Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York


Catherine Elizabeth and her father Rensselaer Havens in a daguerreotype taken in 1849.

I read this book called Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York.  I read it on Kindle so I’m not sure how big the book is, but I read it in about an hour or so.

The 10-year-old girl’s name is Catherine Havens and she wrote her diary from August 1849 through June 1850 and there is some of 1851, too, and eventually, it was published in 1919 when her older sister told her it might be a good idea to see if they could get it published all those years later. It’s interesting because it describes so much of old New York, where most diaries are only about the person writing it; this includes so much of what life was like in the mid 19th Century.

I noticed that the whole diary can be read online here. So you don’t have to buy the book.

Catherine comes from a wealthy family and the people she is surrounded by including family and relatives are all in good spirits it seems. For some reason, I always think of people in the olden days as being dour and humorless, but this is not the case. Even her old grandfather has a good sense of humor. Her father was old, he was born before the Revolutionary War.  She writes that people would mistake him as being her grandfather.

Catherine writes about her old aunts who lived in a house built in 1733 and of her own mother’s school days back in the 1810s.

Her world seems mostly to have revolved around 9th Street in New York City and most of the stores they visited and the schools were on 9th or near 9th Street.  She names names of people who lived then and where they lived up and down 9th Street.  She did travel though, to far off places, via boat/ships of the time.

She writes about school and how they did math back then and also how they learned words, starting with the Latin word and working into American English. She tells of how her math teacher rattled off numbers in sequences and the kids had to know the answer.

She mentions her grandfathers’s slaves, by name: “My father’s father lived on Shelter Island, and had twenty slaves, and their names were: Africa, Pomp, Titus, Tony, Lum, Cesar, Cuff, Odet, Dido, Ziller, Hagar, Judith, and Comas, but my grandfather thought it was wicked to keep slaves, so he told them they could be free, but Tony and Comas stayed on with him.”

I love when she writes about her mother’s youth: “My mother says Stuart’s candy store down on Greenwich and Chambers Streets used to be the store in her day. When she was a little girl in 1810, old Kinloch Stuart and his wife Agnes made the candy in a little bit of a back room and sold it in the front room, and sometimes they used to let my mother go in and stir it.”

Here grandfather is one of the first people to have water pipped into their kitchen down on Maiden Lane in New York City.

They even debated about either or eyether and neither and nyther back then!

If you like history, this book is really great, Catherine seems wiser than her 10 years, but maybe that is how the children were back then. It’s interesting see back 1849-50 from a child’s eyes. She wrote that she hoped to live to see the 20th century, but learned in Bible study that in the year 2000 the world would end, so she hoped she would not make it to that age. She did make it to 1939, so she lived to be 99 years old, almost 100. In the diary she mentions that she hoped her mother would live to be 100, and she almost did, she passed away at the age of 96.

Wednesday is “Read A Book Day,” so this might be a good one to read on Wednesday.

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