A Year in the 19th

Many of you know, some may not, that I recently started a new job as a museum educator at the Western Reserve Historical Society’s History Center in Cleveland. There are innumerable benefits to this switch. I have honest employment during the winter. I received a minor pay increase. I wear office clothes and a badge. The museum is only three miles from my apartment. There are more people slightly closer to my age. There are multiple programs to juggle and more opportunities for internal promotion. The list goes on, but one dark lining to this Silver Cloud of New Employment is that, inherent to my acceptance of the position, was my resignation at Hale Farm and Village.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of the firsts in my life, but, for now, accepting my first museum job sticks out plainly in my memory. I was driving to Cincinnati for a dance competition when I got the call. I had been thinking of changing my name to Nearly Jobless Jen and starting a lucrative career as an underemployed Hogwarts ghost. I had been thinking of committing to burritos for life. I had been thinking of going to grad school just to leave the godforsaken job pool for another decade or so. I had been thinking a lot of really impossible things, but one phone call put an end to all that. I accepted a job at Hale Farm in May 2013 and began my career in museum education. I was finally looking forward to the future, and the future was the past.

In honor of an amazing year (and a half), I would like to leave you with this (un)authentic primary source: the diary of Miss Lucretia Hadley (aka Maggie Meredith, aka Betsy Cowles). This illustrated diary, written between 1863 and 1864, offers a unique glimpse into the life of an educated, upper/middle-class, single, working, feminist, teenage woman in the (curated) 19th-century experience. Transcription provided by Jennifer Graham, B.A.

December 1863: New minister in town. My age. Only eligible bachelor of marrying age. I should like to marry if the man is right. I invited him for tea and hung mistletoe in the rafters. Mother wishes I weren’t so bold, but I must get close to learn his mind. Ministers are of good stock, but many are stuffy and staid. Too many have quoted Paul to me that “women should remain silent.” If he is of the opinion that men are the “lord and masters” of their wives, then I could never pursue him. If he is of the opinion that women are friends and equals, not chattels, then, bless me, I could certainly marry him then.

January 1864: Cold.

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February 1864: Cold. 

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March 1864: Still cold. Despite freezing temperatures, maple sugaring has begun across the road. Window pane missing from schoolhouse; fire offers no respite from the chill. Students arrive ill-equipped for the weather. School continues despite wage disparities. Wage disparities continue despite Akron Convention. No choice but to raise the next generation of crusaders.

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April 1864: “I sent you to Oberlin to get an education, not to get ideas.” My father was needlessly incensed upon discovering a group of runaways in our kitchen. As his daughter, it did not surprise me that he sent the freedom seekers away. We seem to hope eternally that our closest relatives could somehow be capable of instantaneous change, but that simply is not human nature. No, what surprised me more is that my father somehow expected an education and the formation of ideas to be mutually exclusive in a young woman…

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May 1864: My dwellings have shrunk considerably. I find my aristocratic hands are not used to such menial labor. The neighbor woman has taken to teaching me to spin. I rejected her drop spindle vehemently and was allowed to advance prematurely to the wheel. I have taken quite fondly to sweeping and tending the garden. House is mostly bright and breezy but grows dark and lonely in the later hours. 

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June 1864: Moved in with the Hales. Candle-making has restored the softness of my hands and constant company has been a balm to my loneliness. In less busy moments, I retire to the big rocker on the porch and lose myself in a novel. I find novels are not so harmful in young women with fortitude. This particular story provides a useful warning against men who only pretend to support our womanly cause to advance their own lecherous interests. I find no need to worry for myself, but have seen others fall for the wily charms of men easily enough. Thus, though it be unnatural, I advise all young women to swear off marriage until the day that we should see ourselves equal to men.

July 1864: Despite missing cow, have entered business of dairy farming. Enlisted village children to churn cream to butter. Many asked if I was a princess, and, though I will never understand this monarchical obsession of modern youth, I have come to the conclusion that the question must have been prompted by my new dress. I find the fashions quite advanced across the road.The Canal has also brought many eclectic neighbors. There is a doctor, a minister and school teacher, a storekeeper, a potter, and, across the green, the richest gentleman I have ever seen. In contrast, the strange drifter in the law office shouts at the village youth and refuses to do any dairying until the cow returns.

August 1864: War has come to Wheatfield. It seems for all our railroads this bloody conflict could not be contained to the rebellious south. Tents cover the village green, and we have hidden the chickens from the voracious appetites of Uncle Sam’s troops. The weather is positively Brazilian today. I find the heat has has driven the boys in blue to licentiousness. Young, bonnie lasses have been scooped up by men twice their age. Even I fell victim to a genteman’s charm, although, with luck, I later discovered he was but a boy. I promptly abandoned the lad and returned to my reading. All the pomp and circumstance of hosting an nation’s army must not be allowed to overshadow the true nature of this conflict: freedom.

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September 1864: I find my fortunes have improved greatly. I now reside in what could only be called a mansion. From my doorway, I can observe the daily workings of the village. I am not visited as frequently as before, but such is the case when jealously interrupts otherwise friendly relationships. To replace conversation, I have taken to sitting in the shade of a great buckeye tree. The rambling man from before and a kind land surveyor moved a bench beneath the tree so that I could be more comfortable. Without the drudgery of household chores, I have more time to sketch or write or read or fiddle on my viol. A life of luxury, while certainly not idle, requires much more imagination.

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October 1864: The harvest means a new term at the Wheatfield School will begin shortly. I have caught word that I will be replacing Mr. Willett as the childrens’ keeper. It will be wonderful to do good, honest work again. Another gentleman caller felt need to approach me yesterday. He flattered me until I was quite flustered. Our conversation continued even after he took his leave. I admit, I received each missive with rising expectations until further inquiry revealed him to be but a rakish child. The youthful quality of my face breeds disrespect. I long to someday cut a venerable figure like Susan Anthony.

Reverend Carpenter remains the only gentleman that has not disappointed me in this way. Have not seen him for months as he has taken residency in the log house across the road and there is no time to make the journey. Should like to see him before Christmas to determine if he still walks in line with the cause of woman.

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November 1864: Intercepted another group of freedom seekers led by Mr. Ford’s daughter. She was eager to be rid of them, so I brought them to the Hadley General Store. We are a free labor store and fully in support of Emancipation. How powerful I feel when I think on women’s contributions to this great cause. The Grimke sisters. Lucy Stone. Abby Kelley. Someday you may see my name next to theirs, perhaps as a footnote.  Ambition is a poor quality, but I find modesty oppresses women more than ambition does harm. Brimming with excitement. In a week I will meet President Lincoln. 

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December 1: Uncle Jacob has come from Willoughby to assist in settling the family estate after the death of my mother and father. William Strong, Esq. is known for being shady about these sorts of things, and I have never been instructed in managing finances. I am grateful for my uncle’s presence, despite his Scrooge-like attitude towards the Christmas spirit. He believes he is here to facilitate my marriage. I am determined to finish my education. I will either find success, or one of us will perish.

December 15: Returned from final days at Oberlin. Forgot my key and had to enter through the window. I accomplished this, despite considerable baggage and hoop skirt. Life remains surprising.

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December 24: This night could have lasted forever, and I would not have been put off. Reverend Carpenter came calling late this evening. I heard him enter but hid behind a door until the moment was right. Could not afford Uncle Jacob to see me smiling when Reverend Carpenter professed his admiration for me. Successfully hid smile; forgot about mistletoe. Was scolded forcefully but no harsh words could dampen my spirits on this joyous day, for I am betrothed! No longer must I feel unnatural in my convictions, for I have found a husband to love who can understand and cherish my mind! A new day for Lucretia Hadley, and, perhaps, a new day for womankind…

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On December 22, I had my last official day as an employee of Hale Farm & Village. It is difficult to explain how so many different houses without heat or electricity or running water became my home(s) away from home. It is difficult to explain how, in want of a family, my co-workers became both my friends and my sisters, my mentors and my quirky uncles. There are no words to describe how people and a place so unfamiliar and unexpected could have left such a deep imprint on my life, but I am so grateful they did.

Sometimes we can get so comfortable in one chapter of a story that it can be jarring when it ends. The events would have been so warm, the characters so welcoming, that we wish the narrative could have lingered just one paragraph longer. With one finger on each side of the page, we might hesitate and consider reading it again, just for the sake of feeling good. The comfort of the familiar engenders a brief pause, but ultimately, curiousity turns the page for us. Whether we’re ready or not, we move on.

So, here’s to a new day for Lucretia (aka Maggie, aka Betsy), and here’s to a new day for Jen. I have high hopes for the future, and the future, as always with me, is the past.

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