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A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990)

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Martha Ballard

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,196357,322 (4.08)119
Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier. Between 1785 and 1812, a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in twenty-seven years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
This book is very interesting way to learn about everyday life in America in the late 1700's-early 1800s. The extracted diary entries themselves are not that interesting; it is Ulrich's extrapolation of events in Martha's life that makes it so. She ties in information from other entries not presented, writings from other contemporaries (usually men), and historical documents to make a cohesive subject. Each chapter seems to develop a specific theme, e.g. medical practice, crime & punishment, marital customs, gardening, local economy and women's contributions, the rebellion of squatters trying to settle land owned by a major corporation. It countered my current assumptions that "women weren't educated" or "women with children out of wedlock were shunned".
While I didn't read all the diary extracts, looking at Martha's spelling was quite interesting and made me wonder that maybe the current theory of encouraging young students to write without regard to spelling might be an excellent way to get them to express themselves.
I hope that Ulrich left a transcript of the diary with the Maine Historical Society for future researchers use. ( )
  juniperSun | Apr 7, 2023 |
Diary of a midwife in Hallowell, Maine; daily entries give insight into the life of the community, particularly the women’s economic network that is missing from histories; explicated by Ulrich. The diary itself is fascinating, not because what Martha Ballard was doing was extraordinary, but because it wasn't--for rural Maine in 1800. And then there are Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's careful and thorough notes about how Martha's words fit in with what else we know about the society. One of the things I remember most from when I read it is the existence of a whole sub-economy that operated among the women--which was evidently completely invisible to the men's notions of the economic system--or at least to history, until now. ( )
  kcollett | Nov 25, 2021 |
nonfiction/women's economic & social history (1780s-1810s in Maine).
These pulitzer winners are always so meticulously researched; here is a woman's life (the grandmother of Clara Barton) as reconstructed through primary sources. Not all the chapters are going to be interesting to all readers, but a lot of it was for me. ( )
  reader1009 | Jul 3, 2021 |
Sometimes I need more than 5 stars to review a book, this is one. Fascinating book revealing life on the edge at the beginning of white America. Every day every action, every death, every birth, every sickness, all for the good Lord willing it or allowing it. What a hard life they lived. Every step they took was basically fraught with peril - having a baby could easily mean death, crossing thru the woods to your neighbors house could result in a fall and death... ( )
  marshapetry | Nov 20, 2018 |
An intimate look at the life of a 18th-century midwife, healer, housewife, and mother in rural Maine. Drawing on the seemingly bare diary entries of Martha Ballard, Ulrich paints an honest and vivid picture of the work of women throughout a period in history when they were considered unremarkable and their influence was often overlooked. ( )
  GennaC | May 9, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ballard, Marthamain authorall editionsconfirmed
Ericksen, SusanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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[Introduction] Eight months of the year Hallowell, Maine, was a seaport.
Clear and very hot.
[Epilogue] That Martha Ballard kept her diary is one small miracle; that her descendants saved it is another.
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A house could be an adversary. Turn your back, and it rippled into disorder. Chairs tipped. Candles slumped. Egg yolks hardened in cold skillets. Dust settled like snow. Only by constant effort could a woman conquer her possessions....scrubbing floors and linens into subjection, she restored a fragile order to a fallen world. (p.219)
A family labor system was inherently cyclical. A couple spent their first years of marriage raising workers and their last bereft of help. The middle years were the harvest time of family life: a man who was unable to clear his land or fence his fields when he had grown sons at home would not have a second chance...(p.220)
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Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier. Between 1785 and 1812, a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in twenty-seven years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale.

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