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Smith Finds a Treasure in a Commonplace Book

By Schuyler Clemente '07

This past fall, after a chance encounter with a small auction house in the South and some subsequent sleuthing, Martin Antonetti, curator of rare books for the Mortimer Rare Book Room, bought a historian's equivalent of a rare jewel: the commonplace book of Grace Fisher, a girl who lived in Westhampton, Mass., in the early 19th century.

A commonplace book, top, kept by a Westhampton, Massachusetts, girl in the early 19th century is a newly prized acquisition of the Mortimer Rare Book Room. Curator Martin Antonetti, left, above photo, and Barbara Pelissier, right, president of the Westhampton Historical Society, plan to use the book in educational programming. Photos courtesy Daily Hampshire Gazette.

The commonplace book is "a genre of diary or personal notebook in which a person records all sorts of things that are significant to her," says Antonetti. "This book is typical of the period. It's something middle- and upper-class girls did as part of their upbringing." In this particular book, Grace Fisher penned diary passages, sketches and drawings and excerpts from letters, readings and sermons.

Very little is known about Grace Fisher. She was born in Westhampton in 1786 and lived to be only 23; she kept the commonplace book between 1799 and 1809, so it recorded her coming of age and is very helpful in seeing how she viewed her time in history. Antonetti posed a few questions that the book might address: "How did she see her place in society, Westhampton? What things were important to her? How did she change during the period of her youth and adolescence?"

Like Antonetti, Barbara Pelissier, president of the Westhampton Historical Society, is pleased to see the book return to the Pioneer Valley and excited to find another piece of the town's documented past. "We're hopefully going to find out more and more about Westhampton," she says.

"The local elementary and high schools will find many uses for it," she adds. Ideas for educational programming abound, including a plan to use a digitized version of the Grace Fisher book to explore the town's local history. Another project would be to have students start keeping diaries of their own.

"By doing journal exercises in the way they were done 200 years ago," says Antonetti, "the students can also explore the way they relate to their own places in society today."

One fact that struck Pelissier was that Grace was able to read and write at all, especially at the age of 14. "Thank goodness she was literate!" she notes.

The Mortimer Rare Book Room has other commonplace books in its collection, but they are mostly by European men; this is the earliest in the Rare Book Room by an American girl. In the book, Antonetti notes, Fisher muses on religion and in "a youthful way demonstrates a zest for life, which raises the pathos of the fact that she only lived to be 23." She also narrates an imagined scene between "Lady" and "Death" and comments on her place in society. Her comments, such as "How horrid is the tyranny of fashion!" and "Oh that the shackles of custom were once broken," suggest that she wasn't completely happy with the station of women at the time.

Ultimately, the book's rich historical value dwells in the insight it provides into people's lives some 200 years ago, for scholars, the local community and Smith students alike. "We collect the stuff of the past and put it in the hands of people to give them not only an immediate sense of history but also a sense of their own place within a larger temporal and cultural matrix. I'm certain," notes Antonetti, who plans to use the book in classes he teaches, "that this and other items like this can be among the catalysts for the intellectual transformation that is an integral part of the rich curricular experience Smith offers."

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