We have a great manuscript collection here at CHS, and if you read the blog posts by our Archivist, Barbara Austen, you’ve seen many examples of the great items that collection holds. But today I wanted to tell you about MY favorite manuscript. Out of the 3 million and something manuscript items in our collection (and I admittedly haven’t seen them all!), this particular one always gets me coming back for more. Its title in our online catalogue is “William Buckingham record book, 1869-1890” but trust me, there is more to it than that…
First of all, I would like to say that it isn’t my favorite manuscript because it is covered in pretty fabric…that’s just a bonus. The record book was kept by a man named William A. Buckingham (1804-1875) who was a US Senator from 1869-1875, the years recorded in this book. But the book doesn’t stop in 1875… In 1879, his grand-daughter Mary Appleton Aiken began her own entries.
Mary was the daughter of William Appleton Aiken and Eliza Buckingham (William Buckingham’s daughter). William Aiken was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War and is potentially the subject of some very heroic deeds during that time. The family lived in Norwich, Connecticut, but was closely tied to the politics of Washington, which shaped Mary’s thoughts on many subjects (one of which you’ll see in a bit). In 1879 at the age of 13, Mary found the record book and began keeping it as a diary and sketch book. If you would like to take a look into the mind of a young teen-age girl at the end of the 19th century, all you have to do is read…
Mary includes many things in her diary. She makes notes about subjects for stories and illustrations, books she has read (according to Mary In Convent Walls by Emily Sarah Holt is a “Good Sunday Book”), and curious things she has read in the newspaper. She also includes a great quantity of sketches, from people she sees and imaginative vignettes, to clothing she adores and attempts at self portraiture.
Mary often writes the diary entries as if they are letters to Mrs. Gray, “Mrs. Gray I must tell you…,” “It is a long time since I last wrote Mrs. Gray, and I have not much to say now.” Her diary entries give the impression of secrecy, that they are the innermost thoughts of a young girl and their secrecy is of the utmost importance. When reading her diary, I often feel as if I am reading my own diary at that age. Every glance from a boy or slight touch of the hand means true love, and EVERY little thing that happens is of the utmost, life-changing importance. Let me give you some of my favorite examples of what she writes…(interspersed with a few of her darling sketches!)
Mary starts the diary after a stay at Shelter Island, a small island off the eastern end of Long Island. She includes a detailed list of people she met and includes their names and her personal opinions of each person. “Frankie Wallace and Fannie Vernon, nice enough girls both of them. But most too stylish for me.” “Nat was ellegant but he smoked a good deal, [& only 15?] think he liked me pretty well. He left other boys to talk to me quite often.” In the very first entry you start to understand that Mary is like many teen-age girls who just knows that every boy is after her. Not necessarily in an I’m-so-fantastic sort of way, but more in the young girl oh-my-a-boy-looked-at-me-he-must-love-me sort of way. If you have ever been a 13 year-old girl you know exactly what I am talking about, and if you haven’t, come spend some time with Mary Aiken and you will.
One of the interesting things about the diary is that Mary returns to it in 1940 and makes annotations. She writes over some of the faded spots in ink, provides some dates for drawings not previously dated, and even asks questions of herself. For example, just after the entries about Shelter Island, in a note dated 1940, she asks “Are many girls of 13 as egotistical as I was. Yet-I adored Will, and was not a selfish girl on the whole.” Looking at the entry, it appears she is referencing her brother William who is two years her senior.
Occasionally there are large portions of the book that are missing, such as pages 114-123 or portions of pages that have been cut out. Given that Mary returned to the diary in the 1940s, I often wonder if she removed these portions herself. Alas, there is no way to know.
After the missing entries of 1879, Mary continues in October of 1880 with this little account “I wrote on the front post in the Dolly Varden language that I liked Charlie Perkins better than any other boy. That was true but I did not suppose any one in the city could read it. But Will and Fred Bidwell, read it the other afternoon and I begged and besought Fred not to tell Charlie but he teased me a long time about it, but I don’t think he has told yet. Fred Gulliver was here on horseback this afternoon Will and I met him up at the corner and we had a long talk with him. He threw me a kiss two or three times as he rode away.” My favorite thing about this passage is the sheer fickleness of it…at the beginning she is declaring a crush on one boy, and by the end she seems to have a crush on another. For quite some time both Charlie and Fred G. come up as frequent givers and receivers of flirtation and she devotes many pages to the things they do that make her swoon.
It appears, however, that in January of 1881 Fred looses a few points. “Fred Gulliver came over the other afternoon and acted like a perfect fool that so I never saw him act so before, and that is saying a great deal. He kissed me 3 times. He flew right at me and would not behave himself. I tried to keep him away and would not let him come near me some of the time. I suppose that kind of led him on and that was what made him act so. He tried to put his arm around me lots of times (he often tries to) but I ran away from him. I wish I had slapped him…”
Mary comments on other things in her diary besides boys, although in an entry dated March 6, 1881, at the age of nearly 15, she doesn’t seem to think so “I think too much about boys, this journal is nearly as much about the boys as it is about myself.” She comments about her desire to be good, discusses the decision of whether or not to become a member of the church, recounts a conversation about the proper age for marriage, her sister’s engagement, and even discusses politics.
Given the family’s political background, it is not surprising that the election of 1880 would become a topic of much discussion in Mary’s diary. She discusses both the Democratic and Republican Processions and states “We must not lose such a man as Garfield.” Later in July of 1881, much attention is paid to the shooting of President Garfield. Mary recounts how she heard about the shooting and what she felt about it as they first think the President has been killed and then later hear that he is not dead, but badly wounded. As she wrote her first entry of the shooting, her handwriting is larger and more fervent than in any other entry and she makes much harsher comments than at any other point in the diary. “Hateful Discusting Wicked etc old things I wish those who had anything to do with the murder could be tortured to death.”
Mary also gives us glances into how others are receiving the news, stating “There is great excitement down town they say. The Main St is crowded all around the Bulletin board.” (To better understand some of the ways people received news, check out this CHS post over on YourPublicMedia.) For months the news is mixed, President Garfield is in crisis, he’s better, he’s in crisis, etc. At one point Mary comments that a telegram was received from the White House that the President is on the road to recovery and upon hearing the news “I flew into Will’s room & danced a triumphal dance a wonder of grace Oh it is too perfectly lovely for any earthly use.” Her joy did not last long, as on September 20, 1881, the entry finally comes describing the death of President Garfield. Mary comments that “If murderous thoughts could kill, Guiteau he would not be alive now” (Guiteau was the man responsible for shooting President Garfield). She also states “It almost made me cry to see every street draped in black and white some of the draping is very tasteful. Private homes are decorated in mourning too and the flags are all at half mast. The people down town are pretty sober looking. Our flag is out, looped up with crepe.”
Mary appears to step away from the diary for a period of time and returns to give a family update and to say that she will probably not write again for a long time as she is “going to boarding school & I hope to come back a less foolish girl than I am now a more earnest Christian, & thinking less of boys and parties & pleasing myself. I want to grow up a good woman & if I ever look back over these pages I hope I will be a very different person from the young fool who wrote them for I have always written just what thoughts.” The next dated entry is in April of 1883 and then large gaps begin between entries in the diary.
Mary continues to sketch and write sporadically into the 1890s giving New Years resolutions and reports on her character.
The diary of Mary Aiken, as well as the record book of William Buckingham, each has their own story to tell. It is up to each individual to decide what is useful and interesting to them. For me it is Mary’s diary. But you have to decide whether you side with Mary or Aunt Libbie… “Aunt Libbie has been looking up the Washington record in this book, and she says ‘I had better not write any trash in this book as it is a record of grandpa’s Washintgon life’ This book is full of trash already, and I trust to Providence that no one will look in it.”