Monday, December 3, 2012

Farm Wife: A Self-Portrait, 1886-1896

Reading Farm Wife is like stepping into the home of Margaret Dow Gebby and observing life as she lived it during the ten years that she kept her diary.  I anticipated reading details about activities such as laundry, ironing, baking, keeping a home, etc.  Presumably most of that was too mundane to record because there was less of that and much more of other aspects of her life.  If you think you will read about only her work and activities, you will be disappointed.  This book contains almost as much about the work of her husband and sons as her own activities.  And interestingly, their work did not cross boundaries:  only once or twice did Margaret help with farm work and her husband as rarely with the housework.

This is not a word-for-word, day-by-day transcription of Margaret's original diaries.  Instead, the editor, Virginia E. McCormick, chose to excerpt from Margaret's entries and present them to the reader according to topic.  Interspersed with the excerpts are McCormick's observations and insights.  I found these helpful especially in light of the fact that McCormick had read all of the diaries and I was reading only parts.  Her thoughts add an interesting element to the book.

I have farmers among my ancestors and many of them lived during the years of Margaret's diaries, though not in the same location.  (Margaret and her family lived about a mile outside the town of Bellefontaine, Ohio.)  While I shouldn't assume that Margaret's life was identical to the lives of my ancestors, I think I can reasonably assume that some aspects of their lives were similar.  Though the recipe for bread may have been different there is little doubt that farm wives in many locations and in several generations baked bread.  The breed of dairy cows may have differed but tending cows would have been similar no matter where the farmer lived.  No doubt crops varied from one place to the other but the actions required to prepare the soil and plant seed would have been repeated by farmers across the States  The sum experience of farming, and being a farm wife, would probably have been similar, especially during the same years.

With that in mind, I'll tell you that I found this book very interesting and informative.  Margaret was a very careful bookkeeper.  She kept records of what was purchased and how much it cost, from sugar to buttons to cows.  I know a little more about the economy of the time as well as the frugality of a farm wife.  She also kept records of how much butter and how many eggs she carried to town, how much she was paid, and what she purchased (and what it cost) with the income from the butter and eggs.  McCormick estimated that Margaret's butter and egg business earned between 20 and 30 percent of the farm's income.  Margaret recorded the purchase prices of cows and pigs, their weights as they grew, their weights when they were sold, and the amount earned for each animal.  She also recorded where they were sold and how they were transported to the sale location.  The book was hugely enlightening.

Farm Wife answered several questions I've had about people from earlier times.
  • For instance, I pondered what people did a hundred years ago when it suddenly snowed and they needed to go somewhere.  It seemed an easy thing to get down the sleigh and more than once Margaret mentioned how good the snow was for sleighing.  
  • I've wondered about the sizes of previous generations.  I have always had the impression that people then were smaller than people of our generation.  Margaret and her husband purchased a scale to weigh their livestock.  Several times when family came to visit, they were hosted to a tour of the neighborhood, ending at the scale where everyone got out of the buggies and weighed themselves.  Margaret recorded the weights:  they were little people!  Of course it's possible that not everyone was the size of Margaret and her family but her record leads me to believe that people were generally smaller a hundred years ago.
  • I learned that a horse and buggy traveled about 50 miles in 12 hours or a little over 4 miles per hour.  (Though I didn't learn how fast a horse and wagon traveled when transporting a family for a move.)

If I have one complaint about the book it is its presentation by topics.  We miss learning of Margaret's activities day by day, knowing all she accomplished in a day.  We also miss an overall look at events and activities from season to season.  However, I can imagine that to transcribe and publish all 10 years' worth of diaries would probably comprise several volumes and be of interest to few people.  I was grateful to learn that all of Margaret's diaries are available at the Archives Library at the Ohio Historical Society.

If you have farmer ancestors in your family you may enjoy this book.  If you're interested, I've included the chapter headings and most of the topics and sub-topics below. 

Chapter heads, topics (and sub-topics) include:
  • Weather
  • Buildings, Equipment, and Hired Help (Farm Sales; Barns and Outbuildings; Farm Tools and Repairs; Windmills; Hired Men; Farm Chores
  • Crops (Planting and Harvest; Corn; Hay; Cloverseed; Wheat)
  • Livestock (Cattle; Hogs; Animal Accidents and Diseases; Horses; Pets)
  • Home
  • Housekeeping and Furnishings (Housecleaning; Hired Help; Painting and Papering; Quilts and Carpets; Kitchen; Furnace and Stoves; Yard and Flower Garden)
  • Food (Orchard and Garden; Canning and Preserving; Meat and Butchering; Cooking and Baking)
  • Butter and Egg Business
  • Clothing (Sewing and Knitting; Dressmakers and Milliners; Male and Female Wardrobes)
  • Health and Home Nursing (Accidents and Illness; Eyes, Ears, and Teeth; Birth and Death; Appendectomy)
  • Parenting (Launching Careers; Courtship)
  • Building a House for a Son and His Bride
  • Leisure (Visiting; Hunting and Fishing; Hobbies; Winter Fun; Picnics and Sociables; Club Meetings and Parties; Leisure and Reading; Lectures and Concerts)
  • Holidays (New Year's Day; Decoration Day; Fourth of July; Thanksgiving; Christmas; Miscellaneous Celebrations)
  • Celebrations (Birthdays; Weddings; Anniversaries)
  • County Fair
  • Excursions
  • School
  • Religion (Sunday Services; Prayer Meetings and Revivals; Building Fund, Pledges, and Ladies Aid; Ministers; Sunday School and Young People's Group)
  • Government (Taxes; Elections; Temperance; Citizenship)
  • Transportation and Communication (Buggies, Sleighs, and Bicycles; Passenger and Freight Trains; News)



  1. Okay, now I gotta read that one, too.

    You always do the best book reviews.

    Dee at Shakin' the Family Tree

    1. I hope you find it helpful and/or enjoy reading it. Thanks for the nice compliment, Dee.

  2. Nancy, bless you! My grandmother was born on a farm just outside of Bellefontaine in 1900. Her father was a dairy farmer, and her mother sold eggs and raised 16 children to adulthood. I've never heard of this book before, nor was I aware of the journals at OHS. Your post gave me goosebumps! Needless to say, the book is going on my must-read list. Thank you!

    1. Oh, Shelley, you will probably really enjoy this book since you had family in Bellefontaine at about the same time period. The other interesting thing about the book, which I forgot to mention in my post and which I may add, is that Margaret named many community members in her diary. As I was reading I kept thinking that anyone with family in Bellefontaine might find an ancestor mentioned. I hope you enjoy it!


I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading what you have to say. Thanks for stopping by.

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