Diaries and Farm Account Books | College of Arts

Diaries and Farm Account Books

Photograph: Large family in parlour, Stephen Sylvester Main collection, University of Guelph Library, Archives, and Special Collections, Agricultural History (XA1 MS A230 #255)

Though diaries may at first glance seem mundane and unimportant, they are very valuable historical documents. Compared to a variety of other sources, diaries are honest and routinely generated. Farm diaries are often detailed accounts providing information about buying and selling, agricultural work, the swapping of goods and labour, trips to town, and social activities.  They bring us closer to ordinary people and everyday life as it was really lived than any other kind of document. They reveal the choices, complexities, and meanings that outside observers never saw and invite us to ask new and different questions.  Over time, they become even more precious as a historical record of a particular family, place, time period and culture.

In assessing the usefulness of a diary it is necessary to go beyond the catalogue description. Look through the source itself.  Assess its form, main purposes and content, and the exact period covered. Is it consistent? Do chronological gaps exist? What sorts of activities does it document? Watch for changes in the character of the document, as when an old book was taken up anew, perhaps in a different location, by a different author, or for another purpose.  For further tips on using diaries as sources visit the RURAL DIARY ARCHIVE.

The RURAL DIARY ARCHIVE website brings together the work of over 150 diarists from across Ontario.  The website allows users to learn about the authors, easily search fully transcribed diaries in the collection and help transcribe handwritten ones.  The collection will continue to grow as more diaries are located. Visit the website and start exploring today!  The website is sponsored by the Francis and Ruth Redelmier Professorship and the McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph. 

The University of Guelph Archives holds several other diaries, farm account books and letter collections relating to rural life. Click this link for a list of the Archives holdings.

Some examples of scholars who have systematically used such sources are below.

Nicholas T. Van Allen, “In the farm, in the Town, and in the City: Nineteenth-Century Networks and Spaces in Rural Middlesex County, Southwestern Ontario,” PhD Thesis, Department of History, University of Guelph, 2016. See the Atrium for this paper. 

Catharine Anne Wilson, “Reciprocal Work Bees and the Meaning of Neighbourhood,” Canadian Historical Review, 82: 3 (Sept. 2001), 431-64 

Carter, Kathryn. “An Economy of Words: Emma Chadwick Stretch’s Account Book Diary, 1859-1860.” Acadiensis 29:1 (Autumn 1999).

Loewen, Royden. From the Inside Out: The Rural Worlds of Mennonite Diarists, 1863-1929. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. 2, L. Gentilcore, ed., Plate 14 A New Agriculture: Upper Canada to 1851, Annual Farm work on the Benjamin Smith farm, 1805 and 1838. 

Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links, and Letters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990). Includes text and interpretation of letters

Winifred B. Rothenberg, “The Market and Massachusetts Farmers, 1750-1855,” Journal of Economic History, 41: 2 (June 1981), 283-314

The Seasonal Round of Gentry farmers in Early Ontario: A Preliminary Analysis [link to Canadian Papers]
by James O'Mara

Terry Crowley, "Rural Labour", in Paul Craven, ed., Labouring Lives : Work and Workers in Nineteenth-Century Ontario.(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). pp. 13-104

Photograph: A couple, Reuben Sallows collection, University of Guelph Library, Archives, and Special Collections, Agricultural History (XA1 MS A182 #0739)