Not Your Grandmother's Diary

by Diane L. Richard | May 28, 2013

Diane L. Richard

We crave personal details of our ancestors' lives. Diaries are a great source for these, but most people, even now, don't keep diaries and never mind at the time of our ancestors. Given this, are there other places where your ancestors or others might have documented life events and information? Diaries don't always look like we expect.

Appointment Books/Calendars

My "diary" for the last 30+ years is my collection of annual calendars. I never got into the "diary" habit as a young girl. I have always had a print calendar and I've always put notes on it whether it's appointments, observations of life (set a temperature record, the flowers are blooming, a first tooth, a grandmother dying, etc.), household chores, work items and much more. I also often staple in receipts to movies, plays and other performances to the pages along with newspaper clippings and other paper-based memorabilia. Isn't this a form of diary? Might an ancestor also made notations on a calendar - even the wall-hanging variety? Just as I hope that future descendants may find some value to my scribbles, we might find the same in the calendars of our ancestors.

Address Books

Many of us use an electronic address book as part of an email program, but that is a recent phenomena. Historically address books were print volumes with nice covers, alphabetized tabs and pages where you could put the various addresses important to you. Though I do use my contacts list on Outlook to keep "current" snail and e-mail addresses, I still retain a print address book that I bring out every December as the basis for mailing out holiday cards.

In my "paper" address book you will find many crossed-out addresses (though a few are also buried under layers of "white out") and you will also find notes about the dates when people died, married or had children. This means that my address book is a form of diary.


When I finish an address book (I think I'm on my third one) I put the old one in my "memory" box. Maybe in the future a descendant will open the saved boxes and check out my scribbles, including those of the old address books!

I learned I was not alone when I came across a Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) post titled "Address book is a family history, bound by tradition", by Will Kenny.

Don't be too quick to think that address books are just a 20th century phenomenon. I did some searching and found some collections where address books are listed for private collections. For example, the William Rodes Shackelford Papers, 1786-1964 at Eastern Kentucky University, Special Collections and Archives lists "Diaries and Address Books, 1888-1930" while the Charles Wilkes Collection, 1885-1924 includes "Diaries and Address Books, 1885-1924."


I can't take credit for thinking of this alternative. An article in the News and Observer (originally published by the New York Times) titled "Between the recipes, scribbles speak volumes" caught my eye when the photo caption stated, "For Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and English professor, annotated cookbooks are a way to record family events. She says reading her mother's cookbooks is like reading a diary." Her mother would alter the recipes (don't we all do that?), note the table settings, other dishes served, a special event the meal was for, who attended, and more. Again, it's another form of diary.

[Note: For more information about recipes and family history, be sure to read Lisa Alzo's Expert Series article, "Five Easy Ways to Preserve and Share Family Recipes and Traditions."]

Farm and Business Records

Many of our ancestors worked a family farm, plied a trade, had a small storefront or family restaurant or otherwise worked for themselves. The paperwork created in the course of running the farm, tending to the blacksmith shop, selling household goods etc can be another place where notes of a personal nature were jotted down.

Think about the days before smartphones, netbooks and laptops. How often in the course of the working day did we jot notes on scraps of paper, post it notes, etc, about items related to our personal life? Our ancestors did the same thing.

Just imagine your ancestors keeping a log about the farm animals when someone comes over to tell them about the death of a neighbor, or they are reminded of something they need to get in town.

Don't assume that business papers were all business. People are known to have put notes in the margins of their "business" papers about personal news.

The Records of Others

The discussion so far as been on more "modern" types of documents. With the scarcity of paper and many who couldn't even write their own names, many families were not spending their evening hours documenting their lives.

If they weren't, were others? As with Bibles, letters and diaries, check out if there are any surviving such documents for neighboring families. People just didn't document or write about themselves and their families, they wrote about their neighbors, community and more.

Personal and Store Accounts

Many ancestors, as we do today, transacted business in the community. Just because an estate file is not found where the "debts" of your ancestors are documented, this doesn't mean that they didn't have "accounts" at the local general store or maybe at the Boot and Shoe shop of James Newlon.

If your ancestors lived in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 1830s and needed boots or shoes, they may have had an account with Mr. Newlon. A history of what they purchased, whether for cash or credit and how frequently can tell you a lot about your family and their circumstances.What about the registers of a physician, Dr. E Burke Haywood M.D., who practiced in Raleigh for many years and for whom an 1872 physician's visiting list and record of accounts survives. Did your family fall sick? Did he care for them? Did they pay in cash, goods or services? Often a physician had a relationship with a family over an extended period of time and so documented births, maladies and deaths.

Again, the records of those whom your family interacted with can provide you with some of the same "intimate" details that a diary would have.


These are just a few suggestions for records that you might look at where personal details of your ancestors might be found. It might not be a diary or journal or it might have been by someone else. However, these "other" types of diaries can give us wonderful insight into the day-to-day lives of our ancestors.

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