Academic journal article American Studies

THE ACCIDENTAL DIARIST: A History of the Daily Planner in America

Academic journal article American Studies

THE ACCIDENTAL DIARIST: A History of the Daily Planner in America

Article excerpt

THE ACCIDENTAL DIARIST: A History of the Daily Planner in America. By Molly McCarthy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2013.

In this meticulously researched and engagingly written cultural history of the daily planner, Molly McCarthy traces how everyday Americans used their diaries both in expected ways (tracking the passage of time and monetary expenditures) and unexpected ways (tracking spiritual progress, interacting with the burgeoning commodity culture). In doing so, McCarthy ably joins the ranks of scholars such as Michael O'Malley, Patricia Cline Cohen, and Charles McGovern, who contributed to our understanding of Americans' standardization of time, acquisition of numeracy skills, and engagement with consumption and citizenship, respectively.

McCarthy asserts that "the daily planner was more than just an unassuming stationery product" (3); instead, she argues, it transformed ordinary Americans into "accidental diarists" as customers customized the various products beyond their intended use (8). McCarthy's "Introduction" emphasizes her desire to dispel certain "myths" about diaries: Americans kept diaries only when "they had something meaningful to say"; "diary writing was a private . . . enterprise"; "only women kept diaries"; and that "diary habits did not change over time" (9).

McCarthy begins with the eighteenth-century precursor of the daily planner, the almanac, "America's first best-seller" (13). She points out that almanacs targeted primarily a local audience: providing information about the time of sunrises and sunsets; roads and railroad departure times for a specific city; the location of inns; lists of local officials; and currency conversions specific to particular financial institu- tions (14). For almanac users, the focus remained on calendar time rather than clock time, and on the seasons of the year suitable for planting and harvesting (28). While notable Americans appear in this chapter (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin), the focus here, as elsewhere, remains on almanacs maintained and preserved by ordinary Americans.

Even while the almanac remained popular, newer formats began replacing it, including the commercial registers, or "pocket books" of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Designed for portability, these small but durable account books were constructed of heavier paper stock and stiffer bindings, and included a day-by- day calendar, although with space only for a line or two. …

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