Have you read Little Women? Louisa May Alcott published it over the course of 1868 and 1869, just three years after Mary kept her diary! Little Women is a story about girls coming of age, considering their choices, and fulfilling their duties. I realized Mary Slack was also considering her future and wondering what she was going to do with her life.
In 1865, 15-year-old Mary, just like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, did a considerable amount of housework, went to school, sewed her own clothes, and socialized in the evenings. Most importantly she thought about her future.
One option for a young girl would have been to “work out” on a farm for a neighbor or a relative. In Little Women, Jo worked for Aunt March by being her companion. Mary “worked out” at her Uncle Wallace’s farm for a week in May. Her brother Herbert told Mary to “go home and go to school” and advised her to “not work out”. Mary also lamented a few times that she couldn’t wait to go home, so maybe being a farm hand wasn’t quite what Mary wanted for the future. She did, however, record that her Uncle gave her $5 for about a week of her work which is about $79 today.
Sunday May 7
Rather cold to day. Back to Uncle Wallaces again to night. School will commence tomorrow but I shant be there to go. I dont want to go any this summer but father wants to have me.
Monday May 8
I have been washing to day. Herbert and Addie came here and staid about an hour this forenoon. Warm to day. Herbert wants I should go home and go to school. He says not to “work out”.
Another option for Mary would have been to become a school teacher. In fact, it was suggested to Mary that she begin teaching at her school. Even though Mary would have been only 15 if she had decided to teach, it wouldn’t have been unusual for someone so young. Of course, she could have gone to work in the mills with her brother, Herbert, but she wrote that she wouldn’t want to do that.
After reading the diary several times, I noticed a pattern to Mary’s days. Mary tended to do the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday. At first I assumed that the washing was a small task that would take an hour and a half tops. After some research I found that in 1865, Mary would have been washing the family’s clothes by hand as well as lugging the water up from the well or pump, boiling it, wringing the clothes dry, and then hanging them out. Surely this would have taken more than a few hours! Her hands must have been quite dry and her arms must have hurt by the end of it! Mary frequently mentioned how tired she was on wash days. She might have longed for a Doty’s Washer like the one in the advertisement below.
Monday March 20
Warm and pleasant to day. I have washed and ironed to day and am very tired to night. Henry Booth and Nettie came up this evening.
Monday September 16
Herbert came home to day! and I think it is wonderfull!! But he did not stay but a few minutes. Helped Mother wash to day and I am so tired and sleepy tonight. James did not come down tonight.
Friday June 30
Went up to Mr Whites and Mr Sproats after tea, and when I came home Miss Sawyer came with me. Father bought me a new calico dress today. I think it is very pretty. He gave me .23 cts per yard for it, and he got Mother one to. I have been sewing to day on the boys pants. Have written just half way through my diary.
In addition to laundry, another big chore for a girl my age would have been to keep up with the family sewing. Mary recorded sewing her brother’s pants, her sister’s dress, a sack, and a necktie. She was especially excited to sew her new delain dress. She to Lebanon Centre with her Mother to get the fabric and began making it that night. It took her six weeks to sew it; some days she sewed all day long! She also had to sew the corsets for it.
Saturday July 15
Finished my dress to day. I had thought I never should get it done but I have made out to, thank “good fortune.” Had a book to read to night about “Jonathan Oldbuck in Search of a Wife.” Poor fellow he had a hard time of it. Homer came up tonight expect he has gone up to see his ‘Nett’.
It seems that overall the March girls, in Little Women, and Mary though a lot about one more option for their futures: marriage. For a girl Mary’s age, marriage wouldn’t have been too far in the future and for Mary it’s certainly not too far…