By the time the young man sat down to dinner with Hazel and her family on July 13, 1936, hundreds of dead bodies served as doorstops in Chicago morgues, victims of one of the worst, and least understood, heat waves recorded in the country. He passed through that city just a few days before, as the temperatures crept higher, and Depression-era wheat farmers in the Upper Midwest nervously watched their fields. At the end of his trip visiting family in Livingston, Montana, after a cross country trip from somewhere in upstate New York, thousands of people had died in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities and communities in the Upper Great Plains and Great Lakes regions.
But you would never know it from looking at the young man’s diary. Not a single page was wrinkled or creased with a sweat stain.
A few years ago, I picked up a 1936 Marquette Senior Diary, although I can’t remember exactly where or for how much. On the inside, written in pencil, were the details of a trip taken from somewhere in the Northeast through Chicago and St. Paul to Livingston. Every once in a while, I would pick up the little book, thumb through its pages and land on some phrase or entry, but I never read it through, like a story or narrative.
In my spare time, I have been puttering around on the Internet to learn more about the people mentioned in the diary and build a broader context in which to situate this little found object. Besides the details of the trip, there are no other appointments or engagements. He* didn’t even bother filling out the measurements and contact section at the front of the diary. That’s the section where you can either get a new hat or shirt in a strange city without going to a tailor, or perhaps information for the undertaker after they dredge your body from beneath a wharf.
The diary’s first entry takes up an entire page somewhere in May, a list of names, 18 in all, of people that met him “At the Train.” These people show up again and again over the next couple of weeks, taking him fishing, or to the Fourth of July celebration at the park, or to dinner at Stanza’s. The diary entries appear hastily assembled in places, like he was catching up on details from the past few days, packing them into the narrow entry columns. In other sections, he neatly entered the activities for the day in Livingston: Tuesday, July 7, 1936. “Went to town. Went to cemetery. Went to Edna’s.” Friday, July 10, 1936. “Went to U.C. Gold mining.”
Many of the entries are confusing and unclear, but that’s half the fun. There are little ticks and inconsistencies, markers of haste, character, or effort. He wrote funny little “m”s in three individual pieces and liked to count. After a page of scribbles, the very bottom has the only cursive writing, very deliberately written, with a newly sharpened point. He crossed out (not erased) an extra “l” in “Wonderful trip!,” but the line above wrote “Old Faithfull.” He mistranscribed a dirty joke (the title of this series), maybe told to him earlier that day, by a family member, or someone on the train, something to share later as an icebreaker or to bridge a lull in conversation. He noted his itinerary, including stops (T. and A.**, Chicago, St. Paul) and trains (Zephyr***, North Coast Limited, Commodore Vanderbilt). He scrawled in some places, especially while noting little historic facts about Chicago, like he was chasing a tour guide. So many of his posts are posts in the way that we understand them today: 1930s analogs of someone’s Instagram and Facebook record of a trip to visit distant relatives.
With this project, I am trying something a little unorthodox, yet increasingly possible. With the increase in digital history participation, the growing availability of online newspaper archives and demographic information, and wide popularity of podcasts like Criminal and The Memory Palace, found objects like this diary are ripe for a thorough exploration. Like those great podcasts, this project revels in tiny history, history with a lower-case “h.” While it is not quite local history, it is a celebration of how the mundane connections between people and places persist over decades and manifest in these ephemeral…things.
Over the coming months, I will post little snippets of my research into this planner and all of its characters, whether they are people or events: Uncle Charlie, Aunt Blanche, and the gang in Livingston, Montana. The heat wave of July 1936. Dinner at Stanza’s. Where can I get my glasses fixed in 1936 in Livingston if Uncle Bill isn’t around? I’m not afraid to pick up a phone and call some people in Montana if I need to.
My goal with so much of my work is to test just how much is “knowable,” the limits of which seem to expand every day as more information becomes available online. My hope, however optimistic, is that I can figure out how this diarist was and maybe return it to his or her descendants.
Stick around and if this gets wide enough distribution and you think you have helpful information, please add it to a comment or find me on Twitter (@mcquinn_corey) or Facebook (corey.mcquinn). As always, thank you reading!
The diary is started to get a little smudged and worn from so much ogling. As soon as I figure out the best way to do it, I will scan the entire thing and upload it to the blog.
*I fully acknowledge that I am making a gigantic assumption that the diarist was a man, and my subsequent fact-finding mission will definitely consider any possibilities.
**Troy and Albany, NY? Based on the route of the Commodore Vanderbilt and an entry for breakfast and coffee in Albany, this may be right.
***As quoted from the diary, “Some train!!!”