By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
Joseph Price was a man who lived in interesting times. But unlike the Chinese curse, the Main Line was blessed by Price’s observations and even more with his perseverance. For 40 years he kept a diary, recording what life was like shortly after the Revolutionary War.
He was born in 1753 a fourth generation Quaker Price in Lower Merion. His great grandfather, Edward ap Rees (“ap” is Welsh for “son of”), was one of the earliest settlers, coming from Wales in 1682. He had bought 156 acres from William Penn and added another 49 acres. By 1780 the family holdings included what is now Narberth and a large part of Wynnewood.
Over the generations the name Rees became Prees, and then finally, Price. Joseph was a Quaker, but may actually have been “read out” of the Merion Meeting because he evidently fought in the Revolutionary War, a task normally unacceptable to the uncompromising Quaker pacifists. However, throughout his diary there are references to the Merion Meeting, and whether he was officially a part of the group or not, it was very much a part of his life.
He’s become an important part of Narberth resident Mary Keim’s, life as well, because she spent three years transcribing microfilms of Price’s 3,000 pages of writing.
While reading the diary, one of the first things you notice is that people didn’t do just one thing in those days. For Price, and presumably others, often the entire day was made up of things we do now in minutes: going and getting materials, or traveling to Philadelphia or Norristown.
Price also spent a lot of time helping others do things. He reports his trips to his parents’ as well as cousins’ and brothers’ homes. In a small community such as the Welsh Barony, specialization was a luxury only found in the big cities. If something needed to be done, you did it.
Price had been apprenticed to an architect. During this training, he learned the tasks necessary to construct a building, as well as to design it. “The buildings he built were attractive and well constructed, as several have survived until today,” Keim said. That bodes well for his skills and the care he took in his work.
He also was a carpenter, and because of that became somewhat of the community undertaker. “It wasn’t in the sense that he embalmed the bodies, but he would be called out and go pick up the dead and make their coffins. He also brought the coffins to their place of burial, in many cases to the cemetery at the Merion Meeting,” she said.
Reading the daily happenings of the man who buries the community’s dead may make for morbid reading, but the diary isn’t just about who died and why. For one thing he begins each entry with the day’s weather. This provides a detailed picture of what was happening over a 40-year period. Although he doesn’t report scientifically, it is clear that winters were colder and snowier than today.
Price was evidently a slow starter in life, or so busy he didn’t have time for much. He and was 44 when he married. His bride was 27-year-old Mary Walter and he quickly began his family, which eventually included eight children.
“In spite of picking up the corpses of everyone who died in the area, Price was very healthy, living into his seventies,” she said. Even his children enjoyed great health — all eight made it out of childhood, although one died at 19 and another at 20.”
For Keim what’s most interesting is the life and the way people lived and died. Price refers a lot to drink, and was probably an alcoholic. “He worried about his drinking even early on. He would read books on temperance, and alcohol killed his younger brother. I think the drink did him in,” she said.
But Keim is fascinated with the diary’s medical information. “There’s so much about what people died of, and the diseases. My doctor at the time became very interested. Price defined, for instance, someone having a stroke. He didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. He accurately described a child’s death of what we now know as children’s diabetes. As you read you can’t help but think bad water had a lot to do with much of disease,” she said.
For his time Price was an educated man, being able to read and write. Although he probably didn’t have much formal education he read broadly for the era. He refers to many of the great English works, including Alexander Pope, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Penn’s No Cross No Crown. When he’d travel to Philadelphia, he would often buy books for his children.
Price began his diary when he was 35 and the last entry was three days before his death at age 75. His daily entries were made on odd scraps of paper (over 3, 000) that he carried around with him, loosely fastened together with string. “This extraordinary 40-year document offers a treasure trove of details of Lower Merion life in that era and a testament to the varied skills and interests of an extraordinary ordinary man,” Keim reported.
The first thing you notice upon reading this diary is the complete lack of concern with consistency of spelling and punctuation. That wasn’t a sign of lack of education, as at that time the written word was little more a transcription of speech. Frequently people who made their living as writers would spell their own name several different ways. It was probably an attempt on their party to confuse future historians and literary critics.
But as long as it was understandable, it was correct. It wasn’t until the invention of the typewriter and industry changing from personal effort to mass production (and the development of interchangeable parts) that the concept that words and punctuation should be the same every time they are written by any person came into fashion. While this standardization may have benefitted understanding and comprehension, we’ve lost the charm of this archaic mode of writing.
For Mary Keim, three years of transcribing these notes made her an expert. In fact the biggest problem she had was that the microfilm she was working from didn’t have the document in chronological order. “The Pennsylvania Historical Society microfilmed the diary, which they possess and we paid $800 for it,” she said.
“But with 3000 pieces of paper, much of it handmade and just put together with string and carried in his pocket, the hardest thing was to get the diary into order,” Keim says. She estimates she spent 20 hours a week on the creating the 1100 typewritten pages of the project, and at the end of it there were five copies. “I have one, and I asked for my daughter to have one, and the other three are, I guess, in the library,” she said.
But they aren’t just in an archival box somewhere because the electronic age has hit. The Lower Merion Historical Society scanned all 1100 typewritten pages and created an electronic document available to browse. Eventually it is going to end up on the society’s web site. This pleases Mary Keim greatly. “The whole point of this is to share the knowledge and information. The more people that can read it, the better,” she said.
But in the end the best part of the diary is the man, not the weather or the details of life. “I though he was a great guy, he had a wonderful interest in other people. He was always ready to help other people, was a bright man, although he didn’t have much formal education, he would read what we consider difficult material, gave a lot of information to people about the law, although he didn’t pass himself off as a lawyer,” she said.
Some extracts from The Diary of Joseph Price (b. 1753-d. 1828)
The first entry
December the 31
Mary Parker that was now Riveley was buried in Darby
You find out a lot about the weather, and see many names that have been immortalized in the Main Line’s street signs
went to Leverings & Loyd Jones, Robert Came after me to make John Righters Coffin (son of Bartle Righter) finishd it about 10 [O] Clock at Night, 15 went to town very soon brought the Corps[e] to his fathers very Cold fine Slaying 16th went to bury him at Church Crow preachd, in afternoon mended Tunis’s Reel 17th went to Phila got thirty pounds of old Shippin Somewhat warmer Snowd a little, Evening Wind got West snow showers and Cold bought 35s of paper for 29s2 hard to pay tax give 7s6 for two planes to make the joint of a table leafe bought 1 peck of salt 71/2 [pence]
There was a focus at Meeting and the amount folks drink, especially with its impact on work.
February 7th At home till noon Meet the Society afternoon, Resolved to Sepress the Eccesive use of Rum Drinking & to find a Subs[t]itute and not give More than a pint to one person or any other Subsitute as best Sutts the former and Likewise Disgust an Essay of Mr Taylor on Improveing Worne out Land it being put Whether it was the Cheapest & best was negitive, ajorn’d till 7th of March
Unfortunately much of the diary deals with making coffins for the many children who died. These are the entries for a period of only four days.
February 23rd Cold f[r]oze not Quite hard a nouf to bond (Not Quite Right) Went to Nehemiah Evans’s one of his Childern Dead, hunted out his Row for to Dig the Grave, John Evans here Makeing me a Jacket, & suttute [surtout or overcoat], spit snow
February 24 verry Cold Morning wind to the West– got my horse shod, after Noon to burial of Evans Child, verry Cold they compla[i]n much of it thawd very Little or none, sent by father for 1 yard of Rusher Sheeting & Curtin rings 3s9 all the Money I have at present, not one penney Left bad anuff, but I have more when I get it
February 25th. Cold Morning, the old, Ewe two Lams this morning, Wood 3 Dollars 1/2 Cord, this is Exceeding Cold Spell, in gowing to fathers, cake of Ice fros’d to my Eye About 3 OClock in afternoon twin Child of Jacob Bear’s Dead
February 26th. finished Coffin & went home with it Buryed at freinds yard, Merion this is a Cold Day, but not so Cold as yesterday & Day before, took a walk to Rees Price’s Evening, Saml. Gibson got my horse took Mother to Darby, the People all that have wood & horses are Busy takeing wood to town
But it wasn’t just children who died. It was a difficult life, and death was very much a part of it.
February 26th Wind S.W. & Jacob Amos Calld Informd me of the Death Amos George a Valuable freind who I was very fond of sencesable [sensible] & Commu[ni]cative & Improveing when acquainted he was only takein Ill after Supper & was Dead about 3 OClock in morning, Left 7 Children, & wife very Like for another, very great Loss to the family & trying time to them, I do very feelingly Condole with them, & Lament his Lost as a Neighbour in Whoos Company I spent many hours to satisfaction, went there took measure home got the Stuff out, & went to Lewis Davis’s to Inform them, & Stopt at Nathan Jones’s & so home.
27th wind N.W. & prety fine Day, froze a Little in night, spent 6d. finishd the Coffin for Amos George Evening took it home & Layd him in it, Drank tea there & so home a molincoly time on them, full of Sorrow
28th wind N.W. & Clear day froze in night but pl[e]asant as to Cold, meet at the house at 9 OC & the corps[e] was attended by a great number of peopel to Merion Grave yard & Interd (we Spread two Bundles of Straw over the Coffin to prevent the Sound. had a good Effect the first time I ever seen it Done) had a good Discourse Delivered by Saverry Pots & Howel, West & Son Dined here
Unfortunately Joseph became more and more interested in drinking, and many of his diary entries refer to his evening’s imbibing.
February 25 Drank some Jinn Morn & set off to old Mechems on Davids Land, David & Robert, the Lease from old Mechems that he Got of old Thomas Davie 10 years from this Spring, to give him 180L pay the first of April 1794
and they to have possession 25th of April 94 Left here about 2 OClock P.M. Come by Buck Met Curwen & his Brother, there Drank Bottle of wine & fed our horse, & so home, it Cost us 8s11d apeace Total 26s9d., & I gave the Horsler 9d. Bought a glove of a man that found it just as we where passing by him for 1s6—
6 Wind S E & rain again, work in shop & painting Begun a Coffin for Bill Warner, Dyed Sudden at Wagoners Eat Breakfast & Dyed before ten Oclock Had very great Drinking spell, several days came or went there the afternoon before he died Eat Super, & went to bed, up in Morn soon & Drank good Deal of water, had formd a resolution for some Month that he Drank none, but some Little while he broke out again, & I beleive it was his End—
Even though they lived in the countryside, the Welsh were well aware of what was happening in Philadelphia, particularly when it involved an infectious disease
wind N. & Cloudy & a little shower from. W. Cleard off, at the bridge, went to bank to See to get Brother up. Could not Come Spent with Curwen at ferry 51/2d pd. at do Comeing out 9d so back to the bridge got one Bushel of wheat at E George, finishd Sowing Rye at B Tunis’s & begun to Sow wheat & rye at home a great Mortallity in town 13 Buried in freinds yard by 12 OClock to Day, most Serious time, the Doctors Confus’d wrighting & prescribeing Differ[ent] treatment, pussels [puzzles] all ther Naterlisem for they dye away, without pain (Some of them) It’s allowed they Buri about 100 & upperds a Day and it’s thought there is two thirds, movd out, freinds held there yearly Meeting (tho Small) as usual, Sister Hannah in town 4 Day [Wednesday], this week, what is very remarkable the Negros do not take it & are the only people, or nearly so that are imployd in Bureing dead & nursing the Sick, Brother Edw in town all week at Bank, pd 1s2 at Streapers
Price’s last entry was 40 years after he began the diary and three days before his death.
(Sept.) 13 W N W fine Clear Cool Day D Jone[s] & Boys hauling Dung. My Back very Bad Could not walk
(Sept.) 14 wind N W fine day Boy & D Jones hauling dung. I very bad with back
(Sept.) 15 Wind N W & fine day
Joseph Price died on September 18, 1828