Little Eddie was born on July 18, 1932. On November 18 of that year, his mother started keeping a diary of the family’s everyday life on a farm in Wisconsin. She called the diary, “Little Eddie’s Notebook” and the entries were in Eddie’s voice (first entry, “Today I am four months old.”). She faithfully wrote in the notebook almost daily for over two years with the last entry on December 25, 1934.
Little Eddie lived in a large farm house, built as a duplex with full living quarters on both the first and second floors. Eddie’s grandparents, his aunt Laura and Laura’s daughter lived on the first floor, while Eddie and his parents lived on the second floor. The house had a basement, full attic and glassed-in porch. The farm was about 250 acres in size with a number of outbuildings including barn, milk house, machine shed, corn crib, pigeon house, two chicken houses and a smokehouse.
The daily entries in the notebook are bursting with the everyday happenings of a rural Midwest (USA) multi-generational farm family in the 1930s. These are not entries filled with introspection; they are entries of the bare bones routines of the day — doing the washing, planting the garden, varnishing the dining room floor, going visiting or having visitors, ironing, sewing, making cottage cheese (endlessly), hatching chickens and turkeys, picking sweetcorn. Little Eddie is often portrayed as “watching” these adult occupations, as on May 17 — “Grandma, Aunt Laura, and mother planted flower plants, seeds, and bulbs while I sat in my buggy and watched them” and August 1 — “Mother did some baking today and I was a good boy and sat in my high chair and watched her.”
Eddie’s development across those two-plus years was chronicled in many ways. Tooth “sightings” were noted milestones, much as they are today, as were signs of physical and social development reflected in certain accomplishments: “I am learning to sit up”; “Today I took a couple steps alone from stove to table,” and “I learned to throw a kiss this week.” Many aspects of this baby’s first months and years, however, were signs of the 1930s in the Great Depression, embedded in the home, farm and family life of those times.
Where to “put” Eddie while the adult routines of the day were carried out seemed a rather significant concern. Eddie was “put” in the buggy, high chair, wash basket, on the bed, on the grass. One afternoon, when he was 11 months old, “daddy pulled me to the woods in my cart and I sat in it while they picked grapes.” When he was just a little over one year old, “Mother canned apple sauce today. She made me a pen with four chairs in the basement and I played in it.” And several months later, “Papa and mama fixed the yard behind the smoke house as a pen for me.”
Clothes worn for work on the farm were a big factor in the occupations of the day. “Today the washing was done” was reported once for every single week of the notebook. In the winter or on rainy days in the summer, the washed clothes were hauled from the basement up to the attic to be hung for drying; otherwise, they were dried outside. On one date, the entry reported that “The washing was done today. Mama ran her thumb and first finger in the wringer” [ouch!]. Lest you think that might have slowed her down, the rest of the entry for that day said “We sold 16 pounds of cottage cheese . . . We got 175 chicks. Papa set the electric incubator with turkey eggs.”
Little Eddie’s clothes reflected the times of that decade. At about 4 months of age, the entry said, “Mother made me 2 blue and white gingham dresses.” When Eddie was nearing his second birthday, a shopping trip to Milwaukee was described: “Mama bought me patent leather slippers, material for 2 suits, 2 play suits, 3 suits of underwear and garters.” Often, a session at the sewing machine was included in the day’s entry: “Grandma made me a snowsuit out of one of Marjorie’s coats;” “Mama cut a suit for me out of her peach colored linen dress;” “Mother made me five bibs this afternoon.” Mention was also made of “strap bands,” which apparently were bands of cloth put around Eddie’s tummy to hold the umbilicus in, the normal practice for several months after birth. .
Health care consisted of at least three venues. A bout of impetigo (“water infection”) that started on Eddie’s back when he was about one year old ultimately spread to at least 5 other members of the extended family; many trips were made to the doctor for consultation and medication. A baby clinic in a nearby town was visited periodically to monitor Eddie’s weight and height (exact measurements all duly noted in the diary). And “School #1” was where they took Eddie to get a Scheck test (tuberculosis?) and a diphtheria shot. On at least one occasion, a home remedy was recorded: “Mama gave me some cod liver oil because I am still under the weather.”
A procession of relatives and friends seemed to come to visit almost every single day, and fairly often to stay overnight. In fact, it was so unusual not to have visitors that it was deemed newsworthy (“This was a very quiet Sun. with no company”). On one particular day, I counted 22 people who were listed as “visitors;” the long list was preceded by the simple understatement that “In the afternoon we had several visitors.” That 22-visitors-day was not exactly typical, but 4 or 6 or 8 was definitely usual. A lifestyle of “visiting” but also getting together to help each other out in various ways was evident — helping to build a stone wall, to paint the porch, to carry out the threshing, to take care of Eddie. During the second year of the diary, visitors seemed to often bring a small gift for Eddie; for some reason, a candy bar and a quarter was the usual.
A few historical happenings were noted in the notebook. On March 4, 1933, “Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated.” A “milk strike” occurred in May of that same year, which meant that all the milk produced daily on the farm would not be picked up and had to be disposed of in other ways; one day’s entry stated, “We had to make butter today because we couldn’t ship our milk in.”
Out of the blue, one other notable event was recorded. With not a single mention beforehand, on October 8, 1933, just 15 months after Little Eddie was born, the entry read thus: “My little brother was born this morning at 11:20 am.” And, as might be expected, this statement was immediately followed by another: “In the afternoon Aunt Doris, Grandpa, Grandma, Clara, Charlie and Carol came to see him.”
Such was the daily life of these good, hard-working people in rural Wisconsin in the 1930s.