December 3, 2008

Mary Elizabeth Althouse, a 12-year-old girl in 1917.

Paintdancer reads an old diary -- "the daily writings of 12 year old Mary Elizabeth Althouse, daughter of Elmer and Margaret Althouse of Sellersville, Pa." -- her husband bought for 50¢ at a garage sale:
I found it utterly amazing that she invariably ended up in bed at around 11:30PM or 12 AM every night after a day that was chock full of activities that didn’t include TV, the Internet, movies, organized team sports for girls, or visits to the King of Prussia mall! I’d certainly have thought that kids back then were in bed by 8 o’clock out of sheer boredom!

Mary warmed my heart because she seemed to have been an old-fashioned girl much like another Mary I knew all too well- very studious, musical and creative.

Her time was totally filled with school, studies, music lessons, church activities, tatting, embroidering, painting, drawing, a scrapbook, a stamp collection, crocheting, making a pocketbook for mama, candy for friends and playing rook with her brother Sam when he came home from his college (Cornell?) in Ithaca....

This child was obviously from a somewhat privileged family, since the family’s frequent jaunts to the theatre in Philadelphia and shopping outings to Allentown were unusual in an era where auto trips were likely a luxury. Yet, beyond those hints of a refined lifestyle, there was much within the scope of her daily activities that painted a picture of a child who was not merely cultured and well-educated, but who also had to contribute to household chores that included lawn mowing, flower planting, ironing clothes and baking goodies for the preacher’s new tenants, as well as going with mama to visit the sick and elderly.

This demonstrated to me that a privileged child need not be just an entitled child, as much of today’s affluent kids seem to be.

I also observed that Mary wrote almost nothing about her own feelings, thoughts and opinions. Her entry on Thursday, January 4th, 1917 surprised me:
Fair weather today. Went to school. Took my music lesson after school. Mrs. Krug was here for supper. Cousin Helen’s baby suffocated. Spent the evening at home, crocheting and studying. Retired at half past ten.
How strange that she didn’t comment about her feelings regarding the death of the baby! Was it because a woman’s thoughts and opinions meant so little in those days? She recorded the ritualistic performance of her daily mundane feminine tasks of sewing, tatting, baking, etc. with a conscientiousness that would be unusual in a twelve-year-old today. Yet she failed to express one iota of sadness or concern about her second cousin’s untimely death! Why???????????

ADDED: Playing rook? Ah!
Rook is a trick-taking game, usually played with a specialized deck of cards. Sometimes referred to as "Christian cards" or "missionary poker," Rook playing cards were introduced sometime in the 20th century....

The Rook deck consists of 57 cards: a blue Rook Bird card, similar to a joker, and 56 cards divided into four suits, or colors. Each suit—black, red, yellow, and green—is made up of cards numbered 1 through 14.



AND: The brief entry about the smothered baby reminds me of this passage in Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates" (which, btw, I highly recommend -- especially the audio version):
[John Winthrop's] earliest American journal entries are understandably brief. "Monday we kept a court," reads one. "My son, Henry Winthrop, was drowned at Salem," says another.

30 comments:

Pogo said...

"Yet she failed to express one iota of sadness or concern about her second cousin’s untimely death! Why?"

Oprah hadn't yet been born, and society was still free of the tyranny of emotion.

Kathy said...

Pogo is correct. Expressing ones feelings about events was unseemly, a sign of ill breeding. Your feelings didn't have any bearing on the circumstances. This has nothing to do with gender. Many sad things happened all the time--it was important to maintain some equanimity in the face of them so that life *could* go on. I recall an incident in one of the Little House books where Pa is lost in a snow storm and likely dead, and Ma and the girls must pretend all is normal and well back at home. This wasn't denial--it was an important discipline to allow them to survive. A little of that discipline would go along way nowadays.

Freeman Hunt said...

What a great garage sale find! If I thought I could come across something like that, I would go to garage sales. Fascinating.

Oligonicella said...

She didn't care. She didn't know her cousin and had never met them. It was simply news like the other deaths she'd heard of. My guess, but that's a lot easier to swallow than a twelve year old suppressing her thoughts in her own book. They write about those things you know. Little Women?

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Death was a more common companion in those days. Only a few years earlier my grandfather (1885-1977)had lost his next younger sister -- struck down by a runaway coal cart -- and an even younger sister to a fever within a couple of months.

He noted their passings in his diary with the same sort of dispassion. Then again, of the eleven children in his family, only five made it to adulthood -- and his mother was considered to have done fairly well.

In the mid-1920s, President Coolidge's son died in the White House, of an infected blister from playing tennis. They were quite different times from our own.

Lawgiver said...

I think the infant mortality rate was around 10% in 1917. Everyone probably knew someone who lost a baby so it probably was viewed as one of those things that just happen. If it wasn't in your immediate family it wasn't a big deal. My Great grandmother was born in the 1880s, married at the age of 16 and had 8 children, one stillborn and another who died of an unknown disease before he was one. I think that was common back then.

William said...

Perhaps there is an Althouse gene that impells one to record the passing moments of life....According to the postscript. she left no descendents. This is the only thing that has survived her. The keeping of the diary was an attempt to give significance to the finite series of inconsequential events that defined her life. The present owner of the diary also makes an attempt to give weight and meaning to those events.....There is a kind of reverse Ozymandias effect going on here. There are no works for the mighty to look upon, just an endless expanse of sand.

Freeman Hunt said...

I find it so hard to imagine living in a time when losing children was common. Whenever I read history that is relevant to that idea, I try to imagine it and cannot. Parental ties to children seem so inherently strong and intense that it seems as though the frequency of child deaths would have broken people. But it didn't. People must have been tougher... and a lot more religious.

ShadowFox said...

This is kind of an odd coincidence.

A Scottish TV announcer caused quite a stir this weekend when he commented during a game that the last time one of the teams won the Scottish Cup, in 1902, Adolf Hitler was 13 years old.

WestVirginiaRebel said...

Chilcren were also regarded somewhat differently then than they are today. In those days they were regarded almost like miniature adults. Their clothing copied what their parents wore. Like everyone else they were expected to behave in a certain way.

Bob said...

When my paternal grandmother died and we cleaned out her house, we found several Rook decks in a drawer. Apparently it was a popular game at one time. How many other pre-TV games and pastimes fell by the wayside and are now forgotten?

ricpic said...

The answer to her matter of factness? She lived before The Age Of Inflation: our age.

AllenS said...

Little know fact:

Darwin Althouse was born in the south in 1946. He died in 1964, when on his 18th birthday, he said these famous words: "Mom, watch this!"

Windbag said...

We still play Rook. It's a fun game.

AllenS said...

Reading the article more carefully, I see that my ancestors were there to watch the agony that John Winthrop went through.

From my geneology findings:

Thomas French, Jr., b. Nov. 27, 1608, and his sister Alice, boarded the Arabella with the Winthrop Fleet and sailed to Massachusetts. They were joined about three years later by their sisters Dorcas and Susan, who were servants for the Winthrop family, like Alice.

French was my grandmother's maiden name.

MadisonMan said...

I've been reading the latest Historic Madison magazine lately, and one of the stories is about a Civil War soldier who was shot in the leg, and his diary entry just says something along the lines I've received a mortal wound. And following the operation a couple days later to remove some of the shinbone: Doctor gives no hope of recovery. Sad day for wife.

Reactions to death were different then.

MadisonMan said...

P.S. He did survive and died 40 years later.

ricpic said...

Don't give yourself airs, AllenS, back in those days French was a very common name, the Smith of its day.

Jake said...

Sellersville, Pa. Named for Samuel Sellers, from whose stiff backed wooden chair I often read Althouse.

AllenS said...

ricpic--

I've got everyone's name from my grandparents on back to 1425. I didn't pick the name out of nowhere. I also have the names of the women that they married.

In 1638 when the first French named people arrived, there wasn't a lot of people around. Check the manifest of the Winthrop Fleet if you think that French was a common name back then.

MadisonMan said...

My mother's family didn't make it to the New World until 1637. Dad's came over in 1638. I guess we're just immigrants compared to AllenS! :)

AllenS said...

MadisonMan--

Where did they land. Massachusetts? If so, we might be related. Think about it.

AllenS said...

Correction:

I just looked at my files and can trace the family history back to Jacob French born abt 1553, in Suffolk England and not 1425. I was that close!

MadisonMan said...

Saybrooke, CT, both of them.

Darcy said...

Interesting stuff in the comments!

Sad to hear that my lovely game of tennis killed Coolidge's son, though. Wow.

AllenS said...

Nope, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Next stop, Minnesota in the 1850's.

PeteDrum said...

My Southern Baptist Grandmother would not allow a deck of conventional playing cards in the house, but tolerated the playing of Rook.

former law student said...

I had a game of rook, but I haven't thought about it in 40 years. Maybe Uno took its place, with Mille Bornes overlapping the popularity of both.

I agree that likely their family was not close to the cousin whose baby suffocated. I'm thinking the death of children was not so widespread, except for those who caught influenza in the pandemic. Of people in my family born at the turn of the last century, the vast majority (80-90%) made it to adulthood. But I think that had been a recent development as big families were the rule.

Balfegor said...

Fair weather today. Went to school. Took my music lesson after school. Mrs. Krug was here for supper. Cousin Helen’s baby suffocated. Spent the evening at home, crocheting and studying. Retired at half past ten.

There's a family resemblance between the way she writes and George H.W. Bush's speech -- clipped, dropping first person subjects. I suppose he's only one generation off from her.

Re: MadisonMan:

I've been reading the latest Historic Madison magazine lately, and one of the stories is about a Civil War soldier who was shot in the leg, and his diary entry just says something along the lines I've received a mortal wound. And following the operation a couple days later to remove some of the shinbone: Doctor gives no hope of recovery. Sad day for wife.

Reminds me of one of the anecdotes brought up in this Theodore Dalrymple column:

Aurelle recounts in Les silences du Colonel Bramble seeing an officer he knew on a stretcher, obviously near death from a terrible abdominal injury. The officer says to him: “Please say good-bye to the colonel for me and ask him to write home that I didn’t suffer too much. I hope this is not too much trouble for you. Thanks very much indeed.”

Duscany said...

I once read a diary from a Mills College graduate of the 1880's who said she was tense when her husband went away on business trips but then, when he came back, they would make love and she'd wake up the next morning and feel "comfy all day."

She might not have had a word for sexual frustration but she knew how to cure it and how it made her feel afterward.