Like the rest of us facing a new year, Martha Ballard must have been seized with resolve back in 1785, when she started her diary on January 1, at the age of 50. Unlike many of the rest of us, she kept that resolve and wrote in her diary faithfully nearly every day until May of 1812 -- just weeks before her death.
When Martha's great-great grandaughter Mary Hobart inherited the diary in 1884, it was a "hopeless pile of...unconsecutive pages." Remarkably, however, it was all there. Mary Hobart organized the pages, and had them bound in hand-made linen. In 1930, she donated the diary in two fat bound volumes to the Maine State Library.
For fifty years, the diary sat in a vault. Some historians looked through the diary. But they dismissed it as being filled with trivial detail. When historian Laurel Ulrich first saw the diary, she was awe-struck. She'd never seen so much in a woman's hand from the period. Initially, she thought it would provide her with information for an interesting summer project on women's work. She had no idea the project would take eight years of her life.
The book Laurel wrote, A Midwife's Tale, was published in 1990, and it took the establishment by surprise, winning the Pulitzer, the Bancroft, and numerous other prizes. Film producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt read the book shortly after it was published. And she was captivated--both by Martha's story and by Laurel Ulrich's remarkable historical detective work. Excited by the prospect of exploring the life of an "ordinary" woman two hundred years ago, Laurie decided to make a film that would interweave the story of Martha Ballard's life with Laurel Ulrich's process of piecing it together. The film would begin with the real-life twentieth century historian and the eighteenth century diary, and gradually evolve into a drama, taking its audience into Martha Ballard's world as Laurel figured it out.
Laurie teamed up with director Richard Rogers, and together they plunged into both the cinematic and historical questions raised by the project. They had to figure out how to make a film that evolved from a documentary to a drama. And they had to made hundreds of educated guesses about the three-dimensional, audio-visual world in which Martha Ballard lived, venturing beyond what historians know about dialect, behavior, medical procedures, music, architecture, clothing, and daily life.
The popularity of the book and film inspired the creation of the DoHistory Web site. Audiences attending lectures about Martha's world and screenings of the film wanted to know more. They wanted to know more about Laurel's process of piecing together the past, and how they could do it themselves. They wanted to know more about the process of putting early history on the screen. And they wanted to know more about medicine and midwifery, women's lives, and daily life two hundred years ago.
The film could only suggest the kinds of work required to piece together the life of Martha Ballard and her community. But the women, teachers, genealogists, history buffs, midwives, senior citizens, and students who have read the book and seen the film asked for more information. It would be impossible to count the number of people who have approached Laurel, Laurie, and Dick, asking for help and guidance with diaries, letters, and other documents found in attics, basements, local historical societies, and museums.
The DoHistory site takes you into the process of piecing together the past, using Martha Ballard's life as a case study. It puts every entry of Martha Ballard's hand-written diary at your fingertips, and includes hundreds of other documents from the period. It takes you behind the scenes of making the film. And it provides you with a toolkit to go out and do history yourself.
In November 2003, the Roy Rosenzweig Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University took over the hosting and maintenance of DoHistory. We are looking forward to expanding the site in new directions in the near future.
We hope you find the site useful. If you have any suggestions, please email our webmaster. We want this site to be helpful to everyone out there attempting to do history themselves.