Diary of a postwar Saint John housewife contains revelations for historian granddaughter

·5 min read
Ida Martin kept a daily diary for 47 years provides a new perspective on Saint John history.
Ida Martin kept a daily diary for 47 years provides a new perspective on Saint John history.

(Submitted by Bonnie Huskins - image credit)

A lowly, working-class housewife is shedding new light on the history of southwestern New Brunswick in the late 20th century.

Ida Martin was born in 1907 in rural New Brunswick and lived most of her married life on the west side of Saint John.

She wrote in her diary every day from 1945 to 1992.

A young Ida Martin
A young Ida Martin

A young Ida Martin

Her seemingly simple records contained revelations for her granddaughter, Bonnie Huskins, who happens to be a historian, and for Huskins's partner in life and academia, Michael Boudreau, who happens to be the current editor of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies.

"I think diaries are a very fascinating window into social history," said Boudreau, "whether it be a world of politics, a world of labour strife, a world of automobiles, a world of religion and a world of growing old."

Boudreau is better known as a criminologist but has a personal interest in Saint John history.

Labour unrest and family

"We've often mistaken diaries as just ways to pick up little snippets, the passage of time, that's all. But really, they are a much broader tapestry of life."

Martin wrote a lot about making ends meet on a longshoreman's salary, labour confrontations at the port and the importance of family.

Bonnie Huskins, historian and granddaughter of Ida Martin.
Bonnie Huskins, historian and granddaughter of Ida Martin.

Bonnie Huskins, historian and granddaughter of Ida Martin.

Boudreau and Huskins have distilled insights from Martin's writings in a new book.

Just the Usual Work: The Social Worlds of Ida Martin, Working Class Diarist is expected in bookstores March 3. It's available for pre-order through the publisher, McGill Queen's University Press.

The diaries have personal value to Huskins. She describes Martin as the "caretaker" of the Saint John Friars family kin network. (The diaries have occasionally even been used as a reference to settle family disputes, said Boudreau.)

But her academic interest was piqued by the fact that the diaries were kept so religiously over such a long period of time.

As she dug into them, Huskins discovered that the content was also interesting and unusual, compared to other diaries that have been studied.

"She didn't really talk a lot about herself and her feelings," Huskins said. "It was more of a chronicle of what she did each day."

A record of survival

Those "daily rhythms" are very important to social historians, said Huskins, because they tell a lot about what was important to a family's survival.

Michael Boudreau, editor of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies.
Michael Boudreau, editor of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies.

Michael Boudreau, editor of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies.

"She worked day in and day out," said Huskins, and the "usual work" depended on the time of year and the day of the week.

She also wrote a lot about her husband's work at the port — the kind of jobs A.R. was doing, what gang he was working on, what shipments were arriving that morning and what the weather was like.

Huskins hypothesized that her grandmother took such great interest in those details because her livelihood was closely intertwined with it.

"The income he brought in from the port was very, very important for their family economy."

"So when her husband would come home and said, 'The men just walked off the job because of the way we're being paid,' for example, of course that would spark her interest."

'Rich in working-class history'

There are references to labour unrest in the diaries, said Huskins, that haven't been talked about before by labour historians.

"These are incidents that kind of flew under the radar. It took Ida's diaries to bring them to light, which is kind of exciting," she said.

"These diaries are rich in working-class history," said Boudreau.

Ida, her husband AR, and their daughter, Barbara.  This is the cover image of the new book.
Ida, her husband AR, and their daughter, Barbara. This is the cover image of the new book.

Ida, her husband AR, and their daughter, Barbara. This is the cover image of the new book.

Besides being a longshoreman, A.R. was also a truck driver.

Cars and trucks were an important part of the working class economy, he said.

Driving was also important to Ida on a personal level later in life. When she eventually got her licence, it allowed her to expand her horizons.

"It gave her a sense of freedom to explore beyond Saint John," he said.

That was a change from her younger married life, when her husband was frequently "out with the boys" while she stayed home, said Huskins.

Huskins said the diaries gave her a better understanding of her grandfather and the social and physical effects of the work he did.

"These people were working day in, day out, lugging 240-pound piles of bananas and things," she said. "Longshoreman's labour — manual labour — really takes its toll on working-class male bodies.

"It kind of gives you a sense of why they would drink. One of the reasons he retired at a fairly young age from the port is that his body just essentially gave up."

What to do if you find a diary

The diaries show Ida and A.R. had a family life together as well as their own separate social circles. He had his friends from work. She had friends from church.

Martin wrote about her faith and her family and later in life she wrote more about what was going on around her, from local to global politics.

"That's one thing that really surprised me — the degree to which she used her diaries to record, for example, the constitutional debates in the 1980s and '90s," Huskins said.

For anyone else in possession of old family diaries Huskins recommends hanging on to them.

"These documents are really quite rare," she said, especially for working-class families in the post-Second World War period.

They can be preserved and digitized, she said, and would likely be of interest to local historians and the provincial archives.