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The Accidental Diarist

A History of the Daily Planner in America

In this era of tweets and blogs, it is easy to assume that the self-obsessive recording of daily minutiae is a recent phenomenon. But Americans have been navel-gazing since nearly the beginning of the republic. The daily planner—variously called the daily diary, commercial diary, and portable account book—first emerged in colonial times as a means of telling time, tracking finances, locating the nearest inn, and even planning for the coming winter. They were carried by everyone from George Washington to the soldiers who fought the Civil War. And by the twentieth century, this document had become ubiquitous in the American home as a way of recording a great deal more than simple accounts.

In this appealing history of the daily act of self-reckoning, Molly McCarthy explores just how vital these unassuming and easily overlooked stationery staples are to those who use them. From their origins in almanacs and blank books through the nineteenth century and on to the enduring legacy of written introspection, McCarthy has penned an exquisite biography of an almost ubiquitous document that has borne witness to American lives in all of their complexity and mundanity.

See the author’s website for the book.

280 pages | 34 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Culture Studies

History: American History

Media Studies


“Molly McCarthy presents a compelling case for considering preformatted daily planners as a distinct genre of both timekeeping and self-reckoning in the nineteenth century. The Accidental Diarist makes a significant contribution to the history of time consciousness in America.”

David Henkin | author of The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America

The Accidental Diarist is a fine piece of research, perceptive, nuanced, and well written. Here, Molly McCarthy explores a neglected aspect of American life in a most original way. Bravo!”

Michael O’Malley | author of Face Value: The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America

“In this meticulously researched and engagingly written cultural history of the daily planner, Molly McCarthy traces how everyday Americans used their diaries both in expected ways (tracking the passage of time and monetary expenditures) and unexpected ways (tracking spiritual progress, interacting with the burgeoning commodity culture). In doing so, McCarthy ably joins the ranks of scholars such as Michael O’Malley, Patricia Cline Cohen, and Charles McGovern, who contributed to our understanding of Americans’ standardization of time, acquisition of numeracy skills, and engagement with consumption and citizenship, respectively.”

American Studies

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Almanac as Daily Diary
Chapter 2. The Birth of a Daily Planner
Chapter 3. The Profi ts of an Abbreviated Self
Chapter 4. Making a Diary Standard
Chapter 5. The Daily Planner Meets the Adman


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