I’ve always been very jealous of family historians who are lucky enough to have inherited diaries, journals or family ledgers.
I am very appreciative that I do have two early 20th century writings by my first cousin, twice removed, Bertha Stuart Eldridge, who wrote several typed pages about the life of her grandmother, my 2X great grandmother, Elida Hicks Stuart, and of life in the little village of Meddybemps at the beginning of the 20th century. I cherish both of these works. I know so much more about Elida because Bertha shared her memories of her grandmother.
The second best scenario would be finding a diary or journal written by a contemporary that describes their ways of life. For most of us, that is the reality, but it doesn’t make finding these resources any less meaningful.
Unfortunately, many diary and journal database collections are either linked to university collections, which require a log-in, or are on subscription sites, affordable only to libraries.
However, there are options online, which include diaries, journals, family letters, first-person narratives and business ledgers. (Business ledgers are great snapshots of daily life because the accounts list purchased items and the prices.)
DoHistory – The diary of 18th century midwife Martha Ballard
Documenting the American South – This collection includes stories told by African Americans, women, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans.
Letter from an American Farmer – J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur 1782
The Valley of the Shadow – Reconstruction years through the eyes of Franklin County, Pennsylvania residents and inhabitants of Augusta County, Virginia
The best collections of online diaries, available for free, can be found on:
Library of Congress – more geared towards well-known people in history
State Historical Societies – check individual collections available online