“When women tell their life stories in their own words, a distinct enthusiasm, engagement and affirmation emerges . . . these are the stories in which women are the central actors, even if their stories are camouflaged by modesty and disclaimers.” So writes Judy Nolte Lensink in Perspectives on Women’s Archives. One of the most common ways in which women tell their life stories is through their personal diaries. The stories can range from day-to-day events, personal reflections, or comments about the world at large. Nearly every archive has diaries in its collection, and ours is no exception. Below are a few examples of the range of journals found in the Cranbrook Archives.
In her diary, which she kept from 1861 to1862, Harriet Messinger Scripps (1838-1933) wrote of common everyday events in her life–housework, sewing, visiting family and friends, and attending church socials. She gave us a glimpse into her close relationship with her bother, Matt, and wrote of her courtship with James Edmund Scripps—a courtship that concluded when, having learned that he might be drafted to fight in the Civil War, she promised to marry him.
Harriet’s daughter, Ellen Scripps Booth (1863-1948), was a more prolific diarist. She began keeping a diary in 1880 and continued, albeit sporadically, until 1944, just a few years before her death. Ellen’s early diary entries express a youthful enthusiasm and an outlook on life that was reflective of the times. In one entry she describes a sermon she heard at church called “Dancing.” She comments, “I don’t think I shall ever dance with young men. He [the preacher] said they liked hugging too well. I agree with him.” While I can’t say for sure if Ellen ever actually tried dancing with a young man, she certainly married and had children! After her marriage to George Gough Booth, Ellen’s entries become less about herself and more about her family life, her children, and visits to Cranbrook—they even give us insight into the property’s development. In 1906, Ellen wrote, “we are going to have the old mill pond restored to a 9 acre lake.” Her later diaries showed Ellen’s maturation as she considered world events and how they affected her family. A 1943 entry, for example, reveals that more than half of Cranbrook House was closed in an attempt to conserve fuel during World War II.
Textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s (1923- ) diaries are far more spirited than either of the two Scripps women, perhaps because she wrote them at a young age. Born and raised in Germany between the world wars, Ruth documented a rapidly changing world through the eyes of a child. Though she, too, wrote of family life, Ruth was more descriptive in her observations of everyday activities. In one entry she describes the feeling of the wind whipping through her hair on a train ride, and wonders why Belgium chose to keep reminders of World War I for the public to see. Ruth’s diaries shift in tone from page to page—on a family trip to Bruges, she vividly describes the canals, then the ocean shore lined with painters, and then begins exploring her feelings about being a German Jew. A 1939 journal transports us alongside her family as they sail from Germany to the United States on the S.S. Aquitania. When Ruth describes the feeling of seeing the New York harbor for the first time, her family members trying to catch their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, you could almost be standing right there on the deck of the Aquitania with the whole Adler family, experiencing it alongside them.
The collection of Academy of Art graduate and sculptor Nancy Leitch (1915-2008) includes a 1940 travel diary. Full of impressions and observations, the diary documents a trip to the West Coast. A horse lover and rider, Nancy attended a polo match where she sat in one of Walt Disney’s box seats and listened to the “many fascinating conversations going on about me.” One wonders how she got to sit in that box and what the conversations were! Diaries can also be used to provide insight into the thought processes of an artist, granting the reader an unexpected perspective on their work. Academy of Art graduate Carol Wald (1935-2000) used her series of diaries to record everything from daily activities and expenditures (including sales of her art work), to philosophical musings and ideas for her artwork. Using Carol’s diaries, we can directly correlate her thoughts and ideas to help us understand specific works that she made.
Anaïs Nin, perhaps the most noted female diarist in the past century, wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Women’s words tell our stories, our thoughts and feelings, and the ways in which we negotiate the struggles of our daily lives. Keep writing ladies, and we will keep preserving your histories.
– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist