Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Research in the Library: Identifying a Diary's Writer

Sadie Levi's diary entries for August 20-25, 1886.
The entries on these pages mention socializing, working at the family's store, and a trip to the "electric light works."
Last month, the Library received a diary that was found in a barn in Cherry Valley, New York. The donor of the diary contacted us after finding several references to Schenectady in the diary. The diarist's name was not indicated, and most people are referred to in the diary only by first names. The challenge we faced was to identify the writer of the diary.

First, we went through the daily entries in the diary to pick out clues. The diary charts the activities of a young woman in her late teens or early twenties; she often writes about visiting with friends and family, shopping, taking care of younger siblings, and going out with a suitor. We gathered that she was a daughter of a merchant -- the diary includes frequent references to the family's store. The diary also frequently mentions Jewish holidays and religious services.

From the context of the diary, we understood that the diary writer lived with her parents, along with a few younger siblings. She also mentions several other family members who could have been older siblings not living at home or cousins. Phrases in the diary such as "Ma and I went to Barney's to get Laura a dress" or "I was home all afternoon with Ruth as she has a sore throat" helped us to identify names of siblings who likely lived with her at home at the time. We were able to identify a younger brother, Sidney. An entry on January 7, 1886 lists that day as his birthday.

Knowing that Congregation Gates of Heaven was the only Jewish congregation in Schenectady until the late 1880s, we thought that it might be possible that the family stayed with the congregation and might be buried in the Gates of Heaven cemetery. We acted on this hunch and checked through the Gates of Heaven cemetery records in our collection in search of any Sidney buried there with the birthdate of January 7. We found a Sidney Levi with a matching birthdate -- now we had a last name!

After we had a possible surname, a search of census records, family files, obituaries, city directories, cemetery records, and wills yielded much more contextual information and built information about the diary's author and her family tree. We believe the diary was written by Sarah "Sadie" Levi (1865-1939), daughter of Jonathan Levi, a prosperous wholesale grocer and a prominent member of the community in Schenectady. Jonathan Levi arrived in Schenectady in 1848 and headed one of the city’s oldest Jewish families. He and his wife Eliza (Susholz) had eleven children: Fannie, Esther, Susan, Pauline, Sophie, Sadie, Minnie, Ruth, Albert, Laura, and Sidney. These names matched names mentioned in the diary, as did the name of Sadie's boyfriend, Ed, who she often mentions as visiting "after the store closed" -- Sadie went on to marry Edward Cohen, a partner in her father’s business.

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