Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Daily life in colonial New England

Do you ever discover by chance a book so good that you’re actually miffed that no one had ever brought it to your attention? Do you find yourself checking the publication date and exclaiming to an empty room (or a stranger sitting next to you on the subway), “This came out several years ago, for pete’s sake—how come I haven’t heard about it??” That was my reaction a few months ago after stumbling across Jerald E. Brown’s The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World1 in a local indie book store.

Samuel Lane—tanner, shoemaker, family man, property owner, surveyor, trader, community and congregation leader—liked to read and write, kept detailed business records and daybooks, and enjoyed making lists as a way of reviewing his life. Brown uses the collection of Lane family documents to exemplify life in a particular time and place, and in turn uses historical sources to expand upon the details in Lane’s writings. The book is not a biography moving chronologically through Lane’s life, introducing us to the personalities of his neighbors or describing family events as they occur. Rather, we get a sense of the man and his interactions with his community, the needs of a family and how those needs were met, and the daily activities entailed in various occupations. On every page author Brown defines, explains, and illuminates.

The book is divided into five main parts: an introduction titled “A New Hampshire Man and His Place in the World,” and four chapters, “Mastering a Trade,” “Shaping Community,” “Exchanging Commodities,” and “Building Continuity.” Nearly every two-page spread includes at least one illustration, e.g., maps, contemporary illustrations or newspaper articles, documents, photos of extant items contemporary to Lane (or belonging to the family), pages from Lane’s own papers, and tables of land measure and currency conversion.

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this book. I learned more about colonial New England agriculture and animal husbandry; about bartering and keeping track of who owed whom what when money didn’t exchange hands; about surveying tricky bits of land, the opening of new townships, and deeds and their dower thirds and the fraction of a house that a widow could end up with—and much much more. I had some knowledge of many of the topics in the book, but Brown invariably taught me more.

The book itself is beautifully designed and laid out. Honestly, I don’t usually notice these things—I’m all about the words and the pictures, and the heck with aesthetics. The type here is clean and sharp and clear; a scholar’s margin is sometimes used for small illustrations and captions, but otherwise available to cretins like me who insist on creating a penciled dialogue with a book. Citations and comments are in endnotes at the back of the book; ordinarily I prefer footnotes, but in this case I think that they would detract from the beauty of the page and so endnotes were in fact the better way to go. The work is very well sourced, and I marked a good number of citations with “read!”— to learn more about colonial New England history. The index seems well done, although I penciled in a few additional entries of my own. A few blank pages follow the index—thank you to whoever decided that, I always want end-pages for additional notes!

Anyone interested in eighteenth-century America will appreciate and enjoy this book—it’s a must-read. Thank you to Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Bell Garvin, for both illustrating daily life of two hundred years ago and providing a wonderful example of a scholarly yet accessible work.

1 Jerald E. Brown and Donna-Belle Garvin, The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000). The book is a condensed version of Brown's dissertation; it is edited and introduced by Garvin.

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