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  • Research Notes: Extract and Comment on the diary of John Marshall, bricklayer, of Braintree, Massachusetts 1697–1711
  • Anne Andrus Grady (bio)

Among documents for the study of New England’s earliest buildings and their builders, the diary of John Marshall (1664–1732), a bricklayer who lived in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts, is one of only two known tradesman’s diaries from the early period in New England.1 The 236-page diary, kept between January 1697 and February 1711, has been at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) since 1792.2 The diary interweaves references to work done with other aspects of Marshall’s life and records events of note in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called “providences” by the author. “Heer is contained in this booke some breif memorialls of my oun buisnes how I spend my time, what work I do, and wheir: some remarkeable providencs recorded and the weather remembered” (Figure 1).

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Figure 1.

Excerpt of John Marshall’s diary in which he describes its intended purpose. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The diary was written by a literate man, familiar with spelling conventions of his time. Portions have been published, primarily in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings in 1884 and 1900.3 These extracts relate to the history of the town and colony, references to religion, and death records Marshall kept. However, Marshall’s work history—his position as a builder and knowledge of building trades—has received almost no attention from scholars. My further study of the diary will include researching Marshall’s life from other sources, expanding my knowledge of Marshall’s clients and his relationship to them, identifying surviving houses in which he worked, and examining other sources of information about people in the building trades in the period. My goal is to place John Marshall and his work in as complete a historical context as possible.

Marshall makes an entry in the diary nearly every day for fourteen years and two months. In 25 percent of his entries, or on 1,302 days, he describes the particular kind of work he did for a client. In another 25 percent of the entries he names a client but not the kind of work. He engaged in repeated work for many clients. Marshall did much of his work in Quincy, which was then part of Braintree, but he also worked in surrounding towns and in Boston. His daily wage seems to have been four shillings, although he earned three-and-one-half times that much on one of the occasions when he worked in Boston. It is unclear if he ever had an apprentice, although [End Page 90] he mentions that a Thomas Carew came to live with him in 1708.

Most of Marshall’s work related to bricklaying, a trade he probably learned from his father, who was a bricklayer in Boston. He also worked with stone and found employment as what we might now think of as a carpenter. In the breakdown of the kinds of work he performed, building chimneys happened on 29 percent of the days. His next most frequent job was installing lath, in preparation for plastering (5 percent of the days). He made 63 ovens, although it is unclear whether they were built in existing chimneys or perhaps, outdoors. For example, Marshall describes making an oven for himself a year after he built his own chimney. He also filled walls with brick nogging. He whitewashed frequently and colored in houses, including his own. In winter when work was slow and the weather cold, he spent time splitting laths and shaving bark.4 He records days when he was idle, once adding “to my grief.”

The diary is silent on the source of the bricks Marshall needed to build chimneys, or of lime for mortar, although these materials may have been processed at the “furnace” where he records working on fifty-three days. Once he writes that he burned lime and twice he slaked lime there. Another time he drew out stones for his hearth. Only in 1697 does he refer to obtaining shells for lime, which he seems to have burned...


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pp. 90-93
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