Mrs. Duer’s Diaries

In 1937, Alice Duer Miller, Barnard Class of 1899, presented to the Columbiana Collection the diaries of her great-grandmother, Hannah Maria Denning Duer. The diaries are a collection of 12 slim volumes documenting Mrs. Duer’s life from January 1838 to June 1862. They open with a four-year period when Mrs. Duer, as the wife of Columbia College’s fifth president William Alexander Duer, lived in College Hall on Park Place, the original home of King’s College. 

Mrs. Duer’s diary, February 16-March 3, 1841. Scan 4879. Duer Family Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Diary keeping in the nineteenth century was a very different proposition than what we may now think of as diaries or journals. This period’s diaries were not “a record of private thoughts or feelings to be kept hidden from others’ eyes.” [1] The then-diarist recorded the births, deaths, illnesses, visits, travel, marriages, work and unusual occurrences, as a kind of family and social history. The typical entries are often “terse, matter-of-fact comments, ranging from information on the weather and daily chores to remarks on the health and well-being of friends and family.” [2]

In this respect, Mrs. Duer was most certainly a woman of her time. Her diary entries are brief, about one to three lines at most, and consistently open with a weather report. She lists dinner and tea guests, visitors and house guests, and letters received; but not the conversations during dinner or the contents of the letters, just the names of guests or hosts and correspondents. Travel is also duly noted but mostly to record the conveyance and the destination: a walk to Hudson Square, a ride on horseback or on someone’s carriage, and even a sleigh ride to visit the Clarke family at Chelsea House on 23rd Street. 

Starting in February 1841, Mrs. Duer notes that her husband is ill and she dutifully tracks his medical treatment: March 3, 1841: “Beautiful weather. Mr. Duer not any better. Dr. F. bled him again this morning.” (See the last two lines on the scanned page.) Mr. Duer is later weak, languid, feeble, and even fatigued. She even records when Mr. Duer coughs during the night, but every so often, she notes how he seemed “better” and was able to enjoy some exercise. In 1842, William Alexander Duer resigned the presidency of Columbia College due to his ill health and retired to Morristown, New Jersey. Retirement agreed with Mr. Duer: he went on to be an active writer and lived for another 16 years. Mrs. Duer continued to document her family’s history in her diaries until June 12, 1862, about a month before she passed away on July 17, 1862.

Mrs. Duer’s diaries are part of the Duer Family Papers. In addition to the original volumes, there is (helpfully) a full typewritten transcript, which includes parenthetical annotations to clarify names, places and relationships. The collection also includes daguerreotypes of the family. Unfortunately, none of the identified photos are of Mrs. Duer, but the Nathaniel Fish Moore photographs capture some of the places mentioned in the diaries, including College Hall, Chelsea House and Hudson Square.


[1] Culley, Margo. “‘I Look at Me’: Self as Subject in the Diaries of American Women,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Fall-Winter 1989, Vol. 17, No. 3/4, 15. 

[2] McCarthy, Molly. “A Pocketful of Days: Pocket Diaries and Daily Record Keeping among Nineteenth-Century New England Women,” The New England Quarterly, June 2000, Vol. 73, No. 2, 276.