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The Accidental DiaristA History of the Daily Planner in America$

Molly A. McCarthy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226033211

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226033495.001.0001

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(p.vi) (p.1) Introduction
The Accidental Diarist
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introduction aims to explore the importance of diary writing for the nineteenth century Americans. Diaries can be traced back to colonial times, and the first people who used it were British settlers, who carried it in a small pamphlet form. This chapter then follows the influence that diaries made throughout American history, before considering its future, as it is now endangered by the new digital platforms of social media.

Keywords:   diaries, diary writing, digital platforms, social media, British settlers

The Accidental Diarist is the biography of a book. I found it, or it found me, as I rooted around the archives in search of a paper topic for my first graduate school assignment. The first time I saw it I did not know what to make of it. It looked so familiar, even modern, but strangely distant. It resembled the Day Runner I had stashed in my backpack. It contained a calendar, monthly tables for recording expenses, and other useful trivia, plus a page-a-day section for record keeping that I had come to expect from my own daily planner. And yet the year on the title page read “1873.” It belonged to a woman named Jane Fiske, who, as far as I could tell from a cursory scan of her entries, was a painfully lonely New Hampshire farmwife as well as a faithful diarist. Fiske’s collection took up an entire box, a total of forty-two volumes spanning four decades into the twentieth century. Diaries of the time were commercially printed and sold at local bookshops, with titles such as the Standard Diary, the American Diary, and the Excelsior Diary, and they arrived just in time for the opening of a new year. What I found in Fiske’s volumes was not the kind of diary I would have expected of a nineteenth-century housewife. I figured Fiske for a thick, hardbound journal of blank leaves filled with emotional outbursts about her daily hardships. And while her page-a-day did allow some room for venting, Fiske’s subject matter was more practical, confined to daily tasks and tracking the hours of the farm laborers hired to help with mowing and stacking hay. This entry dated June 24, 1873, was typical: “Cool morning but day much warmer. Six haymakers today. Had help about getting dinner & supper, but suffered for it. Mrs. Flanders called. Julia here to wash.” And on it went for more than forty years.1

I wanted to know where Fiske’s Standard Diaries came from and how (p.2) (p.3) they got into the hands of a New Hampshire farmwife. I needed to understand what was in it (both the daily planner and the daily habit) for Fiske. What made her buy a planner every year and compose a record that appeared, at first glance, to be full of information but, to my eyes at least, empty of meaning? I also wanted to know who made these diaries, a technologically unspectacular yet wildly popular format that eased generations of Americans into a daily habit that they might otherwise have missed.


Figure 0.I. The title page of Jane Fiske’s 1873 Diary. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

I soon realized that I had not uncovered one woman’s unique set of store-bought diaries but stumbled on a fascinating and untold piece of media history. For Fiske’s diaries were not unique at all. By the mid-nineteenth century, the daily planner was ubiquitous, available in bookshops, at local stationers, and in general stores. By the 1880s Standard Diaries were available by mail order, a popular addition to Montgomery Ward’s “book department.” I set about documenting the history of this evolving genre of diary that, in an age when we expect technological innovations in communication and timekeeping to foster monumental changes, allowed customers to accept such changes at their own pace and adapt their daily planners to uses unanticipated by the entrepreneurs who paid close attention to shifting market demands. This biography weaves together the stories of the daily planner’s customers and its producers. Rather than recounting the experience of one or the other, I focus on the interplay between individuals and entrepreneurs, of cultural need versus market innovation, of the stubbornness of individualism versus the standardization of life.

I argue that the daily planner was more than just an unassuming stationery product that turned thousands of Americans into daily diarists. It shaped how customers told time and tracked their money. It helped some users move into modernity while allowing others to retain a connection to older modes of accounting, for both time and money. The daily planner could be cataloged as another entry in a long list of nineteenth-century standards: of time, of manners, of language, of weights and measures.2 Since this instance of standardization involves a consumer product, I am able to tell a more intricate and intimate story about the tension between what is standard and what is individual, or in relation to the daily planner, between form and content. It’s a story of agency and innovation, an abiding lesson that sociologist John Storey calls “situated agency” or “active complexity.” A customer’s interaction with his or her daily planner is nuanced, purposeful, and eccentric, even when inscribed in the most (p.4) standard of forms. The history of the daily planner frees us from the unnecessary binary of thinking of mass consumption as either manipulative or empowering. This genre of diary keeping, a practice that evokes most strongly “the cultures of everyday life,” can be democratic and restrictive at once, depending on the user and his or her vantage point.3 What is especially ironic about the rise of the daily planner as a standard form is the way in which it could foreground the individual by replacing the customary and local, as in kinship networks, with standardized forms that allowed for commerce with strangers. It is, in part, this transition from the local to the standard that I am tracking and its impact on the customers who lined up to buy the daily planner.

Nevertheless, I cannot tell this story of the commercial standardization of the diary without the themes of time and money. Aside from serving as critical prompts for diarists, time and money were intricately linked to the introduction and increasing popularity of this material object. Literary historian Stuart Sherman, among others, has already connected the rise of daily genres such as the diary and the daily newspaper with the move toward mechanical time, a shift well underway in England by the opening of the eighteenth century. Indeed, Sherman uses as a model the diaries of the renowned Samuel Pepys, writing from 1660 to 1669, to demonstrate the strong connection between diary time and clock time. The clock, as Sherman explained it, offered British subjects a “new experience of time as it passed,” a process that ran parallel to the production of serialized texts such as diaries, periodicals, and daily newspapers featuring “new installments at regular daily intervals.”4 The technologies, one written, one mechanical, were mutually reinforcing and instrumental in the way they helped users conceive of and tell time.

I seek to complicate this connection and suggest that the two, clock and diary, did not always—or simply—work together but could often be at odds. For instance, some customers preferred the daily pace of the diary to the finer, and faster-paced, increments of the clock. For them, their lives did not yet demand the precision of the clock’s face; they only needed to know what days to head to school or to church. In this way, the diary could just as readily move users away from modernity even in the tumultuous, modernizing decades following the Civil War, connecting them to a more traditional way of seeing and conceiving of time astronomically as early Americans did with the assistance of their almanacs. I look continually to the way the daily planner informed and shaped the temporal consciousness of its customers. The daily planner’s pages reveal (p.5) how stuttered and inconsistent the march toward mechanical time could be and attest to the persistence of alternative modes of timekeeping throughout the nineteenth century even as clock and watch sales climbed.

Customers did not just look to their daily planners to tell time, they also used them to determine how much money they had. In fact, the only reason some customers owned a daily planner was to record expenses and keep track of how much money they had until payday, at least initially. Money, as much as time, was a strong impetus for such diary keeping, but the connection between diary and money runs especially deep and calls to mind the persistent metaphor of “keeping account,” a phrase most associated with the Protestant tradition of diary keeping that called upon the faithful to keep a daily account that tracked their spiritual progress toward salvation. I am interested in the ways this spiritual and literal account keeping translated to the pages of a daily planner where the format and purpose was dictated by commercial manufacturers more intent on making sales than preserving a tradition of spiritual accounting.5 Nevertheless, I found both kinds of traditions, of financial and spiritual accounting, equally resilient in the pages of this commercial object that prioritized the needs of this world over the next.

Placing the daily planner, arguably an unremarkable product that elicited unremarkable entries from customers day after day for years on end, at the center of my story allows me to celebrate and call attention to the quotidian. This is not then a story of great or famous American diarists. There are few recognizable names. These diarists are easily overlooked both because of what they chose to write in and because of what they wrote. At first glance, both appear mundane, ordinary, and even banal, certainly not worth my time or analysis. But I discovered, to my great relief and delight, that the book and the entries were anything but ordinary. These customers, and also writers in a sense, have much to tell, not only about themselves but also about the power of the daily planner, the beauty of the standard, and the shift in time and commerce in the century leading up to 1900.

I began by following Fiske’s Standard Diary back to uncover the daily planner’s early roots as the first American best seller: the almanac. Fiske’s Standard Diary was a direct descendant of the ubiquitous colonial pamphlet perhaps most associated today with Benjamin Franklin’s alter ego “Poor Richard” and his lessons regarding time and money.

But what most of us do not realize is that the almanac also doubled (p.6) as a diary and could be considered America’s first daily planner. Aside from providing space for Poor Richard’s essays on money and time thrift, the almanac was most known in its day for its calendar. It was that feature, alongside its interest tables, postal rates, and currency charts, that made it the perfect daily companion for merchants and farmers alike. Booksellers advertised their willingness, for a small sum (of course), to add blank pages to the almanac’s calendar section to ease the conversion of the almanac into a daily diary. And although the practice has received scant attention in studies of the genre, the compulsion was wide enough to draw in more than a few Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who routinely turned their annual editions of the Virginia Almanac into diaries.

I also followed Fiske’s Standard Diary forward into the early twentieth century when America’s first advertising men adopted the daily planner to sell everything from liver pills to office furniture. Decades before the debut of the American Express Diary or the New Yorker Desk Calendar, John Wanamaker paved the way to using the daily planner as a branding tool by introducing the Wanamaker Diary, a thinly disguised sales catalog for Wanamaker’s retail empire.

In between these episodes of the daily planner’s past and future I situate the larger story about the interplay of customers and producers. Along the way, I realized the daily planner could contribute to a greater understanding of the surge in diary keeping in nineteenth-century America (aside from the usual suspects such as increased literacy, westward journeys, and civil wars), as well as what made people write in the first place. As much as I intended this study of the commercial diary to be about media and consumer history, it simultaneously revealed something critical about the history of diary keeping itself, a cultural practice that took many shapes and forms throughout American history. Historians tend to look to great events like the journeys west or the Civil War as the instigators of countless thousands of diary records: Americans wrote because either they had something to say because they were great men (or women) or because they had something to write about, documenting their travails on the Overland Trail or at the battlefront. And while that may be true, these inclinations came too late to explain a rise in personal record keeping that was well underway by the 1820s and ‘30s. Nor do they account for the diaries being written by Americans living in cities and towns all over the Northeast not caught up in these events of great moment. Certainly, expanding educational opportunities for men (p.7) and especially women had a hand in the trend since it gave individuals the requisite skills to put words on a page. But that still does not explain what drove them to account for every day in their daily planners.

A product itself of a communication revolution in the early nineteenth century that brought an avalanche of printed matter into American homes including newspapers, periodicals, autobiographies, and novels, the daily planner was one of a variety of readymade blank books designed to save customers from having to make their own records from scratch.6 Job printers, and later blank book publishers, performed the task of ruling and laying out pages and saved customers from having to think about how to arrange the information they needed to set down. They sold account books, weather records, gardening journals, friendship albums, commonplace books, logbooks, time books, and daily diaries (or planners). While many of these blank books came and went as with all fads and fashions, the diary remained a key player in the stock rooms of many blank book men and allowed a few savvy entrepreneurs in the Civil War’s wake to create an industry and build a fortune on the foundation of the daily planner.

But they could not have done it without loyal customers. The success of the pocket diary, as it was most widely known due to its portability, rested on the needs of a population in search of ways to manage their time and money. By the time the daily planner was born in the early nineteenth century, few Americans were untouched by an expanding consumer economy that demanded more precise tracking of financial matters.7 Originally conceived as a portable account book and calendar for a merchant or businessman, the commercial diary soon appealed to men and women from all walks of life, as is evident in the inclusive titles some manufacturers coined for the popular annuals, such as Pocket Diary … for the Use of Manufacturers, Merchants, Housekeepers, Mechanics, and Professional Men. Countless Americans, then, became regular diarists out of necessity.

Answering a need to attend to the practicalities of recording one’s expenses or tracking one’s time, they purchased a daily planner and used it, at least initially, to jot down a shopping list or to note what they paid the washwoman. Soon they were writing more regularly and found the daily habit hard to break and easy to fulfill. Their store-bought diaries made it so simple. The page-a-day format kept the days moving forward and never stopped asking for, or expecting, an entry each and every day no matter how mundane. Although it might be tempting to dismiss them (p.8) as account books or engagement calendars, these diary records, like the one that documented more than forty years of family hardship and achievements in the life of Jane Fiske, contain so much more than facts and figures. Even though they might have started with the weather or the sum they spent at the butcher, they never stopped there, often broaching how they were feeling or taking a moment to reflect on their march of days. That is how so many customers became accidental diarists.

Recounting the rise and staying power of the daily planner, both from the perspective of its producers and customers, adds to our understanding of why many Americans wrote. Practical needs like accounting for time and money spurred generations to their pens on a daily basis. Just because a customer such as Jane Fiske had nothing to say did not preclude her from participating in a cultural movement of daily record keeping that delivered a sense of order and control in a society that often left her feeling alone and adrift. A commercial diary encouraged writing in ways a blank page could not. It seems a particularly apt lesson in today’s computer age where so much writing is produced in highly structured digital environments of blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

When I first embarked on this project, I found it difficult to connect to the vast literature on diary keeping because most scholars overlooked what people were writing in. I was most interested in the relation between the diary’s format and an individual’s daily insertions while other historians and literary scholars focused almost exclusively on content. In the interest of clarity and brevity, I would divide the diary scholarship into three categories: studies of individual diarists including both literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and more ordinary folks such as Maine midwife Martha Ballard, studies of groups of diarists such as immigrants heading west or Southern wives during the Civil War, and anthologies that arranged diarists by subject matter rather than by their place in time.8 Many of the anthologies and group studies of diarists were produced in the wake of the women’s movement by scholars writing in newly formed women’s and gender studies programs.9 Such work restored women’s voices and perspectives to the stories we tell about our past. However, these studies of women diarists also had an unintended consequence of leaving audiences with the impression that diaries were written most often by women writing in private about their thoughts and feelings. That wasn’t always the case. American history is peopled with men and women diarists writing for a variety of reasons and in a range of (p.9) styles. Another unintentional outcome of the cumulative work on American diarists is the notion that diaries and diary keeping were always and everywhere the same. That diaries and diarists did not change over time.10 That could not be further from the truth.

Using the unconventional vantage point of the daily planner enables me to address some persistent myths about diary keeping in America. Among the myths I hope to dispel: people kept diaries only if they had something meaningful to say; diary writing was a private, often secret, enterprise; only women kept diaries; and diary habits did not change over time. My intention is not to belittle or dismiss an impressive body of work but to offer another perspective that helps correct some of those unintended misconceptions. Although admittedly only a slice of the diary pie, the records produced by Americans writing in a commercial planner lets me attend to what people were writing in as well as what they were writing about. Originally designed for the man about town, the daily planner by the mid-nineteenth century was readily being adopted by women, some who claimed their husbands’ unused planners as their own. Matters as dull as daily expenses could drive people to write as much as their need to express feelings or explore their innermost thoughts. Many of these planners were shared among family members or left exposed on a desk, not locked in a drawer or hidden under a pillow. Because the daily planner has such a long and well-documented history, it also demonstrates that diaries and diarists have a history.

Aside from adding to the growing work on consumer and material history, I hope to broaden the way we think about diaries, what they do and the purposes they serve. Oftentimes what people wrote in was as important as what they were writing about, especially if as in the case of the daily planner it was the object itself that kept them writing. The fact that many of these diaries began as account books illustrates how steeped diaries could be in matters of money. Publishers relied on them as a source of steady income, and customers looked to them to manage their money even as they turned to them to tell time. It did not take me long to discover that a need for an accounting and memory aid could inadvertently spark a habit that stuck with many Americans for life.

Because the word diary has such strong connotations, I avoided using it in the title of my book. I chose instead daily planner, a modern phrase these early Americans would not have recognized. Some scholars have attempted to distinguish among various kinds of personal records, including making careful distinctions between a diary and journal. To (p.10) some a journal means a purposeful record of entries that tend more toward a confessional literary production, and a diary denotes something that is less systematic yet more personal. Others reverse these defini-tions. Historically, the terms journal and diary were interchangeable and, in practice, the formats as well as their uses overlapped.

For the purpose of my story, it is important for readers to appreciate that fans of the popular annual called it a diary or pocket diary. Aside from referring to it as a daily planner or pocket diary, I also will use the terms commercial diary, pocket almanac, or portable account book. I settled on the phrase daily planner to help modern readers distinguish this mass-produced, commercial object from a homemade book of blank pages. A more apt name, something that more accurately describes how customers used it, would have been a daily organizer. Indeed, until the late nineteenth century, few Americans used their pocket diaries as actual planners to note upcoming appointments or engagements. Most were used retrospectively, recording events as they passed.

The story of the American daily planner begins in colonial America where the first British settlers carried with them a humble pamphlet hawked by book peddlers and at bookshops in London and across the countryside. From there I follow the daily planner as far as it can go. In particular, the epilogue examines the future of the paper product and asks whether it has one. In an age when digital is king and pen-and-ink technologies including the daily newspaper seem endangered, has the long reign of the daily planner come to an end?

But before considering whether the daily planner has reached the end of its road, I want to revisit its long and storied past in hopes of unveiling how it came to be such a crucial, albeit commonplace, tool. It is something we all take for granted, this unassuming assistant we refer to more than a dozen times a day. This unconventional history illuminates the extraordinary perseverance of the ubiquitous calendars, task managers, and daily organizers of today.


(1) . Jane Briggs Smith Fiske, 1873 diary, Jane Briggs Smith Fiske Papers, AAS.

(2) . On the history of some of these “standards,” see Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002); C. Dallett Hemphill, Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); (p.256) Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996); and Jon Bosak, The Old Measure: An Inquiry into the Origins of the U.S. Customary System of Weights and Measures (Pinax Publishing, 2010).

(3) . John Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003), 5–6. For more on the history of consumption, see Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); T. J. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); and Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, distributed by Random House, 2003). For the theoretical underpinnings of daily practice and “the cultures of the everyday,” see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

(4) . Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 4, 8.

(5) . Ibid., 59–62.

(6) . For more on the communication and publishing revolutions of the early to mid-nineteenth century, see David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); David M. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2007); Ronald J. Zboray, A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Ronald J. Zboray, Literary Dollars and Social Sense: A People’s History of the Mass Market Book (New York: Routledge, 2005); Ann Fabian, The Un-varnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); and Scott E. Casper, Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

(7) . Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Winifred Barr Rothenberg, From Market-Places to Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Jeffrey Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

(8) . Lawrence Rosenwald, Emerson and the Art of the Diary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha (p.257) Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1991); John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, Studies in the Life of Women (New York: Schocken Books, 1982); Drew Gil-pin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Thomas Mallon, A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (St. Paul, MN: Hungry Mind Press, 1995); and Harriet Blodgett, Capacious Hold-All: An Anthology of Englishwomen’s Diary Writings (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991).

(9) . Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter, eds., Revelations: Diaries of Women (New York: Vintage Books, 1975); Valerie Raoul, “Women and Diaries: Gender and Genre,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 22 (1989): 56–65; Suzanne L. Bunkers, “Diaries: Public and Private Records of Women’s Lives,” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 7 (1990): 17–26; Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia Anne Huff, eds., Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996); Margo Culley, “‘I Look at Me’: Self as Subject in the Diaries of American Women,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 3 (1989): 15–22; Elizabeth Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880–1910 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982); and Harriet Blodgett, Centuries of Female Days: Englishwomen’s Private Diaries (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

(10) . There are exceptions, of course, to the notion that scholars have failed to historicize diaries and diarists, though much of this work has examined diaries in the British context. See, for instance, Sherman, Telling Time; Rebecca Steinitz, Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Felicity Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).