Wednesday, May 3, 2017

An extraordinary ordinary woman

‘Cloudy. Mrs Heath died this day. Finished my web. Sewing until 2 o’clock. They have a dance to the other house. My husband is there. Oh that he were at home attending prayers with his family but alas there is no hopes for such things.’ This is typical of the matter-of-fact diary kept by Phebe Orvis, a young American, during the early part of her life in the 1820s. The diary has just been published for the first time, by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of State University of New York Press, and is considered to provide a ‘unique perspective of domestic life in northern New England as well as upstate New York in the early nineteenth century’.

Orvis was born in Vermont in 1801, the fourth child and first daughter of Quaker settlers. However, her mother died within a few months, and she was brought up in the comfortable and educated household of her grandparents in Bristol village (where she remained even after her father remarried). As an adolescent, she did housework, read a lot, wrote to family and friends, but also earned money sewing and spinning for local merchants and neighbours. Thus, she was able to enrol in Willard’s female seminary, in Middlebury, in 1820.

For most of 1821, Orvis went to live in Parishville, the western frontier of New York State, at the behest of her uncle and aunt. But, on her return to Bristol, and after much soul-searching, she gave in to the courting of Samuel Eastman. They married in early 1823, and went back to Parishville to develop farm land. Over the ensuing years, she successfully raised ten children to adulthood. While her husband immersed himself in the local Baptist group, she resisted membership of the church preferring to hold on to her Quaker ideals, though without much Quaker society around her. Very little more is known about Orvis, who died aged 67, or Eastman, though they were buried side by side in the Parishville Baptist cemetery.

Without doubt, the only reason Orvis is remembered today is because for ten years, from 1820 to 1830 or so (and for very brief periods in 1855 and 1859), she kept a diary which has survived to the present day. This seems to have been more through luck than any safeguarding by her descendants: the diary was found at an auction in a tattered old box of random books in the 1960s and passed to a local historian, Mary Smallman. Over the years, Smallman transcribed the diary, and researched Orvis’s life as well as she could; eventually, she donated the manuscript to the Saint Lawrence County Historical Association.

Susan M Ouelette, professor of history at St Michael’s College (Colchester, Vermont), has recently edited the diary for publication by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of State University of New York Press, with the title, An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820 -1830. In her book, Ouelette provides a wealth of additional material, in the form of essays, references and maps. The publisher claims ‘this combination of analytical essays and primary source material offers readers a unique perspective of domestic life in northern New England as well as upstate New York in the early nineteenth century.’ In particular, Ouellette finds much in the diary to illuminate, what is known as, the Second Great Awakening (a Protestant revival movement which was peaking in the 1820s). Some years ago, in 2009, she published Religion and Piety in the Journal of Phebe Orvis in Vermont History magazine (Volume 77, No. 1).

Susan M. Ouellette says in her introduction to the new book: ‘What sets Orvis apart - even now in the twenty-first century - is her diary. The manuscript she left behind is a lens into the intimate details of Orvis’s life, but also into another age. Although the diary is sometimes formulaic with obscure and even cryptic passages at times, it is also a charming and honest account of her days. It is not literature; rather, it is typical of the type of daybook kept by many individuals - men and women - of Orvis’s time. Most of her entries begin with a short - sometimes one-word - description of the weather. This observation is often followed by a list of her daily work, social events, and other details that captured her notice that day. It is not organized in a true narrative form, except that it is chronological. For most of the diary the text moves along in fits and starts and is riddled with unfinished, coded language that made sense to the writer, but not necessarily to a casual reader. So, to follow Orvis’s story, a reader must use imagination and make certain leaps of faith to tease out the details. On the other hand, the sum of her prose tells Orvis’s story. And, her feelings - secret and acknowledged - peep coyly from underneath the somewhat terse wording.’

In her conclusion, Ouellette notes: ‘Orvis ended her life in the same gentle, unassuming way she lived. Because of this comfortable anonymity, except for the historical accident that preserved Orvis’s written words, we would never have known anything about her life. Even with those documents we know only a fraction of her life, and even this is imperfectly understood. And we know only an outline of her later experiences, although official records fill in some of the gaps.’ Here are several extracts, with thanks to Excelsior Editions, from The Journal of Phebe Orvis.

29 November 1820
‘Attended school this forenoon not able to compose. Drew a short extract. returned to Dr.’s. distracted with the sick headache together with the toothache not able to get up[.] after puking and taking Essence felt more relieved[.] Esq Hoyt, Miss Sarah Matticke of Montpelier. Miss Delia Hoyt called this eve to see me, hearing that I was out of health. after soaking my feet and taking more essence, retired.’

10 December 1820
‘Snow of considerable depth. returned to Newhaven. heard Mr. Hopkins preach from Ezekiel Thirty-third. Eleventh . . . Turn ye, Turn ye, why will ye die O house of Israel. saw Miss Sylphina Hanchet at Mrs. Phelps. insisted upon my visiting her at Mrs. Spragues, East Street. Miss Maria W[ilcox]. insisted on my spending the night with her. I did. my old tooth threatened to jump out of my head.’

16 November 1821
‘Finished the kersey. put in a Cotton web for Dr. Sprague. he extracted a tooth for me. came very hard, the only one remaining. glad to get rid of it.’

19 December 1821
‘Cold and windy. Mrs. D[urfey] gone all day. Mr. D[urfey] this eve at Mr. Chester Rockwell’s did the wash. Twisted and washed ten knots of yarn. pieced the outside of a quilt. Mr. E[astman, Jr.] called. I spent the eve alone excepting the children. Retired at twelve.’

6 February 1822
‘Stormy. began to find myself on the road to Vermont. eight sleighs in company. rode eight miles to Oliverts. prepared breakfast for the whole. in good spirits rode ten miles to Robinson’s, ten miles to Bankers. left Bird and Eastman. rode six miles to Gordon’s, Plattsburg village. crossed on Cumberland head. snowed so we could scarcely perceive the Bushes in the cracks put up at Fletcher’s on the Grand Isle. prepared tea. visited late with the Ladies. they were preparing for Installation tomorrow.’

10 March 1822
‘Pleasant. hard cough ventured to cross the poles alone. Lucinda accompanied me to meeting. Mr. A. preached from these words: Behold how they love one another A.M. Adam where art thou, P.M. introduced to Miss Sally Cowan. Saw my dear friend and correspondent Abigail Lewis. she returned and spent the night with me. she has been very sick. she could not enjoy herself as I could wish. the place I had chosen for pleasure was where her sister was drowned. wet, muddy.’

16 May 1822
‘Arose and visited the springs before light. drank some water from Saratoga. Cut out the skirt of my white frock.’

30 June 1824
‘Very warm. spun some. very drowsy took a walk to the Mill. went out on the raft fishing. caught none. headache.’

19 October 1824
‘Cold. The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not secure.’

2 December 1824
‘Smoaky. Air. wove some. my Babe has one tooth cut through[.] gets up by chair.’

10 June 1826
‘Pleasant. Mr. Converse[’s] son died of the measles today, yet we go on to sin[.]’

13 September 1826
‘Cloudy. Mrs Heath died this day. Finished my web. Sewing until 2 o’clock. They have a dance to the other house. My husband is there. Oh that he were at home attending prayers with his family but alas there is no hopes for such things.’

16 September 1826
‘Pleasant. Mr. Wing died today of a Consumption. Baked[.]’

13 May 1827
‘Pleasant. Visited Mrs. Converse, I think she can live but a little longer. A child of Mr. Tupper’s buried today. Headache.’

19 October 1827
‘More pleasant. Very unable to do anything, but I have a shelter for my little ones, food and clothing. What more can I ask.’

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