The birth of a New Year focusses our thoughts on the progression of time. On the rare occasion when we must handwrite a date, perhaps on that passé commercial instrument called a cheque, we must remember to scrawl a revised series of numbers. Maybe we cling to the tradition of purchasing a fresh calendar to hang on our wall or fridge. A few of us may even crack open a pristine journal to a blank page and begin chronicling a new year. As an archaeologist-cum-historian, I am obsessed with time and delight in records of its passage. Diaries, especially, provide an intimate and personal view of the past. Coincidentally, both my son and I have spent the turn of 2018/19 reading journals of different kinds. 

The diary that sparked my interest spans two decades at the turn of the last century. I was looking for references to specific places and people, but was delighted by the variety of subject matter I discovered. For instance, daily weather conditions and the planting and harvesting of crops illustrate climatic variation and its impact on food production. Economic data such as hours worked, daily tasks, and income provide employment examples, while itemized expenses ranging from streetcar tickets to houses, demonstrate the cost of living.

However, the private information is most engaging for today’s reader. Simple facts, such as the age, height and weight of the author, provide a picture of a man approaching middle age. Addresses (and by 1910, telephone numbers) for friends and family establish him within his community. Records of visitors, birthdays, and parties flesh out his life story. For example, the presents given by guests at his 25th wedding anniversary party in 1909 included poetry books and silver-mounted glass bowls. In rare instances, the writer’s feelings seep onto the page: tight curls of ink written in a fit of irritation after an argument, or wobbling, sprawling words signalling poor health. Deaths from disease and accident are briefly noted,masking the sorrow they must have engendered. These appear with surprising frequency, highlighting the fragility of life before the advent of modern medicine. Illnesses referred to include such antiquated terms as ague and grippe (fever and influenza respectively). Jotted on the inside diary covers are medicinal recipes — “cures” for diarrhea (in 1900: whisky, cloves, with laudanum), and for smallpox and scarlet fever (the same treatment for both in 1901: sulphate of zinc, digitalis, sugar, with water); one can imagine the desperate search for anything that would bring comfort in the days before the nature of viral and bacterial disease was understood.

The comprehensiveness of the diary I read contrasts the specificity of the one my son studied: the automotive journal that came with the used 1980s vehicle he has been restoring. Among the standardized notations for mileage calculations, car repairs and expeditions, there are facts that reveal life in a past era. Fuel prices and maintenance costs chronicle economic trends. Travel distances and times indicate routes and speed of travel (and are in marked opposition to the century-old notation that I found of “nine hours by motor” between Calgary and Edmonton). Personal details also appear in this journal: destinations reveal work and holiday commitments; names and addresses disclose social contacts; and, the deepest insight into its author comes from song and CD titles scrawled on its final pages. One can picture the former truck owner speeding down the highway, in the days before distracted driving legislation or smart phones, scribbling into his notebook the details of a song he has just heard on the radio.

Diaries offer a unique glimpse into the past through the daily routines of an individual. Details about many historical subjects can be found in their pages, but the idiosyncrasies of the writer give us invaluable insight into what life was truly like in that era. The recorded facts highlight the changes that have occurred over time, but when we look a little deeper, we see evidence of the consistency of the human condition.

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.