The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America by Molly McCarthy (review)
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Diaries, Writing, Almanacs

The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America. By Molly McCarthy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 302. Paper, $30.00.)

The Accidental Diarist explores the variety of commercially printed date-books that helped Americans keep track of their time and money before there was an “app” for that. Molly McCarthy describes her work as a “biography of a book,” and the result is a fascinating analysis not just of daily planners as material subjects, but also of their producers and the various consumers who made these books their own (1). [End Page 300]

McCarthy begins with an exploration of the colonial almanac, the first in a long series of books that served as daily diaries. Like our iPhones today, almanacs were popular because they were both “useful” and “portable” (44). Almanacs served as repositories of local knowledge (e.g., roads, courts, currency), but also as reliable timekeepers: “Americans considered the almanac, not the clock, the authority on time” (15). Americans used almanacs to keep track of their days, not the hours, and typically recorded events retrospectively, in the past tense. Although the almanac was not originally intended for use as a personal diary, the desire to keep track of one’s time and money often led an individual to become, as the book’s title suggests, an “accidental diarist.” Individuals’ almanac entries tended to be “mundane, ordinary, and even banal,” but even brief and formulaic entries, McCarthy suggests, “represented a performance of self “ (5, 43).

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the almanac became “old-fashioned” and “dated,” its format ill equipped for a rapidly changing landscape (52). In 1773, printer Robert Aitken introduced the American Register, an early attempt to refashion the almanac in a new systematic format: “For the first time, customers could see the days of the week, month, year laid out before them” (55). Aitken’s customers, however, largely resisted his revisions to their beloved almanacs, and his register failed to achieve commercial success. By 1840, however, Aitken would have found his market niche, as new advancements in the book industry, coupled with a growing sense of individualism, “encouraged a writing revolution” (108.) More and more Americans turned to commercially printed planners to help provide a sense of order and meaning to their everyday lives.

As McCarthy argues, the daily planner epitomized the antebellum era: “it was democratic, commercialized, educational, and self-centered” (126). Nineteenth-century diary writers had an increasing number of commercially printed diaries to choose from, of varying price and quality. This encouraged customers from all walks of life to take up their pens, especially women. In 1843, for example, Susan Brown used the Lowell Almanac to adjust to her new life as a weaver in an industrial city. (It’s worth noting that Brown also kept a handcrafted diary two years earlier, while a student at a female academy.) An updated version of the colonial standard, the Lowell Almanac contained business directories, astronomical tables, and sections to help keep track of time, wages, and [End Page 301] expenses. Brown also used her diary as an emotional outlet, and significantly, she became a lifelong diarist, writing nearly daily (in a variety of planners) for the next sixty-five years.

Many nineteenth-century planners retained the almanac’s emphasis on useful knowledge. What was new was the growing space devoted to introspective writing: An entire page or more was allotted for each day, instead of retaining room for just a few lines of text. This new format, McCarthy suggests, encouraged more consistent writing, unlike hand-crafted diaries that were often neglected or abandoned by individuals.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the daily diary had become a staple product in American consumer culture. The last two chapters of The Accidental Diarist focus on two illustrative examples: the Standard Diary, first produced in the post-Civil War era, and the Wanamaker’s Diary of the twentieth century. These products reflected larger national trends in mass production, consumer culture, and advertisement—more closely related to our current date books (or apps), but they retained traces of past practices. The Wanamaker...


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