1917 Diary of Dorothy Vaughan
The weather has been the same, cold and biting. 5 below zero this a.m. Worse tonight I think. No place gives sufficient warmth but only far away from the stove. My knitting on Papa’s legging goes mighty slow as some nights I have read “Three Little Womans Success”.
— Entry from the Diary of Dorothy Vaughan, December 12, 1917, Shelburne Farms
In 2009, Eleanor Bliss, a local Vermont resident, contacted me at the Farm Archives to gauge our interest in some materials she had inherited. Her grandfather, Arthur Morse Vaughan, had worked as the general manager for farm operations at Shelburne Farms from 1914 through 1923. He and his wife Belle Thayer, and their two young daughters, Dorothy and Emma (Eleanor’s mother), lived in a house just south of the Farm Barn. Eleanor offered–and we eagerly accepted–gifts of correspondence, black and white photographs, two scrapbooks, ephemera, Emma’s fur neck boa, and a single journal kept by her aunt Dorothy.
While the diverse collection of Vaughan materials enriches the Archives, it is Dorothy Vaughan’s 1917 journal that stands out. Her diary illuminates an idyllic childhood of a twelve-year-old girl spent on Shelburne Farms exactly 100 years ago. It is unique, and unlike anything we have in the collection.
In her distinct penmanship, Dorothy wrote daily entries in which we experience the passing of seasons and learn about her friends, her family, news of current events and world affairs, school life, social life, the Shelburne community, various health issues of others, daily weather observations, holidays, and her many chores. Reading unfamiliar words and phrases that were commonplace in 1917, such as “dandy” or “cold as time”, are joyful to us in 2017. We appreciate Dorothy’s excitement with the “new electric lights” in her house and her dismay in not having a Valentine’s Party “because Walter Fenwick and Alfred Livingston didn’t act well” in school that day. It is easy to come to love this witty, funny, charming, and smart 12-year-old girl.
Her story is even more poignant because Dorothy didn’t live past the age of 13. Dorothy had a goiter that was evident in photographs. Yet never once did she write or complain about her condition in her diary. She died at Mary Fletcher Hospital in Burlington on December 11, 1918 at the age of 12.5 years due to complications of surgery for her affliction.
Considering her short life and recognizing the potential and importance of her journal, I enlisted archive volunteers (Marcia Hawkins and Rita Myers) to assist with the transcription in 2016.
This November, I had the opportunity to share a year in the life of Dorothy with educators and 4th graders at the Shelburne Community School. It has made Dorothy Morse Vaughan’s journal all that more treasured.
Part of connecting to place is connecting to the history, culture and community of that place. How wonderful, then, to have Dorothy’s voice bring Shelburne – and this Farm – alive to students in a relevant, yet timeless way. Now her story is a small part of each student’s story of Shelburne and the Farm.
— Julie Eldridge Edwards, Curator of Collections
By Courtney Mulcahy, School Programs Coordinator
When I met with 4th grade teachers from the Shelburne Community School to plan their November school trip to the Farm, they were getting ready to study Vermont history, so we talked about ways to explore this topic here. One of the teachers mentioned primary sources, and I thought back to the diary of a young girl that Julie had sent to me. When I suggested the journal to the teachers, they loved the idea of exploring it with their students.
I got to work reading Dorothy’s journal in earnest and was transported into her world. Her short, daily entries offered a great glimpse into what life was like on the Farm, in Vermont, and in the country. And even though she wrote 100 years ago, so much of what she wrote is still relevant to kids today.
To focus the students’ learning, I had them gather evidence from Dorothy’s journal in six research categories: Kid Activities, Everyday Life, Vocabulary, VT & World History, What’s different than today? What’s the same?
After introducing journaling and how we use primary sources to learn about the past, we spread the 54 double-sided pages of the transcribed diary around the room. Students got to work looking for evidence. They used context clues to figure out words or activities they weren’t familiar with, and they discovered Dorothy’s humor and unique voice.
When we came back together as a group to share out what we had learned, the students were excited to realize that kids 100 years ago weren’t all that different from kids today. For fun, kids a century ago played card games and went “sliding” (sledding) with friends; they had crushes on people, misspelled words, and got excited about holidays! Students also learned that World War I was happening in 1917, that many countries were involved, and that Dorothy, her family, and the Webbs were helping the war effort through work with the Red Cross.
The students had a lot of fun learning about Dorothy. The teachers asked for a copy of the transcribed journal so they could do more with it in their classes. And it was so fun for the Farm’s education staff to learn alongside the students from this special piece of Farm history.
Now we begin each Farm Life and History field trip by sharing entries from Dorothy’s journal. We picked out ones that mention activities we do with students, like working with wool, letter writing, candle-making, horse-drawn wagon ride, doing chores, etc. It’s been nice to make it such an authentic experience! Dorothy is continuing to inspire us.