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Reflecting on the Past, Documenting the Present

Day 1: The Show Must Go On!

If you’re anything like me, you sat down for your first day of pandemic-induced teleworking and felt a strong, overwhelming urge to document the experience — to share with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram a photo of your makeshift home office, or make a snarky or startling observation about your new at-home co-workers. My Instagram post that first Monday morning included a picture of my tablet, notebooks, and tea mug strewn about my dining room table with the caption, “Day 1: The show must go on!” In the days since, I’ve felt compelled to document my new teleworking, social-distancing, toilet paper-hoarding life: my cats incessantly staring at me for 8 hours a day; the breakfast I actually took time to make. The list goes on.

Since that first post on Day 1, I’ve made a daily habit of documenting my thoughts and experiences—not unlike our historical counterparts during trying times. Though my current outlet is decidedly 21st century, as I look to the past to better understand and navigate the present, I feel a strong bond with women who lived—and wrote—during the American Revolution. In a time of political change, economic uncertainty and the utter unknown, just like me, 18th-century women found ways to document the disruptions of their lives. Instead of posting to social media, they took up their pens and laid down their thoughts. Then and now, these moments of reflection help us process our anxieties. Sharing them with each other helps us feel less alone, and strengthens our resolve that we’re all in this together.

cat on desk

Day 11: Milton is your guest curator today. Ask him anything.

The more I reflect on the impacts of our global pandemic, the more I find parallels with the women who endured the changing world of the Revolution. My favorite Revolutionary-era diarist, Sally Logan Fisher, expressed perfectly in 1777 what so many of us are feeling today amid the scarcity of basic staples and supply and demand driving bottles of Lysol up to $19.99. In her diary, Sally reflected, “I have to think & provide everything for my Family, at a time when it is so difficult to provide anything, at almost any price, & cares of many kinds to engage my attention.” Indeed, not long before Sally confided these anxieties in her diary, her life had changed abruptly when Patriots arrested her husband, a Quaker, and sent him into exile far from their Pennsylvania home.

This turn in Sally’s life abruptly made her a single parent, and without warning, left her alone to care for her growing family (did I mention she was 8 months pregnant?). Flash forward to 2020 and statewide school closings have sent children home to parents, who also find themselves taking on new roles as homeschool teachers while simultaneously filling the needs of children who no longer have sports teams or choir practice for outlets. A Connecticut farmer’s wife, Azubah Norton, penned to her husband during the war, “What was done was done by myself.” In Azubah’s case, her remarks echoed her successful management of her family’s farm in her husband’s absence, but the sentiment remains relevant today as we all take on new and different roles to see our families through this uncertain time.

avocado toast

Day 4: Actually made breakfast. (Yes, it’s avocado toast. Yes, I’ve been doing it since before it was a thing.)

Just like today’s pandemic, women living through the Revolution were faced with a scarcity of basic staples. Echoing what many of us have recently uttered upon returning home from the grocery store, one soldier’s wife wrote to her husband simply, “I am without bread.” When goods were available, supply and demand skyrocketed the price (see aforementioned Lysol). Rather than paying outrageously for items deemed basic necessities, some women took matters into their own hands. In 1778, Abigail Adams put pen to paper and documented the scene of “a number of females” exacting a little economic justice upon a merchant who refused to sell coffee at a reasonable price. Approaching the warehouse the women unceremoniously (and not at all peacefully) relieved the merchant of his warehouse keys, hoisted out the barrel of coffee and left with it leaving, according to Abigail, “a large concourse of men (standing) amazed, silent Spectators.” Can you imagine if this scene played out today?

As the days pass and we continue to embrace social distancing for the greater good, I’m thankful to live in 2020 when through the miracle of technology I’ve enjoyed FaceTime “Quarantini Happy Hour” with friends and family across the country. I’m amazed when I remember how Revolutionary-era women committed to keeping the lines of communication open even when the uncertainly of the times demanded so much more of their attentions, and the war poised great threats of physical and emotional isolation. Today technology makes conversation instantaneous, but during the Revolution a letter could only travel as quickly as a post rider. Yet women feverishly wrote to each other to keep in touch, and shared reflections on their uncertain times. The Massachusetts Historical Society houses a treasure-trove of such letters between long-time friends Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Winthrop. An August 1777 sentiment from Hannah to Mercy says it all: “The Noise of War can never drown the soft alluring Voice of Friendship.” In 2020, we’re finding creative ways to strengthen the emotional bonds of friendship even through physical social distancing. Maybe we’re not writing extra emails or even sending letters, but we’re having dinner with old friends through Skype, and making new ones by singing together from our balconies—and social media is capturing it all.

thank you.

Day 18: Take a moment and send your thanks to the heroes on the frontlines.

In times of uncertainly and disruption, women have always found a way to persist, aided a little, I think, by putting pen to paper and privately in diaries or in correspondence with friends, reflecting on the times that tried their souls. Even Sally Logan Fisher eventually confessed in her diary, “I have been enabled to bear up through every trial and difficulty, far beyond what I could have expected.” We can take heart in Sally’s assertion that we can indeed endure more than we expect, and there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m thankful that I have the records and knowledge of the past to help me reflect on the present. As I’ve found insight from women who documented their experiences 250 years ago, future historians will look to the records we’ve left in 2020 as we take to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to document our home offices, empty grocery store shelves and countless “quarantinis.” However you choose to reflect on these present times that try your soul, take heart in the past, and preserve your experiences for the future.

Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

For further engagement with these themes:
• Help the Virginia Museum of History and Culture document Virginians’ experiences during the health crisis. Submit your stories here: https://www.virginiahistory.org/node/2852

• Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

• Kacy Tillman, Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution, Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.

• Nicholas B. Wainwright and Sally Logan Fisher, ‘”A Diary of Trifling Occurrences’: Philadelphia, 1776-1778,”The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Oct. 1958), pp. 411-465

• Correspondence of Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Winthrop, Massachusetts Historical Society: https://www.masshist.org/features/warren-winthrop

One thought on “Reflecting on the Past, Documenting the Present

  1. Lynette Woods says:

    This is an amazing insight as to the way the pendulum of history and time affect our world.

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