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Surprised By a Diary

This weekend, my wife Gail and I celebrated our 5th year of marriage. We spent the weekend at The Pickwick Inn, a turn-of-the-century home, converted to a bed and breakfast. It was a wonderful getaway for us, and a bit of time away from our son Nathan. We enjoyed the time idling in a small town with a square, taking drives in the country, shopping, eating, riding a tandem bike, sipping coffee and generally enjoying each others' company.

One of the surprises of the weekend came in the form of a tiny diary that was on the dresser of the empty room across the hall from ours. Because we were the only ones at the inn all weekend, we decided to have a peek at the other empty rooms. We did this on Saturday evening, after dinner, when I happened upon a small burgundy book, about 1/3 the size of my Moleskine sketchbook.

Being a curious fellow, I picked up the book to have a look. I discovered that it was a diary, with each day of 1909 listed at the head its pages. On the pages were entries, some short and some long, scribbled with a fountain pen. I was utterly fascinated with this antique diary, so, I secretly brought the small book into our room for a closer look.

I showed the book to Gail, and she was curious to read and hear its entries. I began reading random pages, curious about whom this person from 1909 might be. I skipped around, trying to decipher the scribbled text. As we became more intrigued by the mystery, Gail took over reading the diary in the August section of the book. We were hooked.

As Gail read further, the life of a twenty year old working girl from the south side of Milwaukee, began to emerge. The unnamed woman shared thoughts about her working days, their joys and troubles. Many entries were simply "worked late" and one in particular noted sarcasticly, "the working life, ain't it grand!" She also described her family and social life in vivid detail. As we read, this woman became real to us, as she talked about dates with several interested gentlemen, which soon turned to her interest in a certain Jack and his chief rival, Ned.

We could sense by her own entries that Jack was quite the handsome guy and indeed the apple of her eye. It seemed as she told of her dates, that she was the apple of Jack's eye too. At one point near the end of the year, ol' Ned confronted our mysterious writer with a choice: pick him as her steady guy — yet she refused to be held down. During this same period in the fall of 1909, she talked of her interest in Jack with terms like "he's a peach" or "he's a cute kid" and "we've got it bad."

We learned that the trolley car system of Milwaukee was quite popular, as she recounted catching 'cars' all over town, and even to far flung outskirts like Delafield (about 30 miles west of the city). She often talked about seeing friends and acquaintances on the 'car' here or there. On other pages, she told how she barely made a car, or how some gent had "made eyes" or once, in the deep of November, how a suitor's car was delayed over an hour because of a blizzard.

I was surprised how relevant her life was to us both, even though she lived 95 years ago! I had the idea that Milwaukee in 1909 was a dirt-street frontier town full of sweatshops, but the picture which unfolded before our ears was that of a cosmopolitan city, bustling with life and action. I further had the idea that the life of a working woman 95 years ago might have been one of 15 hour days and drudgery in a factory, yet found this mystery woman talking about her very lively social and family life.

I suspect she was middle or upper middle class, because of her work, her many nights out, movie experiences and trolley trips all over town. I suppose her many boyfriends might have been reasonably well off or working young men, in order to afford all of the dates. Still, it was refreshing to have my ideas of 95 years ago challenged a bit, all by a little burgundy diary.

As the night passed, Gail read and read, going over nearly every page until the end of the book. Then she started out at January 1st and worked her way back to mid August. By the time we finished recounting the diary's pages it was well past midnight, with only a short one hour ice cream break between our start after dinner and before the midnight hour. I told you we were hooked! :-)

As Gail and I talked about the diary, we shared several observations with each other. First was the surprise that a young woman in 1909 could lead such an exciting life. But secondly, and more importantly was the idea that a little book, which this woman wrote could survive nearly 100 years, to be read by a couple on their 5th anniversary.

This thought challenged us both to work harder at recording our own lives in diaries and photo/scrap books. We were challenged to record what our son Nathan does each day, to shoot photos and video, because we too wanted to leave a legacy to Nathan and his children's children. If we're lucky, maybe others might stumble across our written and recorded accounts of life at the turn of our own century.

For more postcard images of Milwaukee, check out the Penny Postcards from Milwaukee County gallery at

Reader Comments (1)

Wonderful! And happy anniverssaire, nice friends!
September 20, 2004 | Unregistered CommenterPaco Rivi�re

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