Old Diaries Tell the Stories of Overlooked Americans

The Value of Manuscript Journals

Manuscript diaries, that is, diaries written by hand, are a perennially popular collecting category in the Americana realm. Nothing can beat a good diary to bring the reader into a distant time and place.

The value of diaries on the market is largely driven by historical content and the quality of the writing. The Civil War and the western frontier are settings for many of the best diaries, but even a soldier fighting at Gettysburg is not so interesting if his journal entries are limited to one line about the day’s weather. Almost none of the manuscript diaries that we’ve sold over the years have been by celebrities or household names. A short 1933 diary by actor Errol Flynn, which our autographs department handled in 2006, is an exception that proves the rule. For the most part, these diaries are by very ordinary people—in fact, their quotidian nature is, in many cases, at the heart of their appeal.

Rick Stattler, our Americana specialist, takes us through some of the most notable manuscript diaries that have come through Swann’s books and manuscripts department, and what makes them particularly exciting for collectors.

Diaries Provide A Look into the Past

The Meticulous Manuscript of a Saloon Keeper in Reno, Nevada

Our March 2020 sale of Printed & Manuscript Americana included the diary of George C. Bryson, a saloon keeper in Reno, Nevada, who wrote every day from 1903 to 1917 in an incredibly tiny and meticulous hand, describing his life of wrangling drunks, police raids, and late-night poker games, concluding with his improbable elevation to police court judge.

The Diary of a Civil War Soldier in the Keystone Zouaves

A recent highlight was the diary of Adam Reinoehl, a Civil War lieutenant from Pennsylvania. He did not describe any of the war’s major conflicts, but he brought his uncommon literary talent to bear on his regiment’s first taste of battle as they marched “past the soldier dying and his comrade wiping the clammy sweat from his features growing rigid; past the wounded all covered with blood borne to the rear. . . . My feelings were indescribable as shot and shell came whizzing overhead into the trees, clipping the boughs and pattering near us.” His charming drawings of camp scenes make his work yet more vivid.

The Journal of the Wife of a Whaling Captain

Diaries kept by women are generally of great interest to scholars. Women were often left out of history books until recent decades, but diaries record their daily lives in a way that is difficult to uncover through other sources. Among the most exciting are those kept by the wives of whaling captains, who often accompanied their husbands for years at a time to some of the most remote corners of the globe. Alida Taber’s 1853-1861 diary, sold at Swann in April 2019, includes passages written at sea and illustrated with whale stamps, interspersed with sections written while managing a household alone in Massachusetts while her husband was at sea.

Related Reading: Ship’s Logs from England to the Mediterranean in the Nineteenth Century

A Buffalo Soldier Stationed in the Phillippines

A.B. West, manuscript diary of a buffalo soldier station in the Philippines, 1914
A.B. West, manuscript diary of a buffalo soldier stationed in the Philippines, 1914. Coming to auction in Printed & Manuscript African Americana. Estimate $1,200 to $1,800.

Our 2020 Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction has a single manuscript diary. Early diaries by African Americans are scarce: few had families with the resources to preserve them over several generations. A Buffalo Soldier named A.B. West kept this diary in the Philippines in 1914. He was literate and had nice tidy handwriting, which is more than many diarists can say. Though his regiment was engaged in routine garrison duty, they enlivened their days with various recreations including regular baseball games. Their best ballplayer, Corporal Wilber Rogan, is mentioned several times; he later became one of the great stars of baseball’s Negro Leagues and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Co-Commander of an 1849 Expedition to Blaze a Wagon Route from San Antonio to El Paso

The Wild West was particularly fertile ground for diaries. We recently handled the diary of William Farrar Smith, co-commander of an 1849 expedition to blaze a new wagon route along the Rio Grande between San Antonio and El Paso. It is a fascinating corrective to Hollywood’s good guy / bad guy Western mythology. Frequent encounters with American Indians were marked with deep mutual suspicion rather than pitched battles, while the mountain landscapes he sketched in pencil capture a sense of awe.

A Revolutionary War Officer’s Diary

Looking Outside of America: A Japanese Archive of Diaries Kept During the Era of World War II

Outside of the realm of Americana, Swann recently sold an archive of 15 illustrated diaries written during and after World War Two by a young Japanese-Christian man. The diaries, in English and Japanese, chronicle his coming-of-age years during the war, his strong nationalist sentiments, and his discovery of religion after the war. Illustrated throughout with sketches, cartoons and photographs, they conclude with a superb double-page antiwar drawing.

How We Estimate Value

The market for manuscript diaries has a broad range. In my previous life as a curator for a tightly budgeted institution, I learned that moderately interesting twentieth-century diaries can be found on eBay and elsewhere for as little as $50. Swann’s Americana sales aim to include diaries estimated at about $400 or more, and quite a few good, interesting diaries sell in that range. On the high end, Swann has handled at least four diaries topping $40,000, none of them authored by anyone you’ve ever heard of–unless you are following our auction results with great vigilance. The top end was a 1780 diary by Revolutionary War officer John Hutchinson Buell at $75,000, although that was probably boosted somewhat by the inclusion of a period portrait and Buell’s monogrammed silver mug in the lot.

We place estimates on manuscript diaries in a rough framework based on the date, place, background of the author, content, writing quality, and visual appeal. Still, no matter how scientific we try to be, the final sale result will ultimately depend on the lot’s visceral appeal to the two strongest bidders. We often see them dramatically outperform their estimates, as it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and why specific diaries will resonate with collectors. The core audience is often an institution with a local focus, because diaries are usually so rich in local detail. However, sophisticated private collectors can also join in the fray, and a few specific dealers are often in the hunt. Diaries relating to popular collecting areas, such as the Civil War, whaling, or the Wild West, have a broader audience. It’s the cataloger’s job to find the little hooks that can draw in a diverse audience and multiple bidders.

Do you have a manuscript diary we should look at?

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For additional Collector’s Guides from Swann read our guide to Currier & Ives prints.