The Mystery of Two Antique Diaries

My interest in antique diaries began in 2008 with the discovery of two diaries; one black, one red, at an antique shop in Maine. They are what was known at the time as ‘pocket diaries’, made of pliable stuff, maybe 3 by 5 inches, with a little flap that secures the whole thing shut. There’s a loop for a small pencil in each and a couple pages of information on presidents, postal rates and the like. The diaries have predated pages, the black one, dating to 1880, with two to three dated entry blocks per day. Diarists of the day had to be brief and this economy of space did engender succinct descriptions of weather and chores. Not much extra for delving into the emotional landscape or the particular hue of a sunset. For these reasons, the black and red diaries, dating 1880 and 1886 were all the more fascinating. Both were written primarily in pencil with a few entries in ink, which had faded to sepia. The 1880 diary has only a handful of entries, the 1886 diary about half full.

Old diaries are notoriously hard to read and these were bearish to transcribe. During the initial reading I didn’t know the identity of the diarist. There was what appeared to be a name scribbled in the front cover but I couldn’t decipher it. There are plenty of names in the entries themselves and I quickly learned that the diarist was a woman, her husband’s name William and that he was abusing her, both physically and verbally. Thus began my sleuthing. The antique shop where I bought the diaries was 30 minutes from my house and the diarist wrote of local towns and landmarks. With the handful of names mentioned in the diary, including her husband’s and children’s names, as well as the name of her town, I began searching an online database of cemetery records. I found the diarist, her husband, and two children who died as infants, listed in a tiny cemetery. Her name was Esther Small. With this information I turned to census records and discovered that she was born in Sandy Creek, New York as Esther Waite, the daughter of a clergyman. She had three living children, had married William Small well into her twenties and moved to his hometown in rural Maine. William had served in the Civil War and worked as a tanner in Sandy Creek where he likely met Esther. Three of their children died as infants. Esther never mentions it but, according to the census, she was pregnant with her last daughter Anna throughout the 1886 diary. 

The funny thing about mysteries is that they’re never completely solved, or maybe the type of person who feels compelled to solve them is never quite satisfied. I’ve not seen a photo of Esther. I have a photo of the 32nd Maine Infantry which William served in for a few years of the Civil War, but he may not be in it, he was discharged due to injury a matter of months before the war’s close. What irks me most is the thought that there are other diaries written by Esther in the world somewhere. A woman doesn’t keep diaries for two years of her life and call it quits. Diarists have a need to archive their lives. I’d also like to know how Esther and William met, why she married him. Her family of origin seems to have been educated and kind and she bemoans the fact that she married into the Small family. But why did she? Unless I’m miraculously lucky to find another diary of Esther’s, I guess the rest will remain a mystery.

Excerpts from the 1880 diary of Esther Small


Monday, May 24, 1880

Washed Today. William’s

father got mad at me

called me a damned liar

a shitten one and a stinking

one also threw a knife at me

but did not hit me.



Sunday, May 30, 1880

Pleasant till this afternoon

when it rained most

of the time. I intended to

have gone to church this

PM if it had not rained. Silas

Wright here this PM.


Wednesday, June 2, 1880

Pleasant all day.                                                                            

Washed did not get                                                                       

through till night.                                                                          

Rev. Mr. Small of

Wilton made us a call

this PM.


Tuesday, September 14, 1880

W. has been accusing me of

being after every man in

town and called me a whore

and other names.


Saturday, October 30, 1880

Today W. has called me

all the names that he

could think of New York whore

son of a bitch she devil

a bastard bloody whore

and stick your nose

up my ass clear to

your eye brows

a damned whore and

a rotten one








In my next post, I’ll describe the red diary from 1886 and include a few entries. The 1886 diary has pre-dated, full-page entries and when writing on a particularly difficult or emotional day, Esther scrawled her words up both sides of the narrow page. That attempt to simultaneously purge and contain her feelings of frenzy and helplessness has, heartbreakingly, survived down the centuries.

2 thoughts on “The Mystery of Two Antique Diaries

    • Thanks Sue. I completely agree. Diaries, especially of ordinary women, are inspirational in so many ways. I love to discover the little commonplace moments of their lives and how their lives differed from, but also resembled ours’.

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