Making history personal: Family Life in the Quaker collection

A revisit to the diaries of Joshua L. Baily and Theodate L. Baily.

Posted on May 9, 2016

A page from the diaries of Joshua L. and Theodate L. Baily.

By Kara Flynn

One of the reasons that I love history and enjoy working with archival collections so much is that I have found that primary sources make history personal. In the past, history has often been taught in the more traditional, names and dates style that focuses on important historical events while nearly erasing human experience. Luckily, I think educators are largely moving away from this approach, and trying to engage students more often with history on the level of human experience. Connecting with history on a personal level, making connections with the past and present, and making those discoveries accessible to others is what I love about the work I do. With this in mind, I want to revisit one of the first collections I cataloged this year, the diaries of Joshua L. Baily and Theodate L. Baily.

The majority of the diaries in the collection are written by Joshua Baily, but two of the volumes in the collection are Theodate Baily’s diaries. We have many diary collections in the Quaker collections, as 19th century Quakers seem to have been avid diarists, and would keep diaries for the majority of their adult lives. The fact that many of our diary collections span upwards of 50 years in a single person’s life allows for an exploration of the aging process, the ability to track how families grow and change, and the ability to gain insight into how contemporaries at the time viewed and conceptualized important historical events. While I am writing about a man in this post, one of the great things about diaries is that because many women kept diaries, we can learn much more about the lives of women and their experiences than is possible to do from more traditional records, like census data.

Baily began keeping diaries at the age of nineteen and continued to write daily entries throughout his life, though diaries for the years 1857-1878 are missing. And, while Baily’s diaries span years that include many historical events, what I loved about these was the ability to watch someone’s life unfold-- to gain an understanding of him, to watch him fall in love, get married, have children, lose his wife, and gain a new appreciation for his children and grandchildren as he aged.

Joshua Longstreth Baily (1826-1916) was a Quaker merchant in the dry goods business, and was very involved in his community, especially in abolition and temperance efforts, and  was interested in peace issues. He was also the vice President of the National Temperance Society, treasurer of the Mohonk Arbitration Conference, president of the American Bible Society, and was affiliated with the Pennsylvania Prison Society for 66 years, and was the organization’s president at the time of his death. Baily married Theodate Lang in 1856, and the couple had five children: Frederick, Albert, William, Charles, and Henry. We don’t know nearly as much about Theodate Lang (1833-1886), as is often the case with women in history, and what we do know about her comes from the men in her life--her father and husband. We do know she was born in Vassalboro, Maine, the daughter of a Quaker minister and his wife, that she married Joshua L. Baily in 1856, and that they had five children together.

One thing you have to understand about 19th century diaries is that in general, these are far from the overly personal, pour your heart out sort written by thirteen year olds the world over. The majority of the diaries I cataloged this year talked about the weather more than anything else. Not that that isn’t important-- diary entries about weather can actually be used to track climate change, which is pretty cool, but weather reports don’t exactly make for the most riveting reading. So, when Joshua Baily fell in love with Theodate Lang, I was shocked to watch a man who seemed to think poetry lay in describing the weather and what he’d eaten for lunch that day turn into a poet right before my eyes! To illustrate, I will pull out two quotations from an entry Baily writes after he confesses his love to Theo, and she agrees to marry him:

January 20th, 1856

“It seems now like a brilliant dream called up by the power of memory, like some gorgeous scene, some delightful poem, some vivid picture, rather than a series of events, burnt into the mind and memory by some strange and intense power. It used to be my pleasure to contemplate Theo in her queenlike serenity, to watch the grace of her movement, the quick intelligence of her eye, the smile that played upon her countenance, but I dared not approach her.”

I mean, come on. Is there anything more timeless than unrequited love? Luckily for Baily, his love for Theodate didn’t have to remain unrequited for long. By the next year, the two were married. We unfortunately don’t have the diaries dating from 1857-1878, the years in which Joshua and Theodate would have been having and raising children. From 1879-1886, we see Baily performing the societal role of the head of the household and bread winner-- he talks often about business and the weather (of course), but rarely about his family. By contrast, in the two volumes of Theodate’s diaries, we are given a window into the private life of the family, as Theodate’s entries generally discuss social calls and family news, and describe her children and husband in detail.

However, it is possible to track a shift in Joshua Baily after Theodate dies in 1886. The two were married for 30 years, and had five children together, and as we saw from Baily’s early entries, he was at one time rather infatuated with Theodate. Unlike many 19th century widowers, Baily never remarried. While initially, Baily’s entries express his grief explicitly, later, it is more subtle. He notes her birthday in his diary each year, and the anniversary of her death. As he ages, he writes more and more often about his children and grandchildren, particularly after he has retired from business, and he seems to take a much more active role as a father and grandfather. His handwriting becomes shakier, and there are days when his entries simply read, “Did not leave the house today.”

A few years ago, I read an article about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and as I have been a bookworm all my life, perhaps that is why when I was finally finished cataloging the Baily diaries after spending two weeks of my life with them, I came away actually feeling emotionally drained. But I realized that feeling heartbroken for a little old man who had been dead for 100 years was an important lesson about how history isn’t just names and dates, it’s the lives of people who were making sense of the world, falling in love, and experiencing loss in ways that are very similar to the way people do today. I don’t mean to romanticize the past, or to say that the world and the people in it never change, but I do think it is important to recognize that in looking at history, we are also looking at ourselves, and someday, people may be looking back at us and thinking the same thing.