Sunday, November 26, 2023

Research: Flax and the Daybook of Josiah Brown

The Day Book of Josiah Brown, 1790 - 1833
by Kay Morgan, University of New Hampshire


Josiah Brown’s Day Book (1790 - 1833) demonstrates the multi-faceted life of a rural New Hampshire man as he marries and builds a life for himself. [1]  In the beginning of the day book he resides in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, with his parents, but tends lands and livestock in Stratham.  He also makes and repairs shoes, slippers and “Mogisons,” and in 1791 “measures Land for two men.”  He continues these activities for most of his life, though in later years does not record making shoes any longer.


In 1792, he builds a house in Stratham at what is now 17 Jackrabbit Lane, and marries Sarah Clark in Greenland, New Hampshire. They move to their new home in June. Their lives revolve around the weather and the necessity to clothe and feed the family, as well as to have some marketable crops. Over the years, he grows and shells corn, cuts hay and salt marsh hay, makes gallons of apple cider, hauls logs, raises and slaughters cattle, oxen and hogs, and buys and sells horses.


While he still lives with his parents, he reports “I broke flax,” on January 20, 1791 and “dresses” flax on March 23rd. The next reference to flax occurs in 1794 when he notes “I sow’d flax where the worms ate it.” In 1799, he goes to Hampton Falls “after flax seed.” Even though he continues to note planting flax, usually when he plants oats and barley in late April and before he plants corn, there are no further notations regarding harvesting or working with the flax to produce thread for linen or seeds to sell.


Given that he is quite specific regarding taking his corn, hay, cider, potatoes and animals to market, and often specifies the price he gets, it seems that flax did not factor into his cash flow or potential bartering for other goods. This may not be surprising, in that usually men were involved in planting and harvesting flax, but women typically “skutched, hackled, carded, combed, spun and wove the fiber.” [2] The linen thus produced may have been entirely used by the family or shared with their extended family.  

A contemporaneous diary (1785 - 1812) of Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife, illuminates the distaff side of a family economy, the comings and goings of young women and the work they do to help with the massive undertaking of processing flax into thread and woven cloth. In the Ballard household, the fabric produced might be sold, bartered for other goods, or used by the family. The Pulitzer prize winning author of A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, develops the idea that in that era, young women living outside their own family was a form of education as well as a way to earn money. [3]


Each year Josiah records the names of the young women who come to work in the Brown household. This practice begins in May 1793 when he writes, “Lidia Tarlton began to work here.” At that point, his wife, Sarah, is one month from delivering their first child, a son named Nathan. In August, Lidia goes home and Betsy Clark comes to work. These girls provide household help for Sarah, which could include working with flax. Betsy stays on into November of 1795, when she “was took sick of the Billious fever.” She goes  home and Eunice Bachelor takes her place later in the month. From Josiah’s day book, it appears that Josiah and Sarah had a daughter born in 1796, who did not survive more than a day, so until 1810 and 1812, when Sarah and Mary Ann were born and then old enough to participate in household linen production, hired girls would have been a necessity.  It is interesting that Josiah didn’t mention these births in his daybook, though he reports the birth of every one of his eight sons.


A 1995 donation to the Stratham Historical Society included several homespun items made by various members of the extended Brown family.  Women often identified their work by embroidering their initials on a corner of the completed piece. Two pillowcases made by Sarah Clark Brown bear the initials SB in cross-stitch, and a sheet initialed AB in pink embroidery floss, was made by Abigail Brown, who married Greenleaf Clark Brown, Sarah and Josiah’s fourth son, March 6, 1828. She is also the maker of two hand towels which are stamped in ink with her initials and two pillowcases stamped with her name. [4] At present, we speculate they wove the cloth for these items, as specific items were passed down by family members and given the longstanding family connection with flax and linen as seen in Brown's daybook and extended family network; however, it is possible that the textiles were purchased or bartered from someone else who was the weaver.


Josiah Brown continues to plant flax according to his daybook, with the last notation three years before his death at age 68. His last years appear similar to his early years:  He surveys land, plants his fields, cuts hay and cornstalks, tends his livestock and notes the coming and going of his sons, their marriages and the weather. On October 14th and 15th, 1833, he writes: “I was unwell.”  On December 12, 1833, someone else notes “Josiah Brown Died and this Journal discontinued.


* * * * * * * * *


[1] Josiah Brown Day Book is housed at the Stratham Historical Society, Stratham, New Hampshire, Accession #1989.3.11. More information may be found at .


Many thanks to Andra Copeland and the Stratham Historical Society for the use of their collections and their help with research.


[2] Sofi Thanhauser, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing (New York: Vintage Books, 2023), 12.


[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale:  The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 - 1812 (New York:  Vintage Books, 1991), 81.


[4] Stratham Historical Society, Stratham, NH, Sewall/Brown Box:  Item marked SB. Accession #1995.30.2; Items marked AB, Accession #1995.30.1; Items stamped Abigail Brown, Accession#1995.30.5. 

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