Emily, the Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman

Emily, the Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman

Emily, the Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman

Emily, the Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman


"Oh how I do wish I could have a little help in maintaining my home. I shall dread the cold winter so much. I don't have very good success getting employment," wrote Emily French in her diary in 1890. Emily was recently divorced but received no alimony or child support. She worked as a laundress, cleaning woman, and nurse, first in the farming community of Elbert, Colorado, then in the growing city of Denver, the mining town of Dake, and back into Denver.

Emily's diary discloses an example of the desperate lives lived by many. Having enough money and food is a source of constant anxiety, but her deepest fears center on the loss of family and of home. She becomes discouraged but never gives up, recognizes others less fortunate than herself, and always believes things will change. This is a moving work that provides an unusual look into the life of the working poor in the late-nineteenth-century West.


Diaries of day laborers describing their work are hard to come by. Some were illiterate, some were ill, some were too poor, or too tired, or too busy to keep journals. Their work was ordinary, dull, routine; most workers were probably not very interested in their work.

Emily French was a laundress, cleaning woman, and nurse, and she was interested in her work. She was often busy, tired, or ill, but she faithfully kept a diary that is remarkable in its description of her work and how she felt about it. She was equally articulate about other aspects of her life, such as her family, friends, horses, activities, clothes, values, and God. Through this expressive diary we can feel Emily's pain and her rare moments of joy, and we experience what it was like to be a poor working woman in Colorado in 1890.

Emily French's diary, a brown cloth-covered book of 3 by 5 inches, is worn but sturdy, like Emily herself. Although Emily once dropped it into a pail of water, its pages are still clean and her small penciled script is still legible. the first printed pages contain a miscellany of useful facts, such as phases of the moon, current interest rates (4 percent to 6 percent), and common wages ($3 to $24 for a six-day, sixty-hour week). the diary itself provides a blank page for each day, headed by a printed date and day of the week. the last pages are printed with headings for "Letter Register," "Visits," "Memoranda," and "Cash Account." I have added . . .

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