Dear diary: a history.(study of diaries)
by Beth Brophy

Abstract: Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has researched over 100 dairies of adolescent girls, covering 150 years of US history. Brumberg has found many universal subjects, such as a continuing struggle to deal with peers and the opposite sex. Dieting concerns became a factor in the 1920s.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1995 U.S. News and World Report Inc.
U.S. News & World Report, Oct 23, 1995 v119 n16 p89(1).

Adolescent girls, whether they lived on Midwestern farms in the 1860s or in suburban New Jersey near a mall in the 1970s, will always be girls. That's one conclusion Cornell University historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has reached after studying more than 100 diaries of American adolescent girls from the past 150 years. They share a universal struggle to separate from family, to cope with peers and the opposite sex. "They are a place for girls to explore their enormous self-interest," says Brumberg.

In addition to sounding common themes, the diaries reflect important societal shifts in attitudes in the middle class (working-class girls usually did not have the resources and time to purchase and keep a diary). Brumberg's examples:

Religion. During the mid-1800s, the diaries are centered on the self, but within a religious context. They are "spiritual autobiographies about doing good and conquering personal desires in the quest for a more spiritual life," Brumberg explains. Helen Magill, who was 15 in 1868, was brought up in the worldly atmosphere of a Pennsylvania college president's home, yet filled her diary with pious self-reprimands: "How careless I have been all my life hitherto of all great opportunities offered to me. I will try, not alone, for I can accomplish nothing alone, but with the help of our Father, after this to make every effort to do good in this world."

Similarly, Carey Stoey, the adopted daughter of a shopkeeper in Harrisburg, Pa., recorded her 1892 New Year's resolution after graduating from high school: "I am striving daily to build up a beautiful whole character. I fail often, but am determined to persevere."

Mothers and daughters. Brumberg observes that before World War I, most of the diarists spent lots of time at home with their mothers, engaged in domestic pursuits such as sewing, reading and singing. Their support for each other was obvious. Lou Henry, who later become Mrs. Herbert Hoover, was the daughter of a Pasadena, Calif., banker in the 1890s. Her diary doesn't mention friction with her mother; it records how she sought her mother's approval and advice.

Intimacy levels taper off gradually. By the 1950s, mothers are home and girls have begun to write about tensions. But at least the mothers are a constant presence. "In the 1980s you can read a diary and not know if a girl has a mother," Brumberg says.

Courtship. Although the diaries of the mid-to-late 20th century show a fixation on boys, even religious 19th-century girls shared that fascination. Antha Warren, 19, who lived in St. Albans, Vt., writes about her beau in the 1860s, denoting kisses with an "*" and remarking "there are too many *s to count." She writes in code: "Had such a good time--buttons." That entry is a stark contrast to the sexually explicit language used by girls since the 1970s, or what Brumberg calls "pseudo-romantic" accounts of dating rites in the 1950s. In 1954, a 14-year-old honors student at a Catholic school near Boston wrote about an encounter with her inexperienced boyfriend, who was also 14: "Then his lips were on mine, hard and pressing and insistent. I never knew a kiss would be like that."

Body image. Dieting began to play a role in girls' lives in the 1920s but became more significant in the 1960s. For example, Yvonne Blue, who grew up to become Mrs. B.F. Skinner, started to diet in 1926, at 15. "I'm so tired of being fat," she wrote, mentioning clashes with her parents about calorie counting. By the 1960s, adolescent girls equated losing weight with self-improvement.

"I look like a stuffed sausage. I am 120 pounds. Why do I want to be thin? To show up Patty. To be the skinniest person in my class. So I will be a changed and better person outwardly--to fit my inner self," wrote a young woman from Greenwich, Conn., in 1969.

In the past three decades, diaries have returned to the language of self-transformation, but it is expressed in secular, not religious, terms. How the diarist appears to others is still a chief concern, says Brumberg, who concludes that adolescence is more difficult now: "Many girls today are overwhelmed with insidious feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem as they obsess about boys and body image." Despite expanded opportunities, adolescent girls say they lack adult support, leaving them "tense, uneasy, and vulnerable to a variety of behavioral problems and diseases." At least, that's the way they have recorded it.