By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
As an avid diarist, I would be horrified if someone read my diary without my permission. As a historian and archivist, I really love reading other people’s diaries. Luckily, the Chemung County Historical Society has dozens to choose from. They range in date from the 1830s through the 1990s. Their authors are school children, soldiers, farmers, housewives, railroad workers, police officers, secretaries, carpenters, and laborers. Some are rich with detail and some are, well, rather terse.
The thing I like best about diaries is the way they open a window into the daily lives of the past. It’s especially important when the writers weren’t ‘important’ enough to make the papers or the history books. Take Lucy Diven (1833-1888), for example. We recently received a collection of 22 of her diaries dating from 1866 to 1888. She was the wife of lawyer and prominent local businessman, George M. Diven. There’s a local school named after him, but, when I looked her up, all I could find were her birth, death, and marriage dates. Thanks to her diaries, we know so much more.
|Lucy Diven, ca. 1870s|
Lucy Brown Diven was born to Alden and Minerva Brown of Clinton, New York on June 8, 1833. She married George M. Diven of Elmira on June 3, 1863 and the two of them lived in a stately mansion at 957 Lake Street. They had six children: Eugene, Josephine, George, Alexander, Louis, and Clarence. Two of them, Josephine and Clarence, died young and each time Lucy was grief-stricken. The day after baby Clarence died in 1878, Lucy was unable to get out of bed and could not bring herself to face any of the mourners at his funeral. Despite her grief and whatever else was going on in her life, Lucy wrote in her diary nearly every day until the summer before her death when she became too ill to do so.
|some of Lucy's diaries|
Her diaries reveal a busy woman. The Divens employed servants to handle the day-to-day cleaning and cooking, but homemaking was still a full-time job for Lucy. She directed the staff in their work, did all the shopping and fancy baking, and managed the household accounts. Lucy also made all her children’s clothes and most of her own, and did all the family’s mending. Except when her children were ill, it’s rare to find an entry which doesn’t mention one sewing project or another. When her six children were still small, she spent much of her time entertaining them, reading to them, taking them on outings, and caring for them when they were sick. She also had a fairly active social life, frequently paying calls to friends and her in-laws, and hosting them in turn. She liked to read, both for herself and aloud for family and friends. She was a member of a sewing/reading circle where one lady of the group would read aloud while the other ladies worked.
Lucy’s writing style tended to be terse and the amount of detail she put into her entries varied based on the space constraints of the diary itself. Her handwriting was tiny and neat, although it got noticeable harder to read as her health declined in the last few years of her life. Here are some examples:
|Lucy's diary, April 10-15, 1866|
April 12, 1866
Quicksilver and glue—30 cents
Scissor grinder—15 cents
Received Libbie’s package containing the drawers and sacques. Wrote to acknowledge it this evening.
April 12, 1870
Hemming the coverlet for William’s bed while taking care of Baby. Freddy Palmer commenced playing with the children. Mrs. Palmer in.
April 12, 1876
Trimmed a pair of drawers and cut out and partially made a new pair for Alden. Julia called to borrow my hat and veil to wear at Mrs. Lowman’s funeral.
April 12, 1880
Wrote mother. Hemmed a night dress. Put the attic in order. Nellie swept it. Commenced finishing up the boys shirtwaists. Played solitaire until Geo. came, then read newspaper stories to him while he played.
April 12, 1886
Sprinkled the plants and did some mending. Afternoon went to see Miss Hunt, then to call on Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Thurston, and Mrs. G___. Missed a call from Mrs. D___. Alden and Louis began school again. Geo. went to N. York on evening train.