LAST BLOG OF THE YEAR: The Mystery of Emma Waite
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
My final blog of the year is based on my own research into the 1870 diary of Emma Waite, housed in the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the New York State Library. In 2005, I was the fortunate recipient of an Anna K. and Mary E. Cunningham Research Residency in New York State History and Culture at the Library, searching for any material related to nineteenth-century businesswomen in New York State. I did find a few trade cards (which were eventually reproduced on the cover of my book Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885 , SUNY Press, 2009) – but otherwise, nothing. As I continued my fruitless search, Librarian Paul Mercer encouraged me to look at the Emma Waite diary. Since this was the record of a worker rather than a businesswoman, I resisted his advice. One day, because my own efforts continued to prove futile, I decided that I might as well examine the diary. From the first moment I opened it, I have been convinced that Waite’s story deserves a wide audience.
The “Emma Waite Diary” is an intriguing document, written by an African-American domestic servant and hotel cook who worked in Saratoga and New York City. Recorded on the pages of a small, leather-bound, printed daybook that Waite received as a gift early in 1870, it chronicles a single year in the life of this otherwise unknown individual. Waite’s opening entry: “Quite mild and pleasant for the first I did not spend a very pleasant new years day, was home sick all day,” foreshadows the challenges faced by a single black woman trying to make her way in New York State. Illness, injuries, bitter cold, exhausting work, headaches, unemployment, deadening heat, and racial discrimination plague Waite’s months in Saratoga.