The Public Humanist

Personal Histories: The Written Record and How to Value It

On a mid-July morning in 1863, W. J. Young, a lumber manufacturer in eastern Iowa wrote to a customer explaining why his order for milled lumber had been delayed; "My men that I expected this morning I found have gone to the harvest fields and I don't know what to do for help." Three months later Young once again explained his workers' absence, "Your order . . . would have been loaded yesterday but our men have been attending our county fair." As late as 1867, W.J. Young found himself without workers at crucial times during the year. "Owing to the State Fair being here it has been almost impossible to keep enough men to move a wheel." These brief written records, now fading to brown in a mid-western archive, provide a crucial insight into the tension between the industrial factory manager and the factory workers who retained their pre-industrial work habits.

Whether it is an insight into the working habits of 19th century mill workers or an invitation into the horrors of the trenches of World War I, the stories that individuals leave in the written record offer us a window into the past. These writings have gained importance over the past few decades, as the rise of social history in the 1970s brought with it a host of the previously unheard – women, minorities, workers. Historians brought them to life through the use of quantitative history – statistical analysis helped to illuminate a history that had often been hidden in the shadows.

But the lasting contribution of the social historians is the use of the personal history in the written record – diaries, letters, and journals. While these sources might require more digging through archives, the writings bring individuals to life. It is not just the “big” story of the ruling white men, but rather a diverse tapestry of experiences that fleshes out the nooks and crannies of life in the past.

The power of personal stories to pull people through time into the distant, but seemingly alive, past, is readily evident in Harry Lamin’s “blog". For many years, Bill Lamin kept his grandfather's letters in a drawer. Now he is turning these letters into a blog by his grandfather, Harry, who served in the British Army during World War One. By posting these letters online, ninety years to the day after they were written, the blog allows us an insight into what it meant to be a young soldier during The Great War. Biographies of the military leaders, military strategies, and the number of troops killed only get so far in bringing the real story of the war to light. Now readers from around the world are living side by side with Harry in the trenches. This connection with the daily tedium and/or horrors of war is especially important now in light of the current disconnection that most people have with the current conflicts in the Middle East. Personal stories, whether from the Great War or the current conflict, bring the reality of the war to those who have no connection with it.

By offering different views of the same event, personal stories enhance our understanding of complex situations. At the time they were written, the official record was often given more credibility than the writings of another participant, particularly when the alternative view was that of a woman or other marginalized person. The diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife/healer in late 18th century Maine, eloquently brings to life the hidden aspects of colonial life. Through her groundbreaking study of Ballard’s diary in A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich uses Ballard’s diary to show how Ballard’s work as a midwife, mother, and wife made her a respected member of her community of Hallowell, Maine from 1785 until her death in 1812. Through Ballard’s diary, we can also glimpse the lives of the town's other inhabitants--the ordinary people who are normally invisible to us when we look back into the past. In a website dedicated to the study of Ballard’s diary, readers are encouraged to “do history” themselves; the same event might look different when told from various points of view, whether it is the official source or a more personal source such as Ballard’s writings. Ballard’s diary is an extraordinary example of how personal histories enrich, deepen, and complicate our understanding of everyday life in early America.

Personal stories surround us in unexpected places – letters penned by a long-deceased grandparent, stories from an immigrant back to family in “the old country,” or the hastily scribbled notes of a factory worker. These personal stories are windows into the past, illuminating the past in a personal way that is invaluable in our understanding of another time. These stories are waiting all around us – we just need to listen.

--Patricia Bruttomesso, Local History Coordinator, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities
© 2014 The Valley Advocate