Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

How will historians learn about 'ordinary' life in 2010?  Much of what we know about daily life in earlier eras comes from letters and diaries.  We may write more e-mails than our great-grandparents wrote letters and perhaps there are more current bloggers than historical diarists, but will they be useful to 23rd Century historians?  Will my hotmail account be readable in 2150, and will anyone be able to sift through the spam and bacon and forwarded jokes to draw an accurate picture of my life?

Martha Ballard kept a diary, and from that we learn a lot more about Federalist New England than merely the business of birth.  An 18th Century midwife was part nurse, part doctor, part herbalist, and part mortician, responsible for preparing bodies for burial.  Additionally, during the peak years of Martha's career she and her teen aged daughters and niece wove lengths of fabric, supplementing her husband's income from surveying and their son's income as a miller.  We think of the 18th Century as a time when men earned income and women stayed home, but the hearth was vitally important to a family's economic survival.  The shillings Martha earned from delivering babies and the produce and meat given in exchange for fabric and nursing were vital to the family's economic survival, and when Martha's business declined due to her age and ill-health, her family encountered financial hardships including her husband's imprisonment for debt. 

Martha's diary also pokes a hole in the image of insular, self-sufficient, repressed, peaceful Puritans.  Hallowell, ME was a tight community as a matter of necessity, and young adults often spent a few months or years living in the home of a relative or family friend, and her diary contains several entries mentioning overnight guests.  38% of first children were conceived out of wedlock, and a midwife's job included questioning a laboring mother (under the assumption that the pain would act as a sort of truth serum).  We also learn of ordinary squabbles between neighbors over property and more serious conflicts over religion and politics.  Most shockingly, Martha's diary includes a mass murder - one of her neighbors killed his wife and five of his six children before killing himself.  

Future historians may have to deal with information overload when they try to reconstruct our society; we're lucky that diaries like Martha's somehow survived.  Her daughter Dolly Lambard apparently kept the diary, passing it to her daughters upon her 1861 death.  23 years later, Dolly's great-granddaughter Mary Hobart received the diary from her great-aunts upon her graduation from medical school, later explaining that "as the writer was a practicing physician, it seemed only fitting that the Ballard diary, so crowded with medical interest, should descend to her."  Who knows what would have happened to the roughly-bound volumes if the author's great-great-granddaughter had not become one of the first women licensed as a physician in Massachusetts and donated it to the Maine State Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment