Monday, October 17, 2005

A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, is a much richer and more enlightening book than I anticipated. I guess that's why it won a Pulizter Prize for history and its author received a MacArthur grant.

Ulrich uses Ballard's terse entries (like this one for today's date in 1799) as a starting point for her clearly written examinations of social class, women's work (especially gardening, textile production, and nursing), medicine, debt, taxes, marriage, sex (including premarital sex), the complicated web of community social relationships, and crime.

October 17, 1799: Clear, windy and Cold. mr Ballard and Cyrus up to our house. mr Brown Came for Hepsy and Shee Sett out for his home at 2h pm. I have been washing and Scouring yarn, but feel very unfitt for Such Service.

Ulrich has also created Martha Ballard's Diary Online, with photographic reproductions of the complete diary (try your hand at transcription!), as well as an easy text search feature.

I finished reading this at the laundromat (where I have to take my queen-sized comforter and quilt at least a couple of times a year), and remembered seeing a remark about "sauce" which seemed to refer to vegetables, as I wrote about in Garden Sass (aka Garden Sauce). When I got home I was able to find it in the online diary in seconds:

August 19, 1804: at home. Lemuel here for Sauce. had Beens, Squash, Cucumbers & apples. he brot a Leller from Bror Elijah of 7th inst. I wrote answr.

So the "sauce" that Ballard is referring to here are the beans, summer squash, cucumbers & apples from the garden.

Some of Ballard's most eye-opening entries (and Ulrich's most fascinating historical descriptions) concerned the epidemics that devastated their community. Strep throat, now a winter discomfort easily diagnosed & remedied, commonly turned into scarlet fever, and many died of the "Putrid Malignant Sore Throat" and its complications. Children also died from burns suffered when they fell into the fireplace, diptheria, and diarrhea, and both children and adults commonly "pukt worms":

May 21, 1802: Clear. I have been very unwell. we Cookt the head and harslit of the Veal. Jona, his wife [&] siStr, wm & Sally Dind with us. Dagt Ballard had an ill turn at Evng, Pukt up 6 larg worms.

Now that I think about it, Ballard's matter-of-fact notes are rather blog-like in style. Reading Ulrich's lucid interpretation, however, provides powerful insight into just how alike and how different life was two hundred years ago in Maine.


Anonymous said...

Who knows how accurate the interpretations truely are? We rely on the author's interpretation of the diary with no true guide to authenticate Martha's story. I am concerned that not all of the translations are correct.

Sandy said...

By the way, does anyone know what a harslit is? (or was?)

Sandy said...

Oh, I was so glib about the "easily diagnosed and remedied" strep infection. :-( Man, it hurts, and did I feel awful last week. And it was damn near miraculous how much better I felt when I got on antibiotics. Hurry for modern medicine!