Friday, January 30, 2009

Meeting Martha Ballard

"Martha Moore was born in 1735 in the small central Massachusetts town of Oxford, but the real story of her life begins in Maine with the diary she kept from age fifty. Without the diary her biography would be little more than a succession of dates. Her birth in 1735. Her marriage to Ephraim Ballard in 1754. The births of their nine children in 1756, 1758, 1761, 1763, 1765, 1767, 1769, 1772, 1779, and the deaths of three of them in 1769. Her own death in 1812.

The notice of Martha's death in a local paper summed up her life in just one sentence: 'Died in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.' Without the diary we would know nothing of her life after the last of her children was born, nothing of the 816 deliveries she performed between 1785 and 1812. We would not even be certain she had been a midwife." --from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale

For 27 years, Martha wrote in her diary, for a total of 9,965 entries. "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." (quote from DoHistory).
Ulrich, who was then teaching at the University of New Hampshire, eventually wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. A Midwife's Tale was later developed into a documentary film for the PBS series "The American Experience," with Ulrich serving as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator (Wikipedia).
Besides being a midwife, Martha was a housewife of the 18th century. I first read Ulrich's book in the old kitchen of our 1770 colonial home in New Hampshire. Martha cooked her family's meals in pots hung from metal cranes over an open fire. She spun the wool of the sheep she raised to make yarn. As I read about her life, I could look up to see our own old kitchen fireplace, with cranes and pots; I sat near the spinning wheel that I used to spin the wool and mohair from the sheep and the angora goat that I was raising.
I cannot tell you how deeply that book affected me, living as I was in a house so similar to Martha's. I wrote to Dr. Ulrich to let her know how much I enjoyed her book and how I "lived" it with Martha. She was kind enough to send a reply in her own handwriting.
If you would like to know more about Martha and her life there is an excellent web site hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The site is devoted to "piecing together the lives of ordinary people in the past," using Martha Ballard as their case study. It is called DoHistory.

1 comment:

WasSoggyInSeattle said...

I'm loving all your stories. Keep 'em rolling!