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The Juanita Brooks Lecture Series

The Significance of Trivia

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Professor of History
University of New Hampshire

Delivered at Dixie College
16 May 1992

About Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks taught at Dixie College for many years and is a well-known author.

She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set her fellow historians more stringent standards of scholarship to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner were lifelong friends of Mrs. Brooks and it is their wish to perpetuate her name through this series. Dixie College and the Brooks family express their thanks to Dr. and Mrs. Tanner.

The Significance of Trivia

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Although I did not know Juanita Brooks personally, her work and life had an influence on mine. In 1970, when a group of us in the Boston area agreed to edit a “women’s issue” of Dialogue, we asked Juanita Brooks to contribute an essay. Because I knew and admired her historical writing, I was both surprised and delighted when her essay “I Married A Family” arrived in my mailbox. For a young Mormon mother struggling to define an intellectual life, it was a great comfort to know that a renowned historian had once hidden her typewriter under the ironing.1 Juanita Brooks’ example taught me that housewives could be thinkers, too.

I did not follow Juanita Brooks into Mormon history. I once thought of doing so. When I applied to the graduate pro­gram in American history at the University of New Hampshire, I intended to write about Mormon culture, but my first graduate seminar distracted me into the colonial period and I have been there ever since. I was pleased, however, when Douglas Alder asked me to speak today about the methods I used in writing A Midwife’s Tale and to make some suggestions about their relevance to Mormon diaries.

I can illustrate my approach to Martha Ballard’s diary with a family anecdote. My oldest son, Karl, an engineer, pleased me immensely by taking my book along on vacation. To my delight, he actually read it. “Mom, what amazed me about the book was how free you were to go beyond the facts. The book is so imaginative.” A few weeks later, Karl’s wife, Nancy Bentley, a professor of American literature, read the book. Part way into it, she exclaimed, “It’s so scientific!

Karl and Nancy are not the first to point out that A Midwife’s Tale uses methods from both literature and the social sciences. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I had two degrees in literature before I began a Ph.D. in history. But my approach is really not unique. History is an eclectic discipline. By its very nature it bridges fields. At my university, the history department is housed in the Horton Social Science Center, but most of the faculty participate quite happily in the activities of the Humanities Division. I find history exciting because of its commitment to facts and because of its invitation to imagination. A few years ago, at a Mormon History Association meeting at Canandaigua, New York, I ran into a friend, Paul Dredge. I asked him what an anthropologist was doing at a history meeting. He told me that he had recently discovered how interesting history could be. “When I was a student I thought of historians as mere fact-gatherers,” he said. “Now I know that they are also pattern­-makers.” I have used that story frequently in my own teaching. History is both fact-gathering and pattern-making. That is one of the things that make it so challenging.

Today I would like to try to illustrate the fact-gathering and the pattern-making in A Midwife’s Tale. Since the time is limited I have decided to select one theme. I deliberately picked the most “boring” theme in the book, the seemingly most trivial. I am not going to talk about the 814 births recorded in Martha Ballard’s diary or her adventurous journeys on the Kennebec River. Nor will I talk about the rape trial, the murders or suicides, or Ephraim Ballard’s imprisonment for debt. In honor of Juanita Brooks’ ironing, I am going to talk about housework. I hope to convince you that housework does indeed have a history, a histo­ry as important for understanding pioneer Utah as for under­standing eighteenth-century Maine.

The first thing to note is that housework has not always been limited to the house. Martha Ballard, like other women of her time, was responsible for growing food, milking cows, birthing lambs, and raising poultry as well as for processing and preserving food and manufacturing cloth and clothing. Her “housework” was as often with a shovel as a broom. She pitched snow out of unsealed upstairs chambers in winter, shoveled manure from under the outhouse into her garden in the spring, and every fall banked the foundation of her house with dirt, shov­eling it away in the spring.2

Martha Moore Ballard was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1735. She and her husband and five children emigrated to the Kennebec River country of central Maine in 1777. Three other children had died in the terrible Oxford diphtheria epidemic of 1769. The Ballards’ ninth and last child was born in Maine in 1778. Martha’s diary opens in January 1785, when she was fifty years old. It continues, unbroken, for twenty-seven years, ending in May 1812, a few weeks before her death at the age of seventy-seven. The diary is a rich and revealing record of ordinary life in a formative period of our nation’s history, a unique chronicle of obstetrical and medical practices in eighteenth century Maine, and a moving account of aging and death in pro-industrial America. But it is not easy to use.

Without a pattern to guide interpretation, the accumulation of facts sometimes becomes overwhelming. It is one thing to read about Martha’s exciting canoe ride on the Kennebec River at the height of the spring “freshet.” It is another to comprehend her laconic references to beans put into the ground, yards of wool “got out” of the loom, or visitors entering or leaving the house. Little wonder that her town’s nineteenth-century historian pro­nounced most of the entries “brief and with some exceptions not of general interest.” Although a later writer incorporated an abridged and expurgated version of the diary in his own History of Augusta, he too found much of the diary “trivial and unimpor­tant… being but a repetition of what has been recited many times.” A recent history of childbirth came to the same conclu­sion. “Like many diaries of farm women,” it concludes, Martha Ballard’s diary “is filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes.”3

My effort to recover Martha Ballard’s life was in large part an enterprise in recapturing the historical significance of “trivia.” I began by counting things. If historians could learn from docu­ments as dull and impersonal as tax lists, census records, and deeds, why not from the seemingly unrevealing lists in a woman’s diary? Not knowing quite where I was going, I con­structed data sheets with codes for washing, weaving, spinning, brewing, gardening, and other such things. Using these sheets, I was able to count the incidence of virtually every activity men­tioned in the diary. It was a little bit like shoveling manure. To keep my sanity, I used the data sheets for even-numbered years, taking more traditional qualitative notes for those in between.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was invited to con­tribute an essay to a volume on the new labor history of early America. I began to tally up my check marks. It was soon obvi­ous that some entries in the diary (like churchgoing, births, or records of visitors) were very systematic and others were erratic, seemingly random. The entries to laundry were especially puzzling. Was I to assume that the Ballards had clean clothes four times in June 1796 but only once between the beginning of April and the end of June in 1792? I set the problem aside and began the laborious task of identifying the helpers in Martha Ballard’s household from 1785-1800. Suddenly the pattern fell into place. Martha Ballard was less likely to mention laundry when some­body else was around to do it.4

Martha Ballard’s seemingly trivial struggles with washday helped me to unlock an important theme in the history of the northern rural economy — the waxing and waning of household labor. Colonial historians have contrasted the “family labor sys­tem” of New England with the slave labor systems of the South and the Caribbean and the indentured servitude common in the Middle Atlantic, but few historians have probed the inherent instability of family labor. Family laborers arrive as helpless infants; when they are at the height of their productivity they leave to form families of their own. Furthermore, in a society that structures work according to gender, they come in unpredictable mixtures of boys and girls. The pressures on female labor are compounded in newly settled areas where daughters tend to marry earlier than sons.

When Martha Ballard’s diary opened she was at the peak of her own productivity. At the age of fifty she not only had the energy and economic resources, but teen-aged daughters at home. By developing her textile production capacity, she was able to keep them there. Her diary entry for October 26, 1789, puts it suc­cinctly: “My girls spun 23 double skeins & wove 27 ½ yds last weak & did the housework besides.” With Dolly and Hannah and their cousin Parthena Barton available to milk the cow, feed the chickens, and prepare food for the men, Martha was able to develop her midwifery practice to its capacity of more than 50 deliveries a year. The interdependence of the mother and daugh­ters defined the harvest period of the Ballard family economy, a period corresponding with the first ten years of the diary.

When the last daughter married, the diary subtly changed. For the first time, Martha began to use her laconic entries to explore her own feelings. Consider this entry for January 15, 1796:

Cloudy. I was at Mr Mathews. His wife was delivered at 6 hour morning of a fine daughter after a severe illness. Her first Child. I received 9/. Made a present of 1/6 to the infant. I returned home and find my house up in arms. How long God will pre­serve my strength to perform as I have done of late he only knows. May I trust in him at all times and do good and hee will fullfill his promis according to my Day. May he giv me strength and may I Conduct accordingly.

In the left hand margin of the entry she wrote “Birth 4th” even though this was only the third birth of the year. In the right mar­gin she wrote, “this is the 612th Birth I have attended at Since the year 1777. The first I assisted was the wife of Petton Warrin, July 1778.” Her handwriting got smaller and smaller as it moved down the page. As she faced her own small crisis, the difficulty in maintaining an arduous obstetrical and medical practice with­out trustworthy help at home, she began to contemplate her own history.

This is one of the places in A Midwife’s Tale where sys­tematic analysis of data was insufficient. I was, after all, dealing with a literary document, a document that despite its formulaic quality was shaped by the personality and circumstance of its author. This is probably one of the places in the book where Karl thought I felt free to leave the “facts” behind. This is what I wrote:

Martha prayed not for ease or for release from her burdens, but for strength, for the physical ability to continue the work she had done for so long… Her body ached. The attacks of colic were coming more frequently. She had no one to preserve order at home when she walked out under the stars to serve her neighbors: ‘find my house up in arms.’ The image is a curious one, as though the floorboards, pothooks, and bedsteads had risen against her. It was not her husband and sons who were disturbed. If they had been home at all, they had gotten their supper and breakfast themselves, leaving their platters and mugs, unmade beds, and stiffening stocks behind them. It was no human enemy but Martha’s house that had taken up arms against her.

…The phrase is idiomatic, of course, yet it suggests an attitude. A house could be an adversary. Turn your back, and it rippled into disorder. Chairs tipped. Candles slumped. Egg yolks hardened in cold skillets. Dust settled like snow. Only by constant effort could a woman conquer her possessions. Mustering grease and ashes, shaking feather beds and pillows to attention, scrubbing floors and linens into subjection, she restored a fragile order to a fallen world.

This instrumental, near-adversarial relationship to her house is obliquely confirmed by the dearth of positive refer­ences. She celebrated the growth of lambs and parsley in her diary, but never the arrangement of her furniture or rooms… Whenever possible, she delegated routine housework to others.

In her universe, “Girls washt” was an important state­ment, something on the order of “got across the river safely.”5

I admit to having extended Martha’s metaphor in my own discussion of this passage, but I would argue that my interpreta­tion was not simply a flight of imagination (or projection.) I am sure that my own encounters with housework helped me to see more in this entry than I might otherwise have done, but I was very conscious as I wrote of the details of late eighteenth-century (as opposed to late twentieth century) housekeeping, of the rhythm of men’s work in the Ballard family, and of the overall treatment of houses and housekeeping in Martha’s own record. Beyond that I was interested in bringing to life a theme that seemed to me central to the larger biography.

More difficult to analyze than the work entries in the diary were the endless lists of visitors. I counted those, too. But again I tried to move beyond quantification to a deeper probing of the document before me. I tried to understand the relationship between these bland lists of names and other entries in the diary. Above all I tried to understand what these names meant to Martha. The issue was not what Martha left out that I wanted to know but what Martha put in that she needed to know. Gradually I began to see the patterns that had eluded me. Names were a kind of shorthand for social and economic transactions that literally held together Martha’s world. A family mode of production of necessity encompassed wide-ranging exchanges with neighbors. Families continually reached toward a self-suffi­ciency that eluded them. A wage economy concentrated lines of dependence; household economies survived only by spreading their debts, by weaving a complex web of obligation capable of sustaining the household in difficult times.

Wives as well as husbands were engaged in exchanges beyond the household. On September 9, 1788, for example, while Ephraim Ballard and his sons were at town meeting, Martha and one of her neighbors were busy concluding some private business of their own:

Mrs Savage here. Shee has spun 40 double skeins for me since April 15th and had 2 Bushi of ashes & some phisic for James, & Dolly [Martha’s daughter] wove her 7 yds of Diaper. I let her have 1 skein of lining warp. The whole is 6/ [shillings].

Such entries represent a minimal record of Martha’s economic exchanges with her neighbors. Most transactions never made it nto the diary. On June 21, 1787, for example, she reported that Merriam Pollard had “sent home 5 lb of poark which shee Borrowed 12 of April 1786,” but the entry for April 12 says simply, “I went to Mr. Williams. Mrs Pollard came home with me.” Much of the diary can be reduced to just such a simple grammar of coming and going: “I went to Mr Westons” [or Pollards, or Howards, or Husseys, or Fosters]. “Mrs Savage [or Densmore or Burton or Hamlin or Woodward] came here.”

In summary, A Midwife’s Tale emphasizes the importance of understanding the family life cycle in the history of woman’s work. It argues that in a rural economy in which male names dominated on storekeeper’s accounts, tax lists, and census records, women were engaged in viable and largely autonomous economic activities, that home production was supported by a lively system of exchange in which women bartered and traded with each other independent of their husbands. Martha Ballard’s laconic listing of her work was in part a validation of it. “For her, living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial.”6

The content and the cadences of Martha Ballard’s diary are echoed in women’s writing from early Utah. Notice the flow of goods in these entries from the diary of Eliza Partridge Lyman during her early days in the Salt Lake Valley.

April 19, 1849: Sold a ball of candle wick for 3 ½ Quarts of corn.

April 25, 1849: Carded and spun 3 balls candle wick. Jane James a colored woman let me have about 2 lbs of flour it being about half she had.

June 11, 1849: Mother carried the cotton yarn that she has carded and spun to the weavers. Maria Lyman sent us some cloth for pil­low cases and a few dried apples.

September 6, 1849: Made a Babies dress for sister Rich, for which I get 1 lb of wool.7

Eliza used the verb “sold” where Martha Ballard might have writ­ten “gave” or “received,” but the dual responsibilities to produce and to exchange are as pronounced in one diary as the other.

The similarities with Patty Sessions’ diary are even more apparent. Sessions took up the practice of midwifery in rural Maine as Martha Ballard was laying it down. The two diaries are cut from the same pattern. Martha Ballard began hers at the age of 50, Patty Sessions at 51. Both diaries intersperse household accounts, records of visitors, and general observations with mid-wifery records. Both are laconic. Sessions’ perhaps even more so than Ballard’s. “Sowed turnip seed… weeded garden… Put Sister Harper to bed with a son born 6:30 PM… baked and brewed.”8 Which diarist is writing? In this case, Patty Sessions, in July 1863. It might just as well have been Martha Ballard in 1793. Martha would have said “Mrs” where Patty said “Sister,” of course, and she usually “wed” rather than “weeded” her gar­den, but the style and even the content of the diaries are markedly similar.

At this level of analysis, the differences between the diaries seem almost accidental. Yet to argue that Eliza Lyman’s transactions were identical to Martha Ballard’s or that Patty Sessions was simply a Maine midwife transplanted to the arid west is not only to deny much that is distinctive about Mormonism but to overlook profound changes in the construc­tion of gender in the United States. And 1793 was not 1863, in Maine or in Utah. There is much in Martha Ballard’s story that is generic to rural women across the United States and much that is particular to a Maine river town in the late 1700s. Martha’s diary is representative of a folk genre that persisted well to the end of the nineteenth century and that has descendants in the line-a-day diaries of our parents, but it was not the only literary form avail­able to nineteenth-century women. To use Martha Ballard’s diary as a pattern for studying Mormon women’s writings is to insist upon detailed reconstruction of all the particulars of their lives.

Utah women were part of a Utopian, communal experi­ment that introduced a new dynamic — plural marriage — into an already complex family labor system. When Eliza Lyman made her diary entries about carding and spinning candle wick, she was living in a log cabin with her mother, her fifteen-year-old brother, and two sisters, one of whom was already a “sister wife” and the other who would eventually become one. The household also included Eliza’s baby and a child by one of the other plural wives. “Mr Lyman,” she wrote, was present “part of the time.”9 What happened to the traditional division of labor in such a household? How did plural marriage affect the overall division of female and male labor within a community? How did relations of affection or authority change as women who might have been temporary helpers in their sisters’ or neighbors’ households instead became “sister wives”? Certainly there is a great deal more to be learned about the social organization of daily life in early Utah.

Intertwined with this theme is another. Martha Ballard’s hand spinning took place in an age when no other method was possible, Eliza Lyman’s in an age of water-powered textile pro­duction. The age of hand-production was prolonged in Utah not only because of a frontier setting but because of the religious need to achieve territorial self-sufficiency. There is a striking echo here with the promotion of home industry in the revolutionary era and during the conflict leading up to the War of 1812. The difference, of course, is that by the time the first company arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the industrial revolution had already begun to transform the United States economy. How did the competing dynamics of family production and factory production intersect with Mormon communalism in early Utah? And how did that affect women’s labor?

Historian Jeanne Boydston has argued that the wage econ­omy that replaced rural productivity in the northeastern United States in the first half of the nineteenth century changed the ideo­logical meaning of women’s work even more dramatically than its content. This transition was occasioned not so much by changes in women’s work as by a shift in male economic authori­ty from land owning to wage earning. True, much production passed out of the household, but, with an elevated standard of decency, new work entered. Housewives continued to sew, mend, and launder clothing; grow, preserve, and cook food; and care for the frighteningly mortal bodies as well as the eternal minds of their children. But in the prescriptive literature that defined the emerging doctrine of “separate spheres,” women's household labor lost its identity as work. As Boydston explains:

The language of the ideology of spheres was the language of gender, but its essential dualism was less precisely the opposi­tion of ‘female’ and ‘male’ than it was the opposition of ‘home’ and ‘work,’ an opposition founded on the gendering of the con­cept of labor.10

Men worked; women were “at home.” The 1980s bumper sticker, “every mother is a working woman,” is a humorous rejoinder to that still prevalent nineteenth-century construction.

Furthermore, as Richard Bushman has explained, middle-class Americans in the nineteenth-century adopted values that in the eighteenth-century had been confined to the gentry. They sought to beautify their homes and yards, polish their manners, and cultivate leisure. For middle-class housewives that meant hiding their productive activities in a now invisible kitchen in order to present a lady-like appearance on the front porch or parlor.11 The euphemism “lady” for “woman” originated in this transition. Martha Ballard saw her marriage as an economic part­nership. Women worked or the family did not survive. A gener­ation later, men supported women.

These three factors — plural marriage, the quest for territo­rial self-sufficiency, and the changing ideology of women’s work — play under the surface of two documents from late nine­teenth-century Utah, the memoir of Lucy Meserve Smith and diary of Sarah Davis Thatcher.

Lucy Meserve Smith was born in 1817 in Newry, Maine, not far from where Patty Sessions lived. Lucy was proud of her New England origins. The memoir which she wrote in Salt Lake City in 1889 is filled with stories of pioneer life on the Androscoggin (she called it the “Andrew Scoggin”) River where her grandparents settled in the late eighteenth century.12 Even her memories of early years in Utah are shaped by New England stories. She told of making sugar from “Honey Dew” that appeared on the cottonwood and willow leaves one “very dry warm spring and summer,” using techniques she had seen her mother use with maple syrup.13

Lucy became one of six plural wives of George Albert Smith. In the 1850s she lived with “Sister Hannah” in Provo. It was there that she attempted to establish another New England tradition — the spinning bee or frolic. Spinning bees can be traced to at least the 1750s in New England. They are most visible dur­ing the pre-revolutionary boycotts of 1769-1770 and 1810, but they continued in some towns into the 1820s. Newspaper stories emphasize the competitive aspects of the spinning bees, and tie them to the political objective of establishing political and later economic independence from Great Britain. My own research has shown that even at the height of the pre-revolutionary fervor, most spinning bees were organized around churches and the yarn donated to the minister and his wife or to the poor.14

Lucy’s spinning bee seems to have been a spontaneous and essentially private affair, organized by four Provo women, probably in the early 1850s.

When things got a little more plenty myself Sister Eliza Terril, Sister Rua Angeline Holden and Sister Hannah Maria Smith took our spinning Wheels and went to a large room in the Seminary and tride our best to see who could reel of the greatest No. of knots from sunrise to sunset. Sister Terril 100, 11. knots. Sister Holden not quite so many but better twist on hers. Sister H.M. Smith and I made the best yarn. It was equal for twist but I had a few knots the most but she spun a reeled 80. knots. On the whole we concluded we all beat.15

The details of this story, the all day work, the careful measuring of skeins and twist, fit well with the New England models. Her humorous description of a contest in which everyone “beat” is not out of character with the cooperative character of women’s work in early New England, though it may say something as well for the anxieties of communalism in early Utah. Her good humored reference in a later passage to “playing” on the “Whimmikie Whammikie two Standard Lillikie Strikiety Huffity Whirlimagig (Flax Wheel)” also highlights the sociability of early textile production.

This is not inconsistent, however, with genuine pride of craft. By the time Lucy was born, spinning factories had already taken over much of the production of plain cotton thread, but handspinning of wool continued, and the availability of “factory warp” actually accentuated rather than retarded home weaving at least until the 1840s. Even though Lucy went to work in a “cotton factory” for a short while before joining the Saints in Nauvoo,16 her memoir emphasizes hand production.

The Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City owns a linen tablecloth with a hand-netted fringe said to have been used in “the George Albert Smith home in Provo.” It looks very much like early nineteenth-century linen made in New Hampshire and Maine. I have no doubt but what it was Lucy’s. Plural marriage may have encouraged a higher level of specialization than would have been possible for a monogamous wife. As she explains in her memoir, “I sat in my loom month after month and wove while Sister Hannah and the boys did the other work.”17 Like Maine weavers of her generation, Lucy was not content with mere utilitarian production but wove patterns into the ground of plain homespun linen. “The draft work was very hard and difficult to get every figure right,” she recalled, [but] “that I would have if I had to undo a half yard.”18

Lucy’s memoir, written in old age, celebrates productivity. Now dependent on others, she wants the world to know she was once a worker:

I can count up nearly 50 bed coverleds I have woven. I carded and spun the cotton and formed the draft, and wove one counterpin for myself, which is yet good. If my friends could know of the great amount of spinning cotton flax tow and wool, and the many hundreds of yard of draft work such as diaper and carpets besides the white counterpins, and coverleds, besides six years work in the cotton factories, with the addition of being driven from my home in the winter, having scurvy for lack of vegatables &c, They would wonder that I am alive say nothing about my helpless condition at the presant time.

I have colored many pounds of yarn with madder, Indigo, Logwood, Red-wood, Cochineal, Bagle [?] wood, Tan Bark cotton-wood bark, copperas, allum, sage-brush, yellow weed, Onion-peals, and Magenta. I have cut and made dresses cloaks coats pants and Temple suits with their aprons &c. … I have cut torn and sewed hundreds of pounds of rags for carpets and rugs, also woven many rag carpets braided and sewed many mats and rugs, I have braided Palm-leaf and straw-hats and sewed the straw hats myself. I have knitted stockings, socks, and mittens nearly enough to fill a barrel. I have also knitted yards of edgings and netted a few yds.

I have done considerable nice quilting, besides cutting, peacing, and carding bats. I have also carded bats and tacked mattresses, and comforters for the beds.

I took a few lessons in drawing and a few lessons in French.19

Lucy’s French and drawing lessons gave her a modest claim to gentility, but industry is the dominant theme in her story. The memoir is a personal plea for understanding. But it is also a nostalgic recreation of a world that has passed. Like her counter­parts in New England, Lucy Smith lived to see the end of the “Age of Homespun” and with it a profound redefinition of women’s work.

Lucy’s memoir contrasts sharply with the diary of Sarah Davis Thatcher. Sarah Davis was born October 14, 1852 in Salt Lake City. She was six years old when her older sister Rachel married John Bethuel Thatcher of Logan, Utah. When Rachel was almost forty, Sarah became John’s second wife in plural marriage. Rachel had five rambunctious sons, ages four to nineteen, and two little girls, ages eight and ten. She may initially have welcomed her sister’s help. But cohabitation proved difficult. “I couldn’t even put on the potatoes to cook right,” Sarah complained to her diary.20 Sarah’s first child was born in February 1878, six months before Rachel’s eleventh and last child.21 A few months later, Sarah moved to her own house.

Sarah Thatcher made intermittent but highly revealing entries in her journal. For our purposes one of the most interesting describes a family quarrel over a piece of calico.

July 11, 1880: John had got me calico for two dresses and ten yards for aprons for myself and children. R. [Rachel] told Mother T. that day that John grumbled at getting so much calico for me, and she told him he mustn’t get any more wives if he couldn’t keep the ones he had. He said he was going to get one who could keep herself next time. That made me angry, and I said I didn’t think he’d find many that would do better than I had, for it was the first time he’d brought me any calico dresses, and this is the fourth summer I’ve been his wife. R. said Oh! I’d had one before. Yes, but that was off of a bolt of damaged that only cost 5 cts. a yard, I said. I think they’d better throw that at me. That dress cost 55 cts.22

That argument could have gone in several directions. Sarah could have said, “I do my own work. I sew and knit and garden and milk. I take care of the children, and incidentally they are your children, too. I earn what little you give me.” Instead, she challenged John’s ability as a provider. For his part, John was willing, in the midst of an argument, to fall back on an older definition. He wanted a wife who could keep herself.

Rachel had made an effort to add to the family income. The winter before her father had sent her “8 pounds of yarn to knit for himself and family.” Sarah knit thirteen pairs in one week.23 But manufacturing is a mutual theme. Purchased goods color Sarah Thatcher’s diary in the way that hand-made textiles color Lucy Smith’s memoir. The entry for June 10, 1879 is typical:

June 9th is quite a memorable day for me I have been thinking today. In the first place Frankie cut his first tooth, nearly 16th months old too. Next John bo’t me a nice stone jar to put my butter down in, and, thirdly he got me a large looking glass. Just a common one, but nice. I have been over helping R. with her carpet rags all day today but didn’t get three pounds sewed.

Again Sarah deprecated her own productivity but found validation in John’s willingness to provide.

These brief comments are meant to be suggestive, not definitive. I am pleased to know that several scholars are now at work transcribing and editing diaries of nineteenth-century Mormon women. Building on the pioneering research of Juanita Brooks, Leonard Arrington, Carol Madsen, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Kenneth Godfrey, Audrey Godfrey, Jill Mulvay Derr and others, these projects promise to enlarge the boundaries of Mormon history. Perhaps the “domestic trivia” in Martha Ballard’s diary will also encourage new attention to the mundanities (and profundities) of housework.


  1. Juanita Leavitt Brooks, “I Married A Family,” Dialogue, VI (Summer 1971), pp. 15-21.
  2. For a brief description of the range of Martha Ballard’s work, see my essay “Martha Ballard and Her Girls: Women’s Work in Eighteenth-Century Maine,” in Stephen Innes, ed. Work and Labor in Early America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 74-78.
  3. James W. North, History of Augusta (Augusta, Maine, 1870), p. 297; Charles Elventon Nash, The History of Augusta: First Settlement and Early Days as a Town, Including the Diary of Mrs. Martha Moore Ballard (1785-1812), (Augusta, Maine, 1904, 1961), p. 234; Richard W. Wertz and Dorothy C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America (New York: Schocken, 1977), p. 9.
  4. For a detailed discussion of this data, see “Martha Ballard and Her Girls,” pp. 88-105.
  5. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), pp. 218-219.
  6. Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale, p. 9.
  7. Godfrey, et al, pp. 250, 251, 253, 257.
  8. Diary of Patty Sessions, typescript, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 97.
  9. Godfrey, Godfrey, and Derr, pp. 248,414n3.
  10. Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 159.
  11. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
  12. Lucy Meserve Smith, Historical Sketch 1889, MS, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.
  13. This and other selections from Smith’s Sketch have been published in Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), pp. 261-271.
  14. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Daughters of Liberty: Religious Women in Revolutionary New England,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, ed., Women in the Age of Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), pp. 211-243.
  15. Smith, Historical Sketch, p. 41. This anecdote also Godfrey et al, p. 265.
  16. Smith, Sketch, p. 16. The introductory notes in Godfrey et al, p. 261, say that Lucy worked in the Lowell (Massachusetts) textile mills. I found no reference to Lowell in her sketch. There were many small spinning mills throughout New England, some in rural Maine. She may have gone to Massachusetts where water-powered weaving as well as spinning developed in the 1830s. She could also have worked in a small, rural factory. Hand weaving coexisted with factory weaving in New England at least until the 1850s.
  17. Smith, Sketch, p. 59.
  18. Smith, Sketch, p. 51.
  19. Smith, Sketch, pp. 59-61.
  20. Sarah Davis Thatcher Diary, typescript, Roy Thatcher Family Papers, University of Utah, Marriott Library, Special Collections, p. 1.
  21. Sarah Davis Thatcher Diary, p. 5.
  22. Sarah Davis Thatcher Diary, pp. 13, 14.
  23. Sarah Davis Thatcher Diary, p. 5.