It’s extremely rare to get an accurate, first-hand look at the day-to-day life of someone who lived one hundred and fifty years ago. While many soldiers and university students kept journals that recorded their experiences while they were away from their families, most adults had neither the time nor the inclination to do the same. When one does come across a daily journal, it is seldom filled out completely no matter how good the intentions of its author had been when it was started. This week, we get to see a diary from a twenty-six-year-old male schoolteacher who not only recorded something for every single day of his year, but also kept a financial journal that recorded every penny that he both earned and spent between January 1, 1872, and December 31st of that same year.
Journals of the day were extremely small in size; this one being only 2.75 inches width by 4.75 inches in height. The quality of the paper used in the nineteenth century varied greatly depending on the materials used in the papermaking process. Linen paper (made mostly from rags) was the strongest and the least affected by the absorption of acidic pollution over the years. As the demand for paper grew and rags became more scarce, other plant-based materials were adopted; most notably, straw and then manila rope. These produced a stiffer grade of paper than linen but generally held up well. By the second half of the century, pulp from wood gained favor based upon its low cost. However, paper made from wood was known to stiffen, crumble, and turn yellow rather quickly. Low-cost diaries and journals that were then in use were often made with inferior paper and are thus rare to find in good enough condition to easily read and digitize.
Luckily for us, we have been offered the opportunity to scan and digitize several diaries from one man that cover the years between 1872 and 1877. Four of the six are in very good condition, with the pages all firmly bound and intact. All were written in pencil, so without expanding the pages, they can be rather challenging to read, but once digitized, we have been able to both clarify the text and expand each page enough to make it easy to study. The first year has been completed and we offer a synopsis of the content here:
Charles Judson Thorp was born in Easton on September 16, 1845, to Samuel Edson Thorp and his wife Mary Bradley Thorp. Charles was the eldest of four children. The family homestead was located on Stepney Road, about a quarter mile west of the intersection with Judd. During much of the twentieth century that farm was known as the Step-A-Side Kennels.
As Charles’ diary begins on January 1, 1872, he is teaching in Trumbull at the White Plains School and boarding with Almon and Betsy Ann Plumb in their home that is almost directly across the road from the schoolhouse. The Plumbs were in their mid-sixties and Charles was likely a welcome addition to the household, being able to help Mister Plumb with some of the chores as well as provide the couple with a little extra income. From Charles’ cash journal, it would appear that he was paying the Plumb’s $4.00 per week for his room and board. Charles was a Monday through Friday resident while school was in session. Charles received his teacher’s pay only twice a year, one payment in August and the other in March.
The Thorp farm in Easton was approximately two and a half miles from the train depot in Stepney. Samuel would take his son to the depot every Monday morning where he would catch a train to Trumbull, arriving there in time to open his schoolhouse. At the end of the school week, Charles would take the train from Trumbull to Stepney and then spend the weekend at the family farm. Saturdays were usually spent helping his father, while Sunday often saw Charles attending Church in the afternoon and then spending the evening with his girlfriend and future wife, Ettie. Ettie was Marietta Eliza Austin who lived along with her sister Emily, after the death of their mother in 1854, under the care of their uncle and aunt, Samuel and Josephine Seeley, on Seeley Road in the Tashua section of Trumbull, just a few yards east of the Easton town line. Prior to the construction of Easton Lake, the Seeley home was about a two mile walk from the Thorp farm in Easton.
Charles’ diary is extremely detailed, even describing the weather each and every day of 1872. That year, snowy weather lasted well into the middle of April. Thunderstorms were frequent, even during the occasional spells of warmer days in February and March. Charles reported the first frost on Wednesday, September the 4th! The first measurable snow fell on November 16th. Early December saw temperatures as low as minus six degrees.
For those who fantasize about living in the simpler times of the days of yore, Charles’ daily journal is a must read about the reality of planning for one’s survival of a typical New England winter.
Charles closed his school on Friday, June the 28th. As his entries indicate, the closer the school year came to summer, the less “scholars” he had in attendance at his school. While attending school was mandatory by the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of days each student was expected to attend was not. One day in the month of May saw only seven children sitting in front of Charles, and by early June, attendance seldom exceeded twenty (Charles never mentioned the exact number of children enrolled at White Plains, but photos from that era appear to show between twenty-five and thirty students in attendance).
Beginning just a few days later, nearly every entry for the first half of July mentions Charles helping his father to cut the hay and then bring it into the barn. In 1872, the normal method of cutting hay was with a hand-held, long handled scythe, an extremely laborious practice that was both hard on the arms and the back. Typically, one healthy man could lay down about an acre of hay per day if he was cutting it by hand. After the hay was cut, it needed to be raked into rows to properly dry. In 1872, this could have been done either by hand or with a horse drawn hey tedder. After it was dry, the hay would have been hoisted up by hand onto horse drawn flat bedded wagons for transport to the barn where it would be off-loaded the same way. According to Charles’ journal, it took the father and son duo a good deal of the month to bring in the hay they needed for the upcoming winter.
After the hay was in the barn, they repeated part of the same process for nearly another week harvesting the rye and alfalfa.
Sunday continued to be a day of rest, with Charles attending Church on nearly every Sunday, staying into the afternoon before walking to Ettie’s house on Tashua Hill. A good game of croquet was the main pastime during both the spring and summer months. Charles mentioned it often, although a bit less during his time working as a farmer than he did while he was teaching school.
Courting Ettie meant getting home late on most Sunday evenings. One or two o’clock in the morning wasn’t unusual. It was always on foot. Imagine walking in the pitch-black darkness for two miles when bears and coyotes were both common. On one occasion, Charles describes being at Ettie’s when it began to rain heavily. He stayed until the rain stopped around two in the morning and then walked home in the darkness along the muddy roads, arriving there at nearly four o’clock.
As August waned, Charles and his father began the unenviable task of cutting and hauling enough wood home to heat the house for the winter. The Great Hollow was located in Monroe, about two and a half miles away, and that is where the Thorps harvested their wood. Cutting was all done with a two-man saw. The trees were cut into lengths, loaded on a wagon and then brough back to Easton where they would be cut into shorter lengths and then split and stacked. The entire process lasted some three-plus weeks with Charles complaining in his journals about both his fatigue and aching back.
On days when he wasn’t harvesting wood, he was helping out at the nearby Everett family’s cider mill or picking apples for his own family.
In September, Charles and Ettie took the train to Suffield, Connecticut to visit her late father’s second wife and Ettie’s stepsiblings. They would spend a week there, and in that time, Charles was able to both send a letter home and receive a reply from his father. Evidently, the U.S. Postal Service was more efficient then than it is today.
The winter school session didn’t begin until early October. Children were expected – and needed – to help bring in the harvest, so school didn’t begin until that task was complete. While Charles doesn’t elaborate as to why he took the job of teaching in Tashua that year, one can certainly surmise that working and boarding closer to Ettie might have been a factor. For the winter session, he would board with Mrs. Mallette so that he might be close to the school.
In November, Charles proudly closed his school and walked to the center of Easton (about three miles distance) to cast his ballot for Ulysses S. Grant for president. The following Saturday, he held classes to make up for the day the school had been closed. While Charles was present, only seven of his scholars showed up that day.
Charles Thorp’s entire journal is filled with interesting insights into what it was like to be living in 1872. With no instant communications, news of what was happening in the outside world would seem to be slow in reaching Trumbull, Connecticut, yet on January 10th, Charles writes about visiting one of Mr. Plumb’s neighbors to read about Colonel James Fisk being shot.
Jim Fisk was a financier of questionable character who was involved in several schemes including politicians in high places that cost investors thousands of dollars in losses. On January 6, 1872, a disgruntled investor, Edward Stiles Stokes, shot Fisk twice at close range while in the Grand Central Hotel in NYC. Fisk succumbed to his injuries the following day, yet Charles was reading about the event and its lurid implications only three days later.
On February 7th, Charles writes about another newspaper article that described tensions that could lead to war between the United States and Great Britain due to Great Britain’s refusal to pay this country reparations for ships that were lost or damaged during the Civil War. That dispute was known as the “Alabama Claims,” and is something that few Americans today would know anything about. It is obvious from his entries that Charles was interested in newsworthy events that went far beyond Easton and Trumbull.
Other entries covered more mundane occurrences – helping Mr. Plumb set rat traps in February, or Mr. Plumb going “eeling” in April with no success. Charles spent many of his evenings going to “singing school,” a place where folks learned to harmonize as a way to entertain themselves and friends in an era before either the radio or the phonograph had been invented. One of Charles’ walks home after visiting Ettie described the sighting of dozens of meteors lighting up the sky. Weddings were held in the home of the bride, often during the middle of the week with little fanfare and just a small gathering to celebrate the occasion after the nuptials. Likewise, those who passed had their funeral at home before being interred at the cemetery. Many small events that together paint a fairly complete picture of the everyday life of a young schoolteacher some one hundred and fifty years ago.
In all, this first diary of Charles Thorp has been fascinating to read and interpret. It is with great thanks to Margaret Silvestri that we are able to share this information with you.