A World Both Foreign and Familiar
"Like Dorry, I have decided to keep a journal. It seems to me a very pleasant thing to write down the occurrences of one's life so that one can read them later." So writes twenty-year-old Rosanna May Munger in 1886 (January 1 1886, Diary #1). Rose, as she preferred to be called, would go on recording the rhythms of her daily routine until 1945, providing the modern reader with a unique window into the religious, social, and cultural life of an unmarried woman over several decades.
Adding to its impressive assortment of women's diaries, the Special Collections at Swem Library announced earlier this year the acquisition of twelve diaries written by Rosanna May Munger (b. 1866), one by her mother, Elizabeth K. Duncan (1842-1886), and three by her sister-in-law, Mary Erskine Heilman Munger (1883-1967). The collection has now been fully processed and described.
Through Rose's diaries, a world both foreign and familiar takes shape. For instance, Rose noted every single time her hair was shampooed, an element of daily life considered trivial nowadays but that apparently deserved mention more than a century ago. Rose also lived at a time when opportunities offered to men and women differed vastly. Rose still granted much importance to expanding her intellectual and social horizons, and worked outside the familial home as a secretary for an office and various charities. She seemed pleased that her father estimated she had “one of the most logical minds he ever saw in a woman,” a telling comment about contemporary perceptions of gender differences. (June 13 1886, Diary #2)
Regardless of the historical distance, Rose's entries evoke realities that strongly resonate with our contemporary lives. We can all relate to Rose's account of her mother's prolonged illness and death, the subsequent mourning, the process of sorting through her mother's clothes and possessions, and the emotions awakened by the first Christmas celebrations without a family member. Common wisdom dictates that archival research is a long and lonely road, which is often true, but strangely it is not one devoid of human experience. After perusing almost 5,000 pages of the Munger family diaries in order to enhance the description of the collection, I almost feel like an intruder in these women’s lives, knowing too much about them without having a claim to.
Eve Bourbeau-Allard is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2014-2015 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.