Using Diaries and Journals to Shed Light on the Past

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, October 25, 1911:  Nothing unusual.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma wrote very little today, you might want to check out  a guest blog post I recently wrote for The Write Way: Thoughts on Rural Living.  Brenda Visser at The Write Way asked me to reflect on how journals and diaries can help us better understand the past (and the present). The text is reprinted below:

Diaries and Journals Shed Light on the Past


Sheryl Lazarus

I’m sure that I have lots of interesting ancestors, but the ones I find the most interesting are the ones who left behind enough artifacts so that I can get a sense of their personality.

One relative who I find particularly interesting is my paternal grandmother, Helena Muffly (Swartz). She kept a diary from January 1911 through December 1914. She was 15-years-old when she began the diary.

I’ve been posting her diary entries, as well as my reflections and comments, exactly 100 years to the day after she wrote them. I sometimes include old-time recipes, photos from 1911 magazines, or other things that I find interesting.

Diaries and journals can bring the past to life. They provide candid, dynamic snapshots of everyday life, and are full of details. Diaries also provide an intimate glimpse of the author–and share the writer’s hopes and fears.

The words of ordinary people reveal both similarities and differences between the past and now. The similarities enable us to better understand both the author and ourselves. The differences beg questions—Why was it different? What has changed over the years?

Why I Decided to Post the Diary Entries

Several years ago I compiled a family cookbook, and included some family photos in the book. One was a photo of me walking through a doorway at my bridal shower. Sitting on the couch in the photo’s foreground was my 82-year-old paternal grandmother.

When I gave the cookbook to my children, my daughter asked who the old lady was. I told her that it was her great-grandmother. But her question jogged my memory about a copy of an old diary I had —

After Grandma died in 1980, her children went through her belongings. One of the items they found was the diary that Grandma had kept as a teen. They circulated the diary amongst family members. While I had it, I made a copy before passing it on.

The copy lay in a paper bag in the bottom of my hutch for more than a quarter century until my daughter’s question reminded me of it.

My memories of Grandma Helen are of a frail, elderly woman—Helena (the name she used in the diary) was a fun-loving, self-absorbed teen. I wanted to learn more about her and how she evolved into the grandmother I remember.

I also wanted to share the diary entries with family and friends. At first I planned to write a book about the diary but that seemed like too daunting a task, so I decided to post the entries daily in a blog.

What I’ve Learned

I’ve loved digging through the diary and other resources to pull the pieces together for the blog. It’s been a journey of discovery for me and other relatives.

My children can now relate to a great-grandmother who died years before they were born.  For example, on April 3, 1911 Grandma wrote:

“One day is passed of the dreaded three, and they will soon be over, for we are having our final exams now. I’m so anxious about what I will make, fraid it won’t be any too high, and sincerely hope it will not be the opposite.”

The evening that I was working on this entry my college-aged daughter called and asked what I was doing. I said that I getting ready to write about Grandma’s final exams.

My daughter replied, “Final exams are stressful!” Some things never change.

At the same time the diary has brought me closer to my elderly father (Grandma’s son). When I visit him we enjoy going on car rides to take photos of the places that Grandma once frequented, and he likes helping me figure out what some of the diary entries mean. Without his help I never would have been able to describe how farming was done in the days before tractors.

I’ve been surprised how many people who are not relatives enjoy reading the posts.

For example, several young women told me that they love the way Grandma writes about her sister—and that it helps them better understand their own relationships with their sisters. Grandma had a sister named Ruth who was just a little older than she was. The diary entries portray an intense love between the two girls, co-mingled with competiveness and sibling rivalry. For example, when Grandma was annoyed with Ruth she referred to her as “Rufus” or “her highness.”

The quiet, elderly grandmother I remember often seemed almost invisible—overshadowed by others at family gatherings. As a result of the diary I now know my grandmother much better than I did before I began this endeavor, but more importantly I now feel like I have a close connection to her and a deeper understanding of myself.

7 thoughts on “Using Diaries and Journals to Shed Light on the Past

  1. A friend just sent me the link to your blog – I’m looking forward to reading your grandmother’s diary! How lucky you are to have it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s