Technologies of Self: The commercial pocket diary in Canada, c. 1780-1890

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: History


AHRC : Holly Day : AH/L503848/1

The commercial pocket diary has been one of the most common ways in which people have recorded their lives over the past two and a half centuries. Yet as a hybrid genre which brings together an eclectic mix of print and manuscript text, the pocket diary is perceived to have little literary value and often falls through the net of our historical enquiries. Consequently, pocket diaries have received no critical attention in Canada despite the prevalence of pocket diaries in Canadian archives and libraries. However, understanding the evolution of the diary form is crucial both for our knowledge of the development of the early print trade and our understanding of how Canadians experienced and interpreted the world around them during a period of great media shift and social change.

Drawing on neglected archival sources at major Canadian libraries and archives such as the Thomas Fisher Library and Library and Archives Canada (LAC), I will build on my current PhD research into British pocket diaries to contribute a transatlantic perspective to the development of this genre. My project will research the importation and production of pocket diaries in Ontario in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, with a focus on the development of the first Canadian brand of commercial diary, the Canadian Pocket Diary, produced by the Brown Brothers in Toronto. I will also conduct case studies of individual users of the genre to examine how the pocket diary helped to shape their self-recording practices. This will include a case study of the collection of pocket diaries kept by Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915), inventor of a worldwide standard time, throughout his life.

This research will shed light on the role pocket diaries played in the growth of the print trade, the creation of emergent national identities in print, and popularisation of the diary form. Ultimately, it will uncover the ways in which pocket diaries acted as a technology of the self, helping people to track, manage and record their everyday lives. The questions we ask of historical diaries can, in turn, be used to interrogate our current assumptions in the modern world, helping us to historicise and contextualise new forms of writing about the self.


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