Diary shows childhood illness was common in 1890s

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

For the past couple of weeks this column has reproduced some of the entries of the diary of John Russell Harris, a boy who lived in Elora in the 1890s.

In early life, the boy was known mostly as John, but with time he, and presumably his family, preferred the use of Russell, perhaps to distinguish him from his father, John Harris.

Russell is the name used in the newspaper listing of his entrance into high school in 1895.

Last week, the final entry was a note made Jan. 18, 1896, regarding his new high school principal. There is another of the long gaps after this, and the entries do not resume until March 24, 1896.

March 24: We are going to have a concert on Thursday. We had a part rehearsal today. They tried the play “Sunflower Lodge.” It is fine.

March 26: Didn’t go to concert after all. Was in bed part of day. I have sold seven tickets for the concert. That’s 90 cents.

[Both Russell and his younger brother Frank seemed to suffer from prolonged colds and flu, and Russell frequently had headaches. Judging from school attendance figures, this was probably typical of the period. One reason could have been the quality of the drinking water in the shallow Elora wells of the period.]

March 27: In bed all day. Mother told us that George Gray acted fine in the play.

April 1: Was out yesterday for the first time. It was lovely. Today isn’t so nice. Frank had doctor last night. He said Frank was doing nicely. I was out today. Frank and I each chose a book for Aunty Mary to bring from Toronto. She and Grandma Smart are going tomorrow.

April 2: Cold snowy blustery day. Aunty Mary went to Toronto via G.T.R. Grandma Smart went via C.P.R.

[Some personal bias toward one of the railways must account for a mother and daughter travelling separately to begin their Toronto trip. The Grand Trunk service would have been the faster route.]

April 3: Father home today as it is Good Friday. Frank is a little better.

April 6: Frank is up. Nice day. Ally Anderson was in this morning. We had a good time. Sale of Blatchford factory today.

[This short-lived Elora factory began manufacturing parlour organs in January 1895 on Mill Street. Financial difficulties forced this sheriff’s sale in 1896. The buyer was Elora furniture maker J.C. Mundell, who continued production for a few months.]

April 7: Lovely day. Aunty Mary came home tonight. She brought Frank “Beautiful Joe” and me “David Copperfield.”

April 13: Nice day. School started again. Oh!

April 18: Nice day. Got the “Boys Own” out of the library tonight. Frank and I each got thin stockings and low tan shoes. Frank out all week.

April 21: Lovely day. Frank started to school. Was going for wild flowers but it looked like rain after four. Played football after four.

April 22: “The best laid schemes of mice and men, Gang aft oglee” (Burns). I was going for wild flowers today but had an accident. I was hanging on the butcher’s wagon when I felt something catching hold of my leg. I thought it was a boy at first but the something got its fangs in my leg and I yelled. It was Cap, the livery stable dog. It let go in a few seconds.

I walked over to the butcher’s shop and Dr. Nairn, who was passing, cauterized. Got a ride home.

[The wagon probably belonged to Elora butcher Alex Kerr.]

April 30: I have been lying on sofa since I got hurt. Miss Glennie dresses the wound.

[The injury may have been more serious than Russell suggests, though in the days before antibiotics, prudent medical people took extra caution to avoid infection. In any case, he was away from school for a month. Another gap follows this entry.]

May 18: Started to school again. I have been going on crutches for a week. Mr. McMurchie and Mr. Birchard have been very kind and have brought me books.

[Norman McMurchie was the high school principal; A.F. Birchard a teacher.]

May 23: Aunty Belle came from Toronto tonight to spend the 24th.

May 25: Wilbur Hardy is up. I went to a picnic of Beams today down in Thompson’s bush. Had a good time. Went to Beams at night. Bog storm tonight.

May 26: Mundell’s factory burned last night. Engine and boiler saved. Was up at two o’clock. Mr. McLeod struck with lightning at his farm and killed. Barns burned.

[This was one of the most severe lightning storms in decades. The Mundell factory was then located on Elora’s Victoria Street, along the south bank of the Grand. The Harris residence was only a block south and across the street … Another long gap follows.]

July 7: Have started writing exams. Paid two dollars to try Botany and Geography pretty hard papers.

July 8: Bookkeeping, reading and drawing today. Bk. Kg. Easy. Drawing pretty hard. Holidays now!

Aug. 7: Got back today from Mightons. Went yesterday. Had a good time. Have been playing cricket through the holidays.

Aug. 12: Am at Stratford with Mother and Frank at Gemills. They awfully nice and have a lovely place. Mrs. Gemill, Mother, Frank and I went to cemetery tonight. It is lovely.

Aug. 14: Home again. Got here tonight. Had ice cream at Stratford this morning. Went to hospital this afternoon before leaving Stratford.

Aug. 16: At Winterbourne today with Uncle John, Aunty Mary and Frank. Having lots of fun.

Aug. 21: Got home again. Had a good time at Winterbourne.

Aug. 27: In the Globe today that I passed. Hooray! We have started taking the Globe now.

Sept. 1: Started to prison today again. A good few books to get.

Sept. 11: Grandpa Harris got home from Toronto today. I got him to get me while he was there a physics, a German grammar and a French grammar. He had a good time.

Sept. 18: Have been home a few days as I was not well. Had a sore throat yesterday. Am about alright again. Frank got 62 out of 100 in an arithmetic exam. Went to Grandma Harrises for tea.

Sept. 19: Raining today. Frank and I got new boots from Peel’s. They are dandies. Bert and Charley and Gerty Adams were up this afternoon. Had a grand time. Frank was delivering notes for Mrs. Snyder. An “At Home” on Monday. He got 10 cents.

[John Peel is best known as the proprietor of a boot and shoe factory in Drayton, but for a few years he operated an outlet in Elora. The Snyders lived diagonally across the intersection from the Harrises, at Victoria and Water Streets. Members of the social elite invariably hand delivered invitations to their parties in the 1890s.]

Sept. 20: Nice day. Got a bad cold. Not out all day except for a walk before supper.

Sept. 24: Got out again this afternoon. Big day of sports in the park. Concert tonight. Didn’t go to concert. Made taffy.

Sept. 27: Review Sunday. Wasn’t out except for walk in the afternoon.

Sept. 28: Not at school. Delightful day. Adams have a new baby.

Sept. 30: Rainy day. At foundry this afternoon. Had a bad headache last night. Strung my popcorn yesterday. Was running sand mill. Frank and Charley were at school. I got good sand for mill at the foundry today. Mother and father are at prayer meeting tonight.

[The sand mill was a toy engine, powered by fine sand falling against the blades of a wheel … There is another one-month gap in the diary here.]

Nov. 30: Frank has a bad cold. I have had headaches all month.

Dec. 1: At school. Not very well.

Dec. 2: Not at school.

Dec. 10: Sent out “At Home” cards for all day Christmas to relations.

Dec. 16: My birthday. Thirteen years old. Banked my five dollars. $25 in bank. Got a card from Aunty Belle accepting invitation for Xmas.

Dec. 17: This is Charley Adams’ birthday. Went and pounded him. Frank has been sick with a cold for a week. Got loan of skates from Adams. Started making paper sacks for Grandmas and Auntie Maggie.

Dec. 18: Tried skating but skates did not fit.

Dec. 20: Bad cold. Headaches first for five days. Frank has bad cold yet.

Dec. 21: In house all day. Mother washed. Snowing.

Dec. 22: Snowing hard this morning. Sleighs out.

Dec. 23: Went to prayer meeting tonight. Father and I got a Bible for present for Mother. Singing school after meeting.

Dec. 24: Mrs. Potter brought up a quilt for Mother and a lovely pen knife for each of Frank and I. Aunty Belle came.

Dec. 25: Got a volume of Burns poems, pair of braces. Frank got braces also. All relations got here. Had an elegant dinner.

Dec. 26: Getting over Christmas. At Grandma Smart’s for dinner.

[The diary continues into the first half of 1897, with entries made on a regular basis until July 1. A very long gap follows to Jan. 1, 1898. Young Russell probably made a New Year’s resolution to maintain his entries more faithfully. If so, he retained his resolve only for six weeks, and the entries end on Feb. 17, 1898. With the next entry, on May 15, there is startling news.]

May 15: Well great changes have come to pass since I wrote last in this book. We are all settled in Listowel. Father came here the eleventh of March. I started to school after Easter.

[John Harris Sr. was a machinist. Though his son’s diary gives no confirmation, he probably worked in Elora at the Potter foundry, a business that was on its last legs in the 1890s. The Harris family eventually moved from Listowel to Toronto. Always a good student, John Russell Harris completed his education and became a teacher.]

His diary of his boyhood life in Elora is a valuable document, portraying everyday life in an Ontario small town in the 1890s.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Aug. 8, 2003.

Thorning Revisited