1886 Missouri diary revealed interesting history of a teacher, author and historian

CJ Coombs

The cover of the diary writing tablet of Idress Adeline Head.Source: author.

Sometimes it’s magical what you uncover and research. An 1886 girl’s diary absorbed my time with a lot of reflective pausing. What began as a research project for a historical diary memorialized the life of a teacher, author, and historian, Idress A. Head.

Idress Head’s diary

When Idress Head (“Ida”) began writing her diary at the age of 13 on December 26, 1886, I doubt it occurred to her that in some distant day well past 100 years that someone would be reading her handwritten words in an attempt to reveal her identity. Keeping diaries was popular in the 1800s.

While Ida received her diary as a gift, her language was a form of communication that indicated her desire for privacy and independence, or publicity if her words were constructed to cater to those who might read her work. In either case, each of these methods could be viewed as a presentation — a performance. Importantly, they tell us about history and behavior.

As a reader of an old diary attempts to conceive and recreate the diary writer’s daily walk with handwritten words can be remarkable. This excursion could declare the reader’s capability to imagine. I used Ida’s diary as a learning tool and explored questions in an attempt to reveal practical, logical, and realistic answers. Also, since Ida became a historian in her adult years, I believe she would have been pleased to know her childhood diary was being examined and whether she intended it to become performed publicly or not, that is to be held in speculation. Overall, this article will celebrate her life.

A painting of history

Upon scrutinizing the text in a girl’s diary, some speculations are considered such as whether a diary was intended for public reading, whether it fulfilled a need, or whether it was solely composed for private value. A diary mirrors the writer and provides some verification about the identity of the writer.

I wondered if Ida’s diary was absent a fair amount of emotional reflections because she was hoping someday it would become a useful tool for the public. She was constructing a piece of her “self.” It was a performance of language.

Ida did not give her diary a name within her writing. She did not address it as “dear diary” or by any other name. There was no indication she made any edits other than perhaps crossing out a few words to restate her thoughts, or crossing out a sentence if she had entered it on an incorrect day.

Ida began writing her diary on December 26, 1886, on pastel-colored pages inside a tabled labeled, The Pansy Tablet. An illustration of the tablet’s cover is depicted above to provide a stronger sense and appearance of its existence. The example of Ida’s handwriting is demonstrated with a copy of the first page and was in better condition than most of the pages (see below).

An example of Ida's handwriting on her cover page entitled, "Christmas 1886."Source: author.

Ida’s preserved lithograph photo appears below which was taken at the age of 9 or 10. I had concluded she was aged 13 when she began writing her diary based on information found in her family’s listing on a census record page. It was important to me to explore her family’s census records because I wanted to see the names of family members and make comparisons with the names she referenced in the diary. Also, I wanted to establish her age which was important to provide a fuller sense of who she was and where she came from. Interestingly enough, I was able to learn that she and her family lived in her grandmother’s house.

Photo of Ida A. Head at the approximate age of 9 or 10.Source: author.

Ida’s history

Ida was born in Roanoke, Missouri (north of Columbia) on March 2, 1873. Her parents were John Calhoun Head and Susan Wallace Head. The Pansy Tablet was given to Ida as a holiday gift on Christmas 1886. When she began writing in it on December 26, she referred in the diary to having received “a book of paper” from “Sister” for the holiday.

On Tuesday, March 1, 1887, right before turning 14, she wrote:

Tuesday 1st got dinner made my birthday cake help set a hen Will Neal come up. we played hide & seek at night practised Nora was here

On December 26, Ida began somewhat of a memoir and a conversation within her diary. Unfortunately, a portion of the tablet was missing. Ida’s letter writing quality even at the age of 13 was remarkable. Although it was obvious in some places she was writing at a faster pace, the majority of the time, she was aware of the appearance of her scripting. She had beautiful handwriting and her capital letters looked similar to calligraphy.

Ida referred to her siblings as “Sister” or “Sister Carrie,” or “Brother.” She referred to her parents as “Mama” and “Papa.” She talks about her friend, “Tommy,” her teacher who gives her “lessons,” and other relatives who come to visit. She recorded the payments for her lessons and although she does not mention what type of lessons she is taking, I assumed they were piano.

When Ida writes, there is no sense of “busy” as we know it. Her family appears to have lived practically and simply. She talked about going to the creek to get strawberries for dinner which must have grown wild in patches. On Sunday, May 22, 1887, she wrote:

I have been writing my Diary all this evening I had the headache this morning but went down and gathered some strawberrys for dinner[.] Papa found old Joe with a little colt we named it General Price

Ida helped her Mama with the wash and the ironing. She sewed, rode the pony to town or school, and “practised” her lessons a lot.

During the first read of the diary, I did not grasp anything that was of emotional consequence except when she wrote on March 26, 1887, “I am so lonesome today/don’t know what to do to amuse myself/I have been reading but am tired.”

Ida provides nice mental images when she talks about the snow or how she became wet from the rain. There is not a lot of description about the contents in the home, or topics relative to being materialistic. Again, she had a much simpler life of which I envied as I kept returning to the diary.

At best, when she talks about the creek, it can be visualized with a border of strawberry patches where she would return collecting the fruit for dinner. When she was writing about this act, she did so very innocently, not as though she was trying to gain appeal. There were several places in the text where she talked about fruit gathering. On Saturday, June 25, 1887, for example, she wrote:

I went to take my lesson Papa went with me I ironed some practised got supper Dick came for Sid we had ripe peaches they were delicious Nora staid all night

Ida kept a record of what she performed daily as if it became a meaningful ritual. She described the highlights of her days. I believe she was honest in her expressions and observations. It did not read like fiction when reflecting upon the possibility she was just a fantasy writer. I saw Ida as a piece of history that could reveal a segment of time in her place in history such as her environment and particulars relative to culture.

Modern-day diaries

While diaries were usually meant to record the private thoughts of the diarist, they now give us important insights into historical events and the everyday life of the culture in which the diarist lived. Source: Old Timey-The History of the Diary

The details provided in the diary above do not suggest it would be categorized as a private diary because the details are average and not quite as personal. On some days, what appears is a list, i.e., several days of lessons. Although I am aware of Ida's capacity as a historian and author in her adult years, there is no indication in her diary’s text that she had the aspiration to become an author or that her interest was peaked with historical events or documentation.

One thing that seemed clearer, however, was the fact she did like to write. As a reader of her diary, the contents essentially were reconstructed by my mind, so it was important to have a vivid imagination to build upon a better understanding of what was taking place in her language.

If we leaped some 50 years later from the time Ida wrote her diary and look at when Anne Frank’s diary was first published, the time has proven how meaningful Anne’s diary was to girls. And, as we came into the 20th Century, there was a new experience surrounding what could almost be defined as the development of more enhanced journal writing, but partly because the language became more vibrant and appealing, and more powerful with its meanings.

In Writing as Performance: Young Girl's Diaries of Making Meaning of Narratives, Barbara Crowther, as Senior Lecturer in Women’s Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, reported on one diary writer as saying that one of the reasons she felt she wrote was “to express my voice which could not be heard otherwise.” Crowther stated out of 40 diary writing participants in her study, only five of them kept their diary a secret and a third of them held that Anne Frank’s diary was an influence for them to begin keeping one. Some diary writers might have difficulty proclaiming their independence and individuality. Keeping a diary might help the diary writer to seize a moment to maintain her independence and seek out self-identity. Maintaining a diary also fulfills a need, especially when the writer feels no one will listen.

Even though Ida received her diary tablet as a gift, everything contained in it was a result of her creation. It remains a part of who she was. It also served as a developing tool as she developed as a human being. Ida, in her writing, was developing her sense of self as well as extending herself onto paper. She did put thought into what she was writing because it was a detailed recollection of each day’s events. The diary in a sense was her friend and it listened without any criticism.

The influence of Ida’s diary

As I continued to revisit the contents of Ida’s diary, I tried to ascertain who seemed to be an influential figure in her life. Ida seemed to have had an ample amount of emotional support from family members. She talked about her family in such a manner that denotes closeness and respect. Relatives would come and go and she enjoyed her childhood games. I enjoyed her sense of humor, too, when she shared stories, and even when she wasn’t attempting humor, parts of the diary were still amusing. What she experienced might have been heartwarming, eventful, or exciting, but in today’s society, those experiences might be valued as mundane.

One of the saddest entries in her diary was on April 30, 1887, when she wrote:

in the evening Mama Sister Sister Carrie and I got two market baskets and went down to Silver Creek after shells to go around little sister’s grave

After reading this entry, I empathized with their wound. I wanted to know what happened. Then, on another less sad day, the day before going to the creek, Ida wrote about how Brother killed a chicken hawk that was going after a gosling. They had a cow named Prowler that had a calf that died. She wrote about sewing carpet rags and fixing garments. She helped in chores that included raking hay and milking cows. There were a few entries where she would mention that she had “the headache.” There is so much living power in Ida’s diary. The narrative that lies within the diary almost reads as though someone asked her daily, “Ida, what did you do today?” or “Ida, how was your day?”

Within Ida’s diary, she could experience a sense of freedom, even if it were temporary. Although she existed in an era where diary “information” yielded to intrusiveness, this does not necessarily mean that her diary was no less than private. Needless to say, when I reached the end of the diary, I was disappointed there was no more Ida to read about after I completed the transcription. I was able to transcribe 30 pages. The last known entry was Sunday, July 10, 1887, that reads:

staid at home all morning in the evening Papa and I went up to Aunt Jennie’s Alma was not there so I got on the pony and went over to Mr. Foreman’s after her Lizzie was fixing to go over to Mrs. Hickses with

This was open-ended since subsequent pages were missing. It was like reading a novella and then all of a sudden, the experience was over. Inside the lightweight cardboard back cover, I had learned her nickname was “Ida” where she had scribed in pencil, in the neatly written script, Dec 25th 1886 Ida A Head Roanoke, Mo.

Ida as wife, author, and historian

Ida married Clarence Walworth Alvord in Palmyra, Missouri on April 10, 1913. Alvord was a professor beginning his academic career in Massachusetts. He, too, was involved with historical collections. From 1923 to 1928, when Alvord passed away, both he and Ida spent their time abroad mainly in England and France.

Ida graduated from Howard Payne College in Fayette, Missouri in 1897 and Central College in Fayette in 1899. She also performed graduate studies at the University of Illinois. She taught in the Fayette public schools from 1901 to 1902 and was a research assistant from 1903 to 1907 for Louis Houck, another historian, and author. Ida was also a librarian and curator for the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis from 1907 until she married Clarence Alvord.

Ida founded the Missouri United Daughters of the Confederacy Library and Museum and was its first librarian in 1906. She published Historical and Interesting Places of St. Louis in 1909. This book is still available.

Ida was also state treasurer of the Missouri Folklore Society and director of its St. Louis branch from 1909 to 1913 (from 1912–1913, she was on the executive committee of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association). In 1918, she assisted in the woolens section of the War Industries Board. As she was active in Democratic politics, she ran for Minnesota State Senator in 1922. She wore several hats, indeed. She went into partnership with another woman in 1922 in Minneapolis opening a shop that sold items for the dining room. In the following year, she and Clarence Alvord went abroad.

From 1933 to 1936, Ida was the Executive Secretary in the Missouri office of the Farm Debt Adjustment Unit of the Resettlement Administration. In 1937, she assisted the State Director of the WPA Historical Records Survey in New Mexico. She co-authored “Inventory County Archives, Colfax County, N.M.”

While in Europe when her husband was ill, she wrote reviews under his name. In 1948, Ida published a family genealogy, “Descent of Henry Head (1695–1770) in America.” In 1945, Ida moved to Columbia, Missouri renting out rooms in her home to students attending the University of Missouri. Her home is said to have been filled with antiques from Italy after World War I.

Ida passed away in February of 1962.

Comments / 3

Published by

Hello! I have 30 years of experience in the legal field, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. I am an incessant thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into the service life of the Air Force in Louisiana, life has taken me to Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and ultimately to Missouri, I don't have that true concept of "home," but believe every living experience is tied to language. I love my family, art, true crime, non-fiction, reading, travel, and red pinot.

Kansas City, MO

More from CJ Coombs

Comments / 0