Among my very favorite items in the Beloit College Archives are diaries. Like reaching a hand across time, diaries bring us close to the people of an earlier era, their work, their cares, their joys and heartbreaks.
We’re fortunate to have a wide ranging collection, from chronicles of 19th-century student life to journals of worldwide travel to depictions of home front and battle during wartime. One of our most poignant diaries, according to Fred, is a handwritten ledger-style notebook from 1881-1884, composed by Talma Goddard Rowlands (pictured at right), wife of William W. Rowlands, Principal of the Preparatory School or Academy of the college. Her diary of domestic life features daily chores, social visits, race relations, bringing up baby (son Erroll), and a marvelously described death scene of her elderly father.
As a newcomer to Beloit, Talma was often lonely and sometimes despairing. She eagerly anticipated all too rare invitations to meals and to parties. One such event was a formal tea with Professor Blaisdell and family on Tuesday, March 13, 1883. (James J. Blaisdell served as professor of mental and moral philosophy from 1859-1896.) The Blaisdells lived in the 1850s-era New England-style clapboard house on the corner of Chapin and College streets, today familiar as the Blaisdell Guest House. Talma became very fond of Professor Blaisdell’s wife, Susan, a former student of Mary Lyon’s at Mount Holyoke Seminary. Talma described Susan as “a truly delightful woman…a pleasure to be in her society.” In her diary, Talma, who was 30 years old at the time, provided a course by course narrative of the Blaisdell tea:
“Lovely again this morning...Edna and Lula came and stayed with Erroll and we went to Prof. Blaisdels [sic] to take tea with the Ministers and friends. We met a good many strangers and had a very pleasant time...The supper was cold boiled ham sliced thin and cold turkey for the meat, brown and white bread and biscuit. The bread was buttered and cut in thin slices and piled on the plate, one piece lapping over the other, just leaving enough of each slice to take hold of. The biscuit were small and buttered. The cake was dark, 2 kinds of it with a few English currants for fruit in the piece I had of the dark, and was cut in square or nearly square pieces. It had been baked in a flat pan. The common fruit cake of mine would be considerably richer than Mrs. B.'s. The white cake had been baked in a long deep pan. Then was cut through the center the long way of the cake, and then sliced in very thin slices the opposite. The white cake was very nice and was a corn starch cake of some kind. The tables were furnished with napkins and plates. Coffee was served first, then the bread's then the meat - pork - then sugar and cream, then the bread was passed the second time and the meat was passed twice. The brown bread and white bread was both on the same plate, a large almost square plate, then the biscuit were passed. We did not have any forks nor knives to eat with. Used our fingers. White cake was passed first and the two kinds of dark cake were put together in a cake basket.”
The Rowlands family left Beloit in 1884 and spent many years in Racine, where William became a prominent lawyer and educator. After William’s death in 1910, Talma moved to Sheboygan, where she passed away in 1940 at the age of 88. Shortly after, her daughter Louise discovered the diary in an attic trunk filled with old papers and letters. She donated the diary to the Beloit College Archives sometime in the 1960’s. Look for a complete transcription of the Talma Rowlands diary posted on the Archives website sometime in the coming year.