The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman

The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman

The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman

The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman


The journal of Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker (1735-1807) is perhaps the single most significant personal record of eighteenth-century life in America from a woman's perspective. Drinker wrote in her diary nearly continuously between 1758 and 1807, from two years before her marriage to the night before her last illness. The extraordinary span and sustained quality of the journal make it a rewarding document for a multitude of historical purposes. One of the most prolific early American diarists--her journal runs to thirty-six manuscript volumes--Elizabeth Drinker saw English colonies evolve into the American nation while Drinker herself changed from a young unmarried woman into a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her journal entries touch on every contemporary subject political, personal, and familial.

Focusing on different stages of Drinker's personal development within the domestic context, this abridged edition highlights four critical phases of her life cycle: youth and courtship, wife and mother, middle age in years of crisis, and grandmother and family elder. There is little that escaped Elizabeth Drinker's quill, and her diary is a delight not only for the information it contains but also for the way in which she conveys her world across the centuries.


Elizabeth Drinker and I go back a long way. We met by chance at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania about three decades ago, and since then—courtesy of her diary and the passage of time—she has been a friend, sister, or mother (depending on her age and mine). I have always maintained that historians are drawn to specific subjects consciously or unconsciously and for reasons that do not easily succumb to analysis. I suspect this is why there are aspects of Elizabeth Drinker’s life that resonate in my own world, something that was repeatedly confirmed during the ten years and more it took to transcribe, edit, and annotate what turned out to be two thousand pages of text. The three-volume unabridged diary was published in 1991; the condensed Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman in 1994. This preface marks the republication of the abridged version. Its purpose is to review the secrets that the diary has already yielded and to propose new ways of translating Drinker’s words into historical lessons.

While most historians who have mined the diary since its twentiethcentury incarnation have had something to say about Drinker as a person, the majority have taken greater interest in Drinker’s world than in Drinker herself. As a result, many recent scholars have sifted through the diary for information about Philadelphia, yellow fever, the Revolution, or servitude rather than exploring it to construct a biography of an extraordinary woman. Nevertheless, a few historians have tried to unravel Drinker’s personal philosophy and, in so doing, have come closer to revealing the person behind the quill.

Susan Branson, for example, approaches Drinker through her political ideology in the context of postrevolutionary developments in Philadelphia. Her analysis of Drinker’s language shows the emergence of Drinker’s strong Federalist principles, putting to rest the assumption that women . . .

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