K. A. Wisniewski

Accidental Diarist: A Review

The Accidental Diarist:
A History of the Daily Planner in America

By Molly A. McCarthy.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 302 pp., HC $90 Pb $30)







The last post offered a brief review of Ellen Garvey’s Writing with Scissors, a monograph that asks readers to reexamine the scrapbook’s cultural significance in American literature and history, not only as artifact in the archive but also as a literary compilation and repository and as a sign demonstrating historical changes in readership and empowerment for politically marginalized communities and individuals.  For my classes (and their digital projects and video documentaries), attention, in part, focused on locating a way to theoretically ground and historically frame individual projects, but the book also served as an entry-point into discovering new ways to examine historical documents and literary genres and to make connections between the past and our everyday lives, activities, interests, and hobbies.

Along this same track, I have been thinking about how we make sense of those seemingly banal activities in which we must engage everyday: attending meetings, taking notes, writing emails . . .  and updating calendars.  This brings me to Molly McCarthy’s monograph Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America.  Before email and mobile / text notifications, fancy apps, and Google Calendar, there was the daily planner.  In her 2013 book, McCarthy not only offers a history of these books and their development from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries but also highlights those who made and marketed these books and those who bought and used them (and how).  For McCarthy, the daily planner is more than a historical artifact illustrating how individuals kept track of their time and money, it is a symbol reflecting major changes in work, consumerism, and expression.  As McCarthy suggests, although often these entries may appear brief, ordinary, and formulaic, they also “represented a performance of self” (5).

The first chapter begins with “America’s first best-seller”: the almanac.  This “useful,”  “portable,” and relatively inexpensive publication primarily targeted a local audience.  They provided information about the time of sunrises and sunsets and high and low tides; weather forecasts and farmers’ planting timetables; information related to roads (and later stagecoach and railroad departure times for a specific town); the locations of taverns and inns; a directory of local officials and businesses; a list of local festivals and religious holidays and celebrations; and currency conversions specific to particular financial institutions.  For McCarthy, these pamphlets are the official timekeepers of colonial life: ‘‘Americans considered the almanac, not the clock, the authority on time’’ (15).

Although not originally intended for use as a personal diary, much of McCarthy’s work emphasizes this very function.  These “accident diarists” imposed order upon their lives by noting important events and appointments on their blank pages.  The author chronicles the evolution of the publication, including the usual characters: Nathaniel Ames, James Franklin, and, of course, James’ younger brother Benjamin.  While Poor Richard’s Almanac only makes a brief appearance here, its impact on Franklin’s later success cannot be understated:

Not only did Poor Richard provide Franklin with his most enduring legacy, the humble pamphlet that Franklin routinely compiled from the work of others was, by the printer’s own admission, a virtual cash cow (47).

Other notable Americans, like George Washington, also appear in these early chapters, but McCarthy’s focus here, and elsewhere, remains on the almanacs maintained and preserved by ordinary Americans.

The next chapter introduces Scottish-born Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken, who in 1773 created the American Register.  Re-imagining the design and organization of the almanac, “[f]or the first time, customers could see the days of the week, month, year laid out before them” (55).  Interestingly, McCarthy’s research showcases some of the patterns extent in users’ notations, including both publicly important and deeply personal events such as births, deaths, marriages and other anniversaries.   Even though Aitken’s updated editions are a milestone for the history of the almanac and daily planner (and its function), these books were still too expensive for much of the working class populations.  Moreover, McCarthy notes that besides the financial expense, large portions of the population would not have had the literacy and numeracy skills to contribute further notation:

What Aitken expected of his customers was not simply the skills of reading and writing but a new attitude, a sophisticated kind of literacy that allowed one to blur the lines between script and print as never before . . . As sophisticated as many of Aitken’s customers were, they could not even envision a role for print that asked more of themselves.  To insert oneself in a book seemed beyond the pale.

Although limited in scope, clientele and reception, Aitken’s design–which included the replacement of a grid over the blank page–served as an important precursor to future publications.

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Various accounting registers, business ledgers and other “pocket books” tried to replace or update the almanac in the centuries to follow, but none had quite the same significance as Aitken’s Register.  For the author, the next phase of the daily planner arrives in the mid-nineteenth century and is owed in part because of Americans’ new sense of self and embrace of concepts related to individualism, as well as to changes in book and printing industry.  Visible in publications like the Lowell Almanac, Brown’s Pocket Memorandum, and Marsh’s Pocket Diary, these new books were “democratic, commercialized, educational, and self-centered” (126).  McCarthy traces a dramatic shift in consumers from upper-class men living on the East Coast to “women, mill workers, clerks, chambermaids, [and] school-children” living in rural America.  These books illustrate a major shift in work, labor, and education in the mid-nineteenth century, as new citizens, new businesses (via the Industrial Revolution) and new technologies spread across the republic.  For example, the Lowell Almanac contained business directories, astronomical tables, and sections to help keep track of time, wages, and expenses; McCarthy specifically looks to Lowell weaver Susan Brown as an example of how the planner served as diary, “emotional outlet,” and source for self-reflection, validation and empowerment.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the daily diary had become a staple product in American consumer culture.  The last two chapters of The Accident Diarist examine the Standard Diary, first produced in the post-Civil War era, and Wanamaker’s Diary of the early twentieth century.  The former brought the daily planner to the modern age, using new printing techniques to not only make these books more affordable to the masses but also by offering a range of colors, bindings, type sets and designs, thus making them more appealing to men, women, and children.


The Wanamaker’s Diary was as much a sales catalog as a daily planner.  The latter was even more attractive for consumers, but “interspersed throughout the diary section were advertisements for candle shades, wardrobe trunks, suits, collars, tooth powder, pajamas, eyeglasses, dinnerware, and Bibles.”  In the age of big business and department stores, these diaries reflected larger national trends in mass production, consumer culture, and advertisement—that McCarthy convincingly contends are closely related to our current date books (or apps).  (Readers interested to read more on this comparison can read McCarthy’s essay “Redeeming the Almanac: Learning to Appreciate the iPhone of Early America, published in Common-place (2010).)

Overall, McCarthy’s book is a great companion to the Garvey text in that in forces us to reconsider a book that we may have previously taken for granted, thereby reconsidering how we perform simply activities today.  To continue McCarthy’s research, I wonder why individuals were initially drawn to the planner in its modern incarnation over the blank journals seemingly designed for miscellaneous notes (or for whatever function the consumer can imagine).  But the work should be applauded and will be of interests to students because of its connections to the everyday—not only the makers and the ordinary people who bought and relied on them, but also our understanding, use, and management of time, work and leisure, reading and writing, and general engagement with shopping and citizenship.

From the outset, McCarthy asserts that “the daily planner was more than just an unassuming stationery product” (3).  And all of its users are “accidental diarists.”  It is from this perspective I hope that students might be able to access their own writing, challenging their own claims at the beginning of the semester announcing, “I’m not a writer.”


For my own purposes, I wonder what would happen if we extend this history into the present and into the realm of the future of writing, if we incorporate this history into our writing practices, looking at each entry (and the entirety of a year’s worth of writing compiled into a single bound book or the archives of our favorite app) as art or scholarship.

How can we write in a way that incorporates, reflects upon, re-imagines, and invents the daily planner?  How might we reappropriate the planner so that we are no longer workers running off from errand to errand, meeting to meeting, and instead rethink these daily tasks as travel itineraries, so that we engage upon this tasks with a new enthusiasm and awe, to see and experience our lives as tourists?


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