A Researcher’s Delight: The Diary of Caroline Barrett White

Caroline Barrett White, 1894

Although now a full-time employee of AAS, my love for the Society began years before I started working here when it first introduced me to the thrill of researching in an archive. As a senior History major at the College of the Holy Cross, I was introduced to AAS by my thesis advisor, who suggested I look here for sources relating to Northern women in the Civil War. Little did I know that this initiation would not only lead me to an extremely satisfying thesis experience, but to a career as well. And the collection item I credit most for this is the diary of one Caroline Barrett White (1828-1915).

White was a native of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, but spent most of her adult life in the Boston suburb of Brookline. She was a typical nineteenth-century middle-class housewife in many ways – an estate named “Cliffside,” four troublesome children, and a devoted husband formed the structure of her everyday life – but she was very atypical in that she kept a detailed and expressive diary for sixty-five years. Sixty-five years! Although keeping diaries was a common nineteenth-century practice, few are as full of personal details and emotion – or cover as many years – as White’s.

A page from Caroline’s diary, July 21 and 22, 1861

In the course of those sixty-five years, covering 1844 to 1915, White recorded her everyday activities, such as paying and receiving social calls, shopping, child-rearing, and going to lectures and concerts. She also recorded others more out of the ordinary, such as her seven European tours, travels across the United States, and a mastectomy procedure during which she assisted. And if this weren’t enough for a historian to get excited about, she was also an engaged witness to many of the biggest issues and transformations we now associate with the nineteenth century: immigration, labor unions, women’s suffrage, the laying of the Transatlantic Cable, and of course, the Civil War.

This last is what had brought me to the diary in the first place, and I was not disappointed. White was staunchly antislavery, often recording her frustration with the war and slavery, as well as describing her own contributions to the war effort. Her entry following Lincoln’s assassination, which spans three pages and is entirely lined in a thick ink mourning border, depicts someone truly devastated and utterly invested in her country and its politics:

The darkest day I ever remember – This morning the sun rose upon a nation jubilant with victory – but it sets upon one plunged in deepest sorrow…midday – came the shocking intelligence that our beloved President Abraham Lincoln was dead – shot by a brutal assassin…Later in the day came rumors of having secured the murderer – who it is affirmed by Miss Laura Keeve to be J. Wilkes Booth; Oh! where will treason end?  & What shall we do with such as fall into our hands.  The Vice President has been inducted into the Presidential chair – & assumed the reins of government.  The rapidity with which events crowd upon one another is perfectly bewildering…When will our cup of punishments be drunk to the dregs?  Merciful Father, help us.

But lest we assume that White was a woman far ahead of her time, speaking her mind on politics and calling for the end of slavery, she was also very much a woman of her time. Take this quote from the same month, April 1865, for example:

A mother ought to learn all the trades – to be able, successfully, to keep up the work of a family – she must know all that pertains to good housekeeping – cooking &c – then dress making, millinery, tailoring, come into the repertoire of her duties – & she should also be intelligent, educated sufficiently, to instruct her children – that their minds may be clothed as well as their bodies – she must have wisdom, patience & discretion – that the children’s tempers be not spoiled & more important than all other acquirements & accomplishments, she should have piety, to lead her to bring up her young immortals in the “way they should go” – Ah! Me! Ah! Me!

Caroline’s home “Cliffside,” c.1890

Despite her enlightened stance on slavery, and her obvious doubts about the practicality of fulfilling all of the prescribed duties of motherhood, she had very much internalized what historian Barbara Welter has deemed “True Womanhood,” or the nineteenth-century version of the ideal woman.[1] In many ways she was simply a young woman trying to figure out life and motherhood, just as her peers were, war or no war.

And although White did continue to comment on her political views after the Civil War, they were not always what you would expect from a woman who had voiced her opinions so freely during the war. Take her ardent anti-women’s suffrage position, for example. While women’s suffrage would seem to be a given for a woman who supported abolition, it’s important to remember that although White expressed herself deeply, she did so largely in the comfort of her own private diary.

People are not one-dimensional. They are complex, products of their culture, experiences, and individual personalities. White reminded me that this is true whether they lived two or 200 years ago. She also taught me another very important truth: archives, and all that they hold, are awesome.

[1] Welter, Barbara.  “Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1.  (Summer, 1966): 151-174.

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Kayla Haveles

Outreach Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

5 thoughts on “A Researcher’s Delight: The Diary of Caroline Barrett White”

  1. This is great! I’m working on a series of letters (www.ranneyletters.com), which makes me feel the same way about these personal records of the past, and about archives. Thanks for posting on FB. I need to start reading this blog again regularly.

  2. Thanks! Your website is a lot of fun, too. It really gets at just how poignant these sources can be. And yes, please start following the blog regularly! We have a lot planned for it in the coming months, so it’s a good time to start reading again. We always appreciate the comments!

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