Antique Diary Mysteries Continued

 In my last post I introduced you to the diaries of Esther Small. As I wrote earlier, the black 1880 diary had only a scattering of entries and with three predated entries to a page, Esther didn’t have much space to write. The red 1886 diary was kept up more faithfully. Esther was in her early 40s during the writing of the diary and pregnant with her last child, a daughter she would name Anna. The pregnancy is never mentioned, but Esther does write about feeling tired or unwell in several entries. Her days were filled with chores as most working-class women of her day. Between churning butter, boiling and hauling water to manually wash every stitch of her family’s clothing, mending the clothes, cooking, and tending to the children and the livestock, Esther had little spare time. Her moments of leisure seemed to be spent reading ‘the papers’ and visiting neighbors. But with hard winters, no transportation but her own feet, a late pregnancy, and an abusive husband unpredictably storming in and out the house, Esther’s life appears bleak. 

As of 1886, we know that Esther had been enduring verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her father-in-law and husband for six years. The fact that her father-in-law threw a knife at her in the 1880 diary indicates that the abuse had reached a certain intensity and likely wasn’t a new occurrence. William worked off and on at a local quarry, clearing and maintaining town roads, farming their own land, and helping neighboring farmers with theirs’. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and was often around the house, burdening Esther with criticisms or downright abuse. A handful of entries follows. The misspellings, antiquated grammar and odd line breaks are Esther’s. I tried to stay true to her entries, especially where she breaks lines, as it shows how small and narrow the space she was confined to.  I will interject with (my note) where I have information or insight to give.


Thursday, February 11, 1886

Tonight received

a box of things

from Utica from

Julia and Warren

with lots of things

in it for me and

the children, also

some few things in

it for William

Pleasant but cold,

this diary in the

box a present

from Warren C

Rowley. Unpacked

part of the box tonight

(my note** Julia was Esther’s sister; her husband Warren Rowley was a lawyer of prominent lineage. It’s interesting that Esther includes his full name, almost as a point of pride.)


Friday, February 12, 1886

After I got the work

done up this morning

finished unpacking

the box. found some

toys and candy for

the children.

some nice ones

they were. they were

much pleased

with them.


Monday, February 22, 1886

Today pleasant but

cold. Did not wash

today. Alice Tufft was

here most all the

forenoon. she came

down to get me to

come up and stay

with her this after

noon as she was all

alone. Etta Edd

and Morris were

away. Could not go

for William went

to the Corner and

no one to stay in

with the children.

(my note** in the 19th century, Mondays were typically a woman’s day to wash clothes. Whenever Esther mentions not washing, she is referring to skipping the week’s wash)


Tuesday, February 23, 1886

Pleasant all day

but cold baked

a lot of pies this

forenoon. This

afternoon after I

did the work up

went up to stay

with Alice a spell but

found her gone. Etta

had come back. her

sister brought her

and took Alice back

with her. stay a

short time


Tuesday, March 2, 1886

This morning while I

was doing up the

work William got mad

put off up to Edd Morses

stayed all the forenoon

playing cards. He came

home mad and his

father commenced at

him about what I had

said to him and it was

all a lie. it made William

all the madder and

he up and kicked

me a few times as hard

as he could on my bottom.

it hurt so I could not set

down unless I had a cushion. 

Commenced to

break out the roads after

the storm.

(my note** in rural areas, men with oxen and sledges would literally have to break through several feet of snow to clear the roads.)


Wednesday, March 3, 1886

Blows and snows

some today. They are

out breaking roads

again,  Lester day, Reu

Morse and his man

helped in the afternoon.

This afternoon this

other and Walter with

them helped. Am

still lame cannot sit down

unless I have a

cushion in the chair.

(my note** this entry shows that William didn’t just kick Esther for show, to frighten or humiliate her. He likely bruised her tailbone with the power of his kicks. Remember that men didn’t wear the soft soled shoes of today. William was probably wearing a hard soled work boot; add to this the fact that Esther was a few months pregnant.)


Saturday, March 20, 1886

It has snowed

hard all day William

worked for

Reu Morse was

gone till most

night and then he

came home mad

and commenced at

me. I have been cross

with the children

most of the time as

this fortnight W has been

to the neighbors.

Most of time I enjoy

being alone

with the children.


Sunday, March 21, 1886

Snowed hard all

day and rather

cold no one here

today I have

been lonesome

and homesick

all day so much

that I had to

have a crying spell.

(my note** This entry is significant for the fact that Esther is still suffering homesickness after being married and living away from home for over a decade.)


Monday, March 22, 1886

Not very pleasant

this morning but

towards noon it cleared

off and was pleasent.

did not wash to

day have been trying

to churn. have been

at it most all day.

tonight got it up. William

got mad at me tonight

and threaten to

split my head open

I am tired and homesick tonight.

I have been crying again.

Oh how I wish I had

never come here in

the small family.


Sunday March 28, 1886

Pleasant all day.

William has been

off most of the day.

After dinner and I

done up the work I

Went up to Mrs.

Wrights stayed a

short had a pleasent

time while

there it seems like

going home to go

there. Came back

Just dark.

(my note** sometimes Esther’s succinct way of writing: ‘came back just dark’ creates more meaning than she likely intended; a kind of stark poetry that compelled me from the start.)


Monday, March 29, 1886

Have been mending

most of the

time today when

not doing the

house work. Have

been here alone

with children

as William has

gone to mill and

his father is off to

the neighbors

both gone most

all day. I enjoyed

being alone did

not wash today

It has been pleasant

all day. I am

tired tonight.


Tuesday, March 30 1886

Unpleasant all

day it has been thawing

all day and a

heavy fogg mist

almost a rain.

William off again today

most of the

time and when he

did come back he

commenced at me

called me all the names

you could think of

wished I was dead

Sewing and mending

all day so homesick

tonight I had to cry

am all beat out

and tired


Saturday, April 3, 1886

Pleasant all day

and warm. The snow

is leaving fast. William

off all the morning

and forenoon he did

not get back till

noon. He was up to the (?)

               He came

home mad he said

a person said if he had

me he would set me up

in the (?)  and (?)

I told William he

could do it as soon as he

pleased. Sat up till 12

O’clock mending have

been at it most of the day and

sewing and baking

(my note** I had trouble transcribing this entry and used question marks where I just couldn’t decipher. However, it’s clear that William was at a public place and spoke to someone who made a comment about Esther. What is also significant in this entry is that Esther appears to ‘talk back’. There are entries later in the diary where Esther’s obstinacy is clear in her writing. She may have been heartbroken and ‘all beat out’ but I wouldn’t question her strength.)


Sunday April 4, 1886

Pleasant all day

After I did up the

work this morning I

got ready and went

up to see Mrs. B Allen

walked up was some

tired when I got there

as it is up hill most

of the way and not

very good walking

at that. left there

about three Oclock

got home about

five had a pleasant time.


Monday April 5, 1886

Today washed I

had a three weeks

one. I only washed

the fine ones to

day and that was

as much as I could

do as I had the water

to bring, tubs to

empty, wood to bring

the children to

look after and the

meals to get. When

night came I was

so tired I had to

have a good cry.

Edd Morse here



Tuesday, April 6, 1886

Pleasant this

morning but about

noon it commenced

to storm and

by night stormed

quite hard It was

mostly hail. finish

the rest of the

washing the flannels

and colored

clothes got most

dry as I washed them

first but the rest

I had to put into

a tub of water

Silas Wright stopped

here and said I         

could have the molasses


Wednesday, April 7, 1886

Unpleasant all

day rain snow

and sleet done a

little of everything

to day no one

here worked over

a churning of butter

Was so lonesome and

homesick that

when night came I

had to have a good cry.


Stay tuned, more entries to come….




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