Updated: Jun 24, 2020
The intimate, day-to-day journals and reflections of people living through turbulent times have always been vital to historians seeking to reconstruct and understand the past. We think of The Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, where the musings—sometimes profound, sometimes mundane—of a fifteen-year-old girl in hiding from the Nazis have had a profound effect on subsequent generations struggling to come to terms with the Holocaust. In researching my book Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, I spent countless hours digging into the diaries and letters kept by Oneida Community members. I also read what might be considered the communal “diaries” of the OC: their two publications The Oneida Circular, for public consumption, and The Daily Journal of the Oneida Community, an in-house paper for members only. Life is never just serious or just silly; even in the most trying and frightening of times, it is a mix of both, and we see this in what the Oneida members thought worthy of recording in their Daily Journal postings. They often used the Daily Journal as a place to take stock of how successfully they were meeting their original utopian goals. “Our winter life is passing quietly,” opens the journal notes for January 14, 1866. “The spirit Mr. Noyes breathes forth in all his talks and communications finds hearts here sympathetic and ready to receive it. Our unity with him, and with each other, is growing more vital.” They were constantly stock-taking, criticizing, analyzing how well they were living up to their social and religious ideals, careful to record backsliding as well as progress.
They also took scrupulous note of the day-to-day workings of their money-making enterprises: bag-making, fruit and vegetable canning, and trap making. “A trap order was received this morning for six dozen muskrat, six dozen otter, and twelve dozen beaver [traps], amount in all to $292.50,” the Daily Journal reported on April 4, 1866. In May of that same year, the Dunn brothers perfected a machine for cutting green corn off the cob, and “measures have already been taken to secure a patent.” Other times the journal served up lighter fare. An entry on February 28, 1866 records the remarkable beauty of the greenhouse flowers that winter: “A fine display of azaleas is seen at the greenhouse nowadays,” the writer reports. “For much of the time during the winter a large Augusta rose—a climber—has hung its splendid clusters of flowers pendant from the roof, filling the air around them with their rich perfume and delighting the eye with their exquisite tints.”
During this pandemic many people have been writing journals, perhaps as a way of documenting the changes from week to week and the slow slide of one day blurring into the next in isolation. Some of the personal stories which have been published online were written as a way to come to terms with the difficulty of coping with the uncertainty of the times, fear, perhaps loss, or the difficulties of keeping oneself safe while caring for the sick. Other personal writing may document more of the quotidian aspects of living during a global crisis, such as how long the line was at the grocery store, how paper towels have disappeared from store shelves, or how a farmer’s market brought in flowering branches. We are living in historic times and all of these dairies or journals have the potential to become artifacts for the benefit of future generations trying to understand the feelings and experiences of this time. As a historical museum, we at the Oneida Community Mansion House are interested to hear your stories as well, and invite you to email us at OCMHblog@gmail.com.