Tag Archives: hoboken

“I have been at home.”: A Midwife’s Tale and A Request for Your Own

25 Mar

A Midwife's Tale
Martha Ballard’s diary entries frequently contained this note when she wasn’t out delivering babies in Hallowell (now Augusta), Maine. She lived and operated in a world both uniquely familiar and starkly foreign to our own, a tight-knit 18th century community in which she played the vital role of midwife. She called on neighbors, attended church, worked in her garden, remembered anniversaries, and raised a family with her husband Ephraim, ten years her senior. Most importantly and notably, she kept a diary over the course of her last 27 years of life, recording her work, the daily goings-on in her community, and her life in over 10,000 entries between 1785 and 1812.

As I write this, I have also been at home. Hoboken is practicing social distancing due to COVID-19, and I can’t go out unless I need groceries or other essentials. If I want to take a walk for some fresh air, I can, but I have to keep six feet apart from other people. I could in theory take my cat for a walk in his stroller to get outside, but I’d worry that people would assume a human child was in there and I’d be branded an irresponsible parent. On the flip side, this means I’ve been getting a lot of reading done, so I finished my reread of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale in a few days. It was to be the historical nonfictional book club’s discussion book for April, but the date is now up in the air for the time being. I hadn’t read it since my undergraduate days at Gettysburg for my historical method class, but I recalled learning a lot about how to work with primary sources from it, so I picked it for the book club – and I am so glad I did.  If you are interested in participating in our virtual book discussion starting on Friday, March 27 check out our calendar page.

In a way, it’s very relevant right now. When I first read the book, it was for purely educational purposes. I was reading it to learn how to utilize primary sources to tell an individual’s story, and I used what I learned within the next year when I took on my undergraduate senior thesis project, which involved extrapolating a story from a soldier’s court-martial. A reread of it now, though, gives the book new meaning. Right now, we’re living through a historical event. Life is going on as normally as possible as we remain in lockdown due to COVID-19, only going out for essentials and working from home if possible. Everyone’s searching for some normalcy, but at the same time we all know we’re living through something historic. I’ve decided to collect articles on COVID-19 and Hoboken for a future vertical file, but I’m also keeping a log of my activities during this period of social distancing because I know someday I’ll want to remember it all – or someone coming after me might want to know what it was like to live through this.

Martha didn’t particularly consider her diary to be historic. She mostly used it to record her daily life, the comings and goings of friends, family, and neighbors, and her midwifery business. She probably didn’t anticipate that it would be today sitting in a historical society, a testament to life in frontier Maine before Maine was even a separate state from Massachusetts. She definitely wouldn’t have imagined that nearly 200 years after her death in 1812 a historian would find her diary there and use it to patch her life together for modern readers. Martha wasn’t the sort of person who intended to be famous, if her no-nonsense diary entries are any indication. She’s now the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of historical nonfiction. She’ll be remembered for eternity. She’s achieved immortality, so sought after by rulers of the past, and yet she was an ordinary, everyday woman with an ordinary, everyday – yet crucial – job.

In the spirit of Martha Ballard, I’d like to make a request of you all. If you read this blog post, please consider keeping a journal or a log of your life during this time. When we’ve returned to business as usual here in Hoboken, donate that journal or log or a copy of it to us here at the Hoboken Public Library. We’d love to preserve your story so that future generations can remember what life was like in this difficult time for all of us – and it’ll give you another thing to do during quarantine! We would appreciate your help in recording history – indeed, we’re living through it right now! Send us your activities, your photos, your videos – anything you feel we should save! This may not be the best historical event to live during, but let’s make the most of it and make sure that we’re remembered for what we did to save and protect others during this outbreak!  After 9/11, HPL collected people’s memories and it was published by Wiley in publication September 11: Hoboken Remembers that is now part of our local history collection.

You can send any reflections, images, videos, or other items about your experience during quarantine you want preserved to stephanie.diorio@hoboken.bccls.org, and I’ll make sure they’re safe and protected for the future!

Oh, and one more thing – whilst you’re stuck at home, fill out that Census! You can do it online, and you’ll be helping future historians, archivists, and genealogists too! Your descendants will be able to find you in 72 years when they’re looking!

Stay safe, keep six feet apart, and wash your hands – we’ll get through this!

Written by:
Steph Diorio
Hoboken History Librarian

Our Steampunk Oculus: HPL’s Magic Lantern

5 Jun
HPL Magic Lantern

The library’s magic lantern opened up to reveal the interior. Visible are two lenses and an antique-styled light bulb.

The Hoboken Public Library’s history collection may be mostly books, photographs, and historic newspapers, but there are a few physical artifacts within our walls, as well. Part of our collection includes an antiquated edutainment device called a magic lantern and the slides that were used to do all manner of presentations at the library.

Before film and the modern projector, magic lanterns were the best way to produce a slideshow – think of them as 19th century PowerPoint presentations, but sometimes with added special effects if the show was aiming to be more entertaining than educational. The technology for the magic lantern was first properly developed by Christian Huygens in the 1600s, magic lanterns really took off in the 18th and 19th centuries as a form of entertainment and as a method of illustrating lectures and other educational events. The heyday of the technology was in the middle and late 19th century and early 20th century; as mentioned above, film eclipsed the entertainment aspects of the magic lantern during the 1920s, and although magic lanterns continued to be used to project previews onto the screens before and after movie screenings, they were eventually replaced by the projector, as well. The technology used in a magic lantern is relatively simple – it utilizes lenses and a light source to project an image on a glass slide onto a screen, and much like a modern day projector it can be adjusted for focus depending on its distance from the screen. To see this more easily, here’s a photo of our own magic lantern opened up:

As you can likely see in the image above, our magic lantern utilizes a lightbulb, which immediately dates it to post-1879, when lightbulbs became commercially available following Edison’s patent. During my research on our lantern, I was able to locate a sibling lantern of sorts that had once been for sale online. Both were manufactured by Charles Beseler and Co., a company still around today (albeit as a supplier of photographic equipment). The serial number on our model is 2031; the seller’s model had the serial number 2357, making it slightly younger than our own. Their date estimate was the late 1910s-early 1920s, which seems about right given the circumstances. Hoboken Public Library has been in the current building since 1897, and although I’ve so far been unable to confirm exactly when we acquired the lantern, I’ve heard that the library did use it for programming, so those dates would likely line up well. The box our lantern is contained in refers to it as a B-1, which is likely the model number, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on an old Charles Beseler and Co. catalogue to confirm this yet.

I took quite a few photos of our magic lantern before packing it up to store it with the rest of the history collection during the renovation process on the second floor.   Although we have the reference and history collection in storage, you can still find temporarily computers and seating for adults on the third floor.  Here’s a selection of the photos I took:


Magic Lantern Label

The serial number and the Charles Beseler and Co. logo, a swan on a lake.

Magic Lantern Lens

A better shot of the lens from up front.

Magic Lantern Slides

A selection of some of the slides the library has. The slide collection is actually quite vast!


The lantern is actually lighter than it looks at first glance, and the handle makes it easier to move around and set up when it’s not in its box.

At the moment, our lantern is sitting dormant, but we’d love to get it into full working order and do a proper magic lantern program here at the library. Hopefully in the near future once this phase of the second floor renovations are complete we’ll be able to put on a little show for you all! Until then, stay tuned for more history content (especially as I unpack it all once the renovations are done – thank you for your patience!). You can always access digitized versions of parts of our collection online. Another great source for Hoboken historic materials is the Hoboken Historical Museum (check them out if you haven’t)!

You can check out the library’s high tech modern version of the Magic Lantern, the immersive virtual reality Oculus during our Open Makerspace Time on Mondays from 1 PM-7 PM in the library’s lower level programming space!

Written By:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library


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