Early book club

Female Reading Class

Female Reading Class records, 1816, Ms 79497. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

How long do you think book clubs have been meeting? Five years? Fifty years? Would you be surprised if I told you no less than 194 years?

Early in 1816 a dozen ladies met in Colchester, Connecticut to form a reading class. Eliza L. Bulkley, Clarrissa Bigelow, Ann E. Bigelow, Sarah Clark, Frances A. Cleaveland, Mary E. Coggeshall, Susan Foote, Lucy Foote, Sarah T. Isham, Eliza Isham, Caroline Watrous, and Sarah Wells were “desirous of informing [their] minds in religious and literary knowledge” and formed a class, “for the purpose of social reading.”

The group met on Wednesdays at 2:00 PM for two hours, with a break in the middle. A President presided over each meeting, chosen in alphabetical order. She would then select the readers for the week. An additional job was note taker. The notes would be reviewed at the beginning of the next meeting. New members had to be approved by two-thirds of the group. Each meeting’s reading would be “under the superintendance & direction of the Revd. Salmon Cone and David A. Sherman.”

Over the course of several weeks the ladies read selections from Priestley’s Lectures on History. Next was The Campaign in Russia, which they read between March and May. Over the summer the reading selections were about famous ladies in history, including Lady Jane Grey, Great Britain’s Queen Mary, and the Countess of Warwick.  The History of England was the topic for the last entries in the volume.

Each entry begins by noting where the class met (generally at the home of the President’s father or husband), the name of the President, and the names of the readers. Any new members were mentioned as well. The remainder of each entry summarized the reading. Note takers never recorded their opinions of the reading or whether there was any discussion on the topic.

As wonderful as this manuscript is, I find myself with numerous questions. Did they have food during the break? If so, what was served? Did they like what they were reading? What were their ages? Did mothers bring babies with them? What in 1816 qualified as a “good and sufficient reason” to miss a meeting?

The final entry in the volume is dated October 23. There is no indication as to whether the group disbanded or if they switched to a new notebook. Regardless, it is a wonderful glimpse into the social lives of women in the early nineteenth century.

This volume is open to research. Come visit!

“Warm as you please, thunderstorm in eve.”

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story (“Twitter Updates, the 18th Century Edition,” April 13, 2010) about how the 140 character limit for a Twitter post would not have been a problem for diarists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  As luck would have it, some Connecticut related examples have recently crossed my desk.

The Emmons, Foote, and Loomis diary collection (Ms 70822) consists of six volumes, written by four different people, all living in Colchester, Connecticut between 1854 and 1894. While Colchester has certainly changed in the past century, certain aspects of life have remained constant. People still record the weather and still prepare food.

In the example below, Alfred I. Loomis, was poetic about the warm temperatures on June 15, 1854. “Warm as you please, thunderstorm in eve.”

Alfred Isham Loomis, Jr. diary, 1854, Ms 70822. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

On September 14, 1860, Aaron E. Emmons, kept his weather entry short and to the point. “Weather pleasant.” Emmons, who authored two of the volumes, actually tended to write much longer entries.

Aaron Ely Emmons diary, 1860, Ms 70822. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Abigail Foote Loomis, mother of Alfred, always noted her baking. Bread and pies were in her oven on August 14, 1867. Loomis also noted her other housework. She “washed a great wash” on August 12. We all still have to do that from time to time, as well!

Abigail Foote Loomis diary, ca. 1867, Ms 70822. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Certainly there were diarists who kept longer entries, though most of the volumes were not designed for such. The diaries ranged in size, most being approximately four or five inches long by three or four inches wide. The smallest I’ve encountered is shown below, with its accompanying pencil (unfortunately, it was not actually used as a diary). As the examples demonstrate, however, most of those choosing to write within the allotted space had to keep their entries short. The length would be just about perfect for a Twitter tweet.

Diary, 1894, Ms 70822. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Another way in which Twitter and nineteenth century diaries are similar, is their use of additional media to record events. On Twitter it is common for a user to attach a photograph to a tweet or provide a link for more information. With a diary, the author can place items between the pages. Lucy Maria Foote (the fourth author of the group, not shown) included a fabric sample from her mother’s dress. Aaron Emmons included, yes, hair.

Aaron Ely Emmons diary, 1863, Ms 70822. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

How were all of these people connected? Would they be following each other on Twitter today? Possibly. Aaron Ely Emmons was the brother of Catherine Ely Emmons Loomis. Catherine’s husband, Caleb Loomis, was a distant relative of Alfred Isham Loomis, husband of Abigail Foote Loomis and father of Alfred Isham Loomis, Jr. Abigail Foote Loomis was also distantly related to Lucy Maria Foote. If you would like more specifics, you are welcome to visit our Research Center and make use of our genealogy resources!

These diaries are available for research. Come visit, and follow us on Twitter (@ConnHistSoc)!