Find us on Google+

Seven Eggs Today

Interview with Jackson Armstrong

« Return to Seven Eggs Today

Who was Mary Armstrong?

Mary Armstrong was the wife of a butcher-farmer who lived just north of Toronto from the 1830s to the 1880s. At age fifteen, in 1834, she had emigrated with her parents and siblings from England to Canada. When Mary wrote her diaries in 1859 and 1869 she was also a mother, step grandmother and aunt, and she ran a busy household. She was clearly part of the ‘new middle class’ that emerged in Ontario from mid-century.

How did you come upon this new source?

For generations Mary’s diaries have been kept in my extended family where they have been passed down as a curious heirloom. My father and I began to read them thoroughly in the summer of 2000. This led to an initial transcription which I used as a source for an undergraduate paper the following year. With the encouragement of my instructor, the project grew from there and has culminated in this edition. My second cousin once removed owns the originals and he kindly permitted me to publish them.

What did Mary write about in her diaries?

Mary wrote about her daily life, covering a variety of different topics including household work, family and her strong female relationships; her emotions, faith, and identity; and the community networks and social events in which she and her family members participated. Mary also commented on her son’s life as a medical student and doctor and her male relatives’ lives as lawyers, ministers and business-owning butchers. Written within certain accepted boundaries, and embracing domesticity and her family and gender roles, Mary’s journals are a strikingly typical example of life writing by women of her era.

Why are Mary’s diaries important documents?

Mary’s diaries are nearly the only published example of Canadian women’s life writing from the 1850’s and 1860’s. They also refreshingly extend the authorship of this genre from the provincial elite to a member of the middle class. Moreover, the dairies speak to themes of life writing, faith, family, women’s work, status and class, occupation and trade, social networks and community, and local and national identity for the author and her family. For example, many of Mary’s male relatives were heavily involved in the Toronto butcher trade. Her writing illuminates the strong family connections among these artisans, and their business behaviours, which have never been examined by Canadian labour historians. Mary’s writing also reveals the social networks and local communities to which the middle class belonged, and how they shaped her local identities at the county, village and city level. Though she clearly thought of herself as an Englishwoman first, an intriguing difference between her earlier and later diaries is, perhaps, a stronger expression of Canadian identity in the decade of Confederation.