Women in the Gray diary: Part One

Hedwiga Gray diary1 Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Regina Shober Gray kept a diary for 25 years, through the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, through the deaths of several of her siblings and, in 1880, her husband Dr. Francis Henry Gray. Taking a smaller portion of the diary – the period between 1861 and 1870 – and with a focus (for Women’s History Month in March) on some of the women the diarist mentions, I have assembled a few representative entries from those years.

Mrs. Gray’s reflections range over marriage for money and position (March 1861), the servant question (June 1862 and October 1867), women in the public sphere (March 1863), her own emotional state (April 1865), a chastening romantic episode (February 1866), the coarsening effects of modern life (February 1868), and a modest attempt to aid poor but proud working women in Boston (January 1870): [1]

Boston, Monday, 25 March 1861: Mary Coolidge’s[2] engagement too was discussed [at a meeting of the 1842 Sewing Circle]; of course it is a great thing for her, as the world goes, if she can be happy in it. No one supposes for a minute that her heart’s love is given to Mr. Reed, but she is poor and dependent – he offers her an affluent home and the ability to do much for her mother & Grace.[3] He is a worthy man, whom she can thoroughly esteem, and his kindness and generosity will no doubt eventually win the affection of gratitude at least – and I believe Mary will be a happier woman as his wife than she would be to remain unmarried and so pinchingly poor!

There are women who could never do this, who would scrub floors rather than be the purchased wife of any man – who could die of slow starvation rather than marry for a home, an eligible establishment &c – but Mary is not one of these, and I who once would have scorned and condemned such a match, have learned from life’s experience to look more hopefully and charitably upon them – to feel that there are circumstances which may justify such a step – and to believe that it often results in quiet content if not in any higher happiness.

Sunday, 8 June 1862: Such a busy week – I have really worked myself almost sick – and how do the girls and women bear it, who keep it up week after week, all the year round? Poor things it is a hard hard life! We have made this week 18 pairs pants, 15 jackets à sacque & two vests – comprising 23 dozen button holes and the sewing on of 25 doz. buttons!! It took Miss Choate, Sophia, & myself with needles and Isabella at the sewing machine – that blessed invention!

Sunday, 22 March 1863: Our niece, Isa Gray,[4] develops the noblest characteristics in another sphere of war duties, laboring day after day for the “Sanitary Commission” writing, working, going from town to town speaking to large appointed meetings of women, explaining the modes of aid &c – arousing new interests … in the simple, self forgetful strength of duty, and devotion to a great cause.

[This] young girl, but a year or two since, a gay careless school girl, stands a noble woman before us, untiring, undaunted, without a thought of self – putting to shame, in her single hearted earnestness, our tame, feeble, supine lives. I watch her career, which I could never in my best days have emulated, with admiration and respect equaled only by my sincere affection for her.

Sunday, 23 April 1865: On Wednes’y last at noon, while the funeral services for President Lincoln were taking place in the White House at Washington, all the churches throughout the land were opened for memorial services – and were thronged by sorrowing crowds. I went after some hesitation to our own “King’s Chapel,” hardly daring to trust myself, for one does not like to betray emotion in public – and I dreaded too … adding to the nervous headache & prostration that struck me down at the awful news [of Lincoln’s assassination].

I was glad I went, however – Mr. Foote’s[5] funeral discourse was admirable, and the whole service comforting & strength giving….

Concluded here.


[1] All entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] Mary Sanderson Coolidge (1819–1904), who married Benjamin Tyler Reed on 5 June 1861.

[3] Mary and Grace Coolidge’s father, Samuel Frederick Coolidge, had died in February 1861.

[4] Dr. Gray’s niece, Isa Elizabeth Gray (b. 1841).

[5] The Rev. Henry Wilder Foote (1838–1889), rector of King’s Chapel 1861–89.

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward