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. About Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Work on A Midwife's Tale1981 Grant Application
In 1981 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich applied for and received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a two month research project to work with Martha Ballard's diary. Read her grant application below to get a sense of how she was thinking about the project at the outset.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A Study of the Diary of Martha Moore Ballard


Summer support from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow me to study and interpret an obscure but significant source in the history of early American women, the two-volume manuscript diary of Martha Moore Ballard of Augusta, Maine. Consistent daily entries for more than twenty-seven years, 1785-1812, made Mrs. Ballard the Samuel Sewall of her community. Though no historian would claim the same importance for Ballard's Augusta as for Sewall's Boston, the comparison is nevertheless appropriate. Augusta was in many ways representative of the rapidly growing settlements which began to fill northern and eastern New England in the years just after the revolution. As a midwife and healer, Mrs. Ballard stood at the center of life in her little community, and fortunately she had the earlier diarist's penchant for facts. Since most accounts of rural life in this period were written by men--ministers, travelers, and a few self-conscious farmers--her work is of great interest.

Martha BaIlard's diary, though one of the oldest and most detailed female diaries in the region, has been neglected by historians, perhaps because the Maine State Library is a considerable distance from anywhere, but more probably because Charles Elventon Nash published extended excerpts from it in his History of Augusta, 1904. Those historians who have used the work at all have used the published version. Nash's diary is not Ballard's diary, however, as even a cursory examination will reveal. With the genealogical bias of a local historian, Nash concentrated on birth records, adding other entries according to whim to provide the flavor of the diary without its structure. Systematic interpretation of the printed version is impossible.

For me, the Ballard diary has both immediate and long-range interest. A single source study makes an attractive and easily definable summer project, and preliminary investigation has convinced me there is ample material for a journal article testing and extending certain key themes in my first book, a study of women's roles in northern New England before 1750. Since I am about to begin a second book, tentatively entitled Houses and Their Keepers: The Origins of Democratic Domesticity, the diary has even greater appeal. I intend to use it as a kind of bridge between my old material and my new.

Recent books by Mary Beth Norton, Linda Kerber, and Carl Degler have pointed to the late eighteenth century as a crucial period in the history of American women. Degler argues that what we today call the modern American family, with its clear separation of gender roles, emerged first in the years between the American revolution and about 1830. Though Norton and Kerber would place greater emphasis upon the revolution itself, they would not disagree with his essential point. In these years, so all three historians argue, mothering and housekeeping were highlighted and celebrated as never before. Whether or not women's actual status improved remains arguable, but no one seems to doubt that their ceremonial status improved. These books, all published in 1980, followed other influential works which gave prime importance to the years before 1830. Nancy Cott and Ann Douglas have both argued, though in very different ways, that American domesticity was redefined in the early years of the republic.

All these books, despite impressive research in later periods, demonstrate a poor understanding of the pre-revolutionary period, which appears as a static backdrop to later changes. My own research has suggested that many key features of these changes, including the magnification of motherhood and the celebration of domesticity were clearly visible in northern New England before 1750. As early as 1703, young women were embroidering cheerfully naked Adams and Eves on their crewelwork samplers, testifying not so much to the survival of Puritan Biblicism as to the ascendancy of a genteel "huswifery" which, in its self-conscious materialism, proclaimed an earthly Eden. In the same period, Cotton Mather, the supposedly dour persecutor of witches, began to wonder about the existence of a Heavenly Mother.

The problem of domesticity cannot be solved on the ideal level, however. Only close attention to the actual patterns of women's lives can document cultural change with real precision. As is so frequently the case, a cluster of related studies has increased rather than diminished the excitement of a subject. My first book was a "study in role definition," a delineation of seven discrete though interrelated roles expected of the good wife in traditional society. Since I believe I broke new ground in this study, especially in defining the texture of ordinary life, I am anxious to extend my work into the early nineteenth century.

Houses and Their Keepers
will bring together insights from written sources, like diaries and probate inventories, with evidence from the study of early American material culture. Much women's history in America has been strangely disembodied, describing women's lives and words with little reference to the physical settings which gave them reality. In the past ten years, specialized studies have greatly expanded the record of material life in America, yet much of this work remains inaccessible to the general public and in some cases even to scholars working in different but related disciplines. Historical archeologists, for example, have been extremely sIow to publish their results. Yet such materials can be very illuminating in a study of ordinary life. Using archeological site reports, architectural studies, probate inventories, diaries, account books, letters, store and shop accounts, selectmen's indentures, records of female charitable societies, and household objects, I propose to answer three broad questions:

1. Specifically, how do housekeeping tasks change as houses and furnishings change? Most studies of early American material culture focus upon style. The underlying questions are almost always related to the diffusion of new forms, whether English or local. Few scholars have asked how new forms actually affect daily life. To take a homely but by no means insignificant example, James Deetz has noted the dramatic expansion of English ceramics in late eighteenth century trash pits. He sees this as a triumph of "Georgian" over "medieval" values, of a symmetrical relation of object to user uncharacteristic of traditional culture. Yet the transition from common trenchers to individualized cups, plates, and saucers also of necessity meant a transformation in daily work. Not only were there more objects to wash, but these objects were more fragile than those commonly used in the past. The examples could be multiplied indefinitely. It is almost impossible to change the material arrangements of a dwelling without affecting patterns of work within it, as any owner of a new wood stove can testify.

2. How do relationships between the utilitarian and the ceremonial aspects of houses and furnishing change over time? Domesticity is in one sense simply a heightening of the non-utilitarian meaning of the home. This can be reflected in changing uses of space, in the separation of public from private areas, in an increase in "socio-technic" household objects such as tea pots and card tables, in variations in exterior and interior woodwork, in paintings and embroideries, and in literature. Since style and to a certain extent lifestyle were transmitted from genteel to ordinary households, this relationship is a complicated one, tightly bound up in the early republic with the competing needs to reflect republicanism and to prove civility. To reject genteel pretensions and at the same time to imitate genteel forms required a new perception of self and class.

3. How do changes in housework reflect and affect changing relationships between household members?
Although the core of women's work has always been housework, in most premodern societies women have also had the responsibility to assist their husbands in the larger work of the family. Many historians have seen domesticity as a reaction to industrialization, as many production activities were shifted from the household setting. If domesticity in the form of increased attention to the house and family preceded industrialization, as recent work has suggested, then women may have assumed new burdens before they were fully relieved of others. Did changing patterns of male work, including the ownership of slaves, free women to spend more time on housework? Did women find new ways to recruit and utilize servants? Did a higher age at marriage provide a greater pool of female labor? Women's work can never be seen in isolation from male work or from patterns of childrearing and education. Nor can housekeeping in middle and upper class families be removed from the study of the poor.

This very big project will obviously proceed in small stages. I have already begun a survey of archeological resources, and I have compiled a bibliography of available diaries, the most promising of which is that of Martha Moore Ballard. Research support for the months of July and August will allow me to explore this promising source. I plan about 15-20 days of archival research, most of it to be spent with the diary at the Maine State Library in Augusta, though I will probably also need a day with the vital records at the Maine State Archives and another exploring the geography of Mrs. Ballard's world. Some background research can be done in Durham, using Nash's history as well as other published works in Maine history.

I will begin the diary research with a one or two day visit to Augusta in early July, using the notes from this visit to develop standardized data sheets to use on later visits. I will begin with four questions: 1. Aside from obvious seasonal variations, what housekeeping routines appear in the diary? Is there any evidence of a rationalized approach to housework (wash an Monday, iron on Tuesday, etc.)? 2. What is the frequency and distribution of specific household tasks? How does this change over time? 3. Who are Mrs. Ballard's helpers? Where do they come from? How are they recruited? How long do they stay?4. Aside from the obvious example of midwifery, how does Mrs. Ballard's work involve her in the lives of her neighbors? Although I will need to use quantitative methods in dealing with some of these issues, I will be looking for evidence of attitudes and feelings as well.

The last two weeks of August will be spent interpreting the evidence and beginning a draft of a journal article which I will complete during fall semester 1982.

I cannot claim earthshattering significance for an unknown diary by an unknown woman in a small American village. I am convinced, however, that the questions I bring to this project are not only of value to historians but to a wider public as well. I was surprised to find in a copy of Society for Jan./Feb. 1981, articles by three social scientists which depended in some way upon an interpretation of domesticity. Jessie Bernard began a discussion of contemporary role definition by proclaiming, like many others before her, that gender specialization originated in the 1830s. Michael Novak, writing in celebration of "bourgeois values," correctly noted a dramatic transformation in material life in the eighteenth century, but his lyrical conclusions about the relationship between freedom and well baked bread would have been more persuasive had he really known something about breadbaking, or any other aspect of domestic work, in the American past. Yehudi Cohen, erected an anthropological explanation for changing family roles, yet he too was hard put to document his argument with specific historical data, being able to talk with far more precision about various tribes of hunters and gatherers than about the American households he proposed to explain.

That the historical content in all three of these articles is highly schematic testifies as much to the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries as to the thinness of available documentation. Historians need to learn more about ordinary life and we need to find ways to share what we already know. I believe that my proposed book will do both. Support for a summer study of the Ballard diary will help make it possible.


Jan Cohn, The Palace of the Poorhouse: The American House as a Cultural Symbol, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1979).

Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere in New England, 1780-1835," (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977).

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life, (Garden City. NY: Doubleday, 1977).

Carl Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, (New York. Oxford U. Press, 1980).

Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)

David P. Handlin, The American Home, Architecture and Society, 1815-1915, (Boston: Little-Brown, 1979).

Linda K. Kerber, Daughters of Columbia: Women, Intellect, and Ideology in Revolutionary America, (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1980).

Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750- 1800, (Boston: Little-Brown, 1980).



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