favorite among the soldiers, and many of them continued to write to her about their careers, personal lives, and struggles after they returned to active duty and throughout their lives. Bertha's correspondence also documents her efforts to re-open the United Service Club, a social and lodging facility for off duty officers in the Philadelphia area, through private donations, after it had lost government funding following the signing of the Armistice in 1918. (Hortstmann-Lippincott Family Papers, Collection 1899.)
Bertha Coles and her hostess entertaining soldiers during WWII.
Scrapbooks, autograph books, or commonplace books
Before the advent of inexpensive photography, scrapbooks and autograph books offered a method for preserving memories or information. Often these volumes contain a variety of items, from poetry composed or transcribed by friends to pasted-in pictures from newspapers. The selection and juxtaposition of texts and images offer insight into the popular culture of the day and the inner lives of the women who created these documents.
For example, the texts Amy (Hornor) Coates (1765-1838) copied into her commonplace book included odes by the English poet Thomas Gray, advice on marriage from Quaker minister John Churchman, “Extracts from the Institutes of Hindoo Law translated from the original Sanscrit [sic] by Sir William Jones,” copies of school compositions written by her son Benjamin Hornor Coates, and brief passages from philosophical essays and orations. (Coates and Reynell family papers, Series IVb). Her commonplace book served as a filing cabinet for interesting snippets of literature and information, and it demonstrates Amy’s interest in religion and philosophy, as well as her desire to monitor the intellectual development of her children.
The scrapbooks of Sarah (Duncan) Irvine (1814-1839) contain pictures cut from popular magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and poems either composed or transcribed by friends and relatives. She sometimes selected pictures to complement the transcribed text, as when she pasted an image of an Italian musician opposite a poem entitled “Music” written or copied by her cousin Mary Gustine.
Financial and Legal Records
Financial and legal records demonstrate that even in times when women had limited rights, they still played signficant roles in economic matters. Even in pre-Revolutionary days, women could be named in wills as executors, could hold property under certain circumstances, and could buy and sell goods.
The most common variety of financial or legal document associated with women is the receipt book. Even married women, who were legally extensions of their husbands, often had their own receipt books, in which they recorded payments made to merchants, landlords, or other creditors. These books show not only the economic agency that women had, but also give information about details of domestic life, such as the prices of meat and cloth at particular times. By studying these details, researchers can track changes in the use and popularity of goods like ready-made clothes, and also gain understanding of women’s homemaking activities in bygone days.
This guide was developed and written by the Documentary Families Project staff (Joanne Danifo, Katherine Gallup, Sarah Heim, and Leslie Hunt).