Yesterday I read Sarah Grossman‘s interesting post at Process blog about the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849-1870). According to Grossman, the project “was the first weather data collection effort in the United States that brought together a national coalition of volunteer observers based around the pursuit of citizen science.”
Learn more here.
Grossman’s piece reminded me of what I said about the weather in my first book. While I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I had to make a decision about what to do with the many, many references to the weather in Fithian’s diaries. Anyone who reads early American diaries knows that it was a common practice to say something about the weather at the beginning of each entry. Sometimes a reference to the weather (“clear” or “cold”) is the only thing mentioned in a given diary entry.
One option was to just ignore these references and treat them as unimportant trivia. But the more I read the diary the more I became convinced that I could not do this. Fithian’s references to the weather told me something about his world and the way understood his place within it.
This is what eventually made it into the book:
As Philip moved through the agricultural seasons his thoughts were often preoccupied with the weather. This was yet another sign of his intimate knowledge of the Cohansey landscape he called home. It is common for people to begin their farm diaries with references to current weather conditions. It is even more common for historians who study diaries to ignore these references, skimming over such apparently unimportant jottings on their way to the “real lives” of their subjects. This is unfortunate for it misses a vital dimension of what actually defined “real life” in places such as eighteenth-century Cohansey. Philip obsessed about the weather. He did not start his journal entries with notes on the weather because such remarks represented proper form or provided an adequate preamble to the day’s more important events. Philip wrote about the weather because his family and neighbors were at its mercy: “We know not what a Day may bring forth.” The weather, more than anything else, provides our best insight into the limits of an eighteenth-century agricultural life. No degree of human initiative could tame it. Few technological improvements could ease the anxiety that it brought to farmers.
When winter refused to yield to spring, the cold weather could lay waste to the Fithian’s orchard. Philip described consecutive days of frost in late April 1766 and thought they would certainly “kill all our peaches.” The summer’s tempests “of rain, wind and thunder,” arriving to Cohansey from the southwest, wreaked havoc on the Fithian’s fields, “blowing down the Flax, Wheat, & Corn very much.” At other times the rain inundated the fields to such an extent that Philip was able to “track an Ox or a Cow” across them. Cohansey farmers never watched the weather more closely than during the harvest season. Philip often devoted an entire journal entry to an hour-by-hour chronicling of a particular day’s weather patterns: ‘cloudy this morning”; about nine or ten o’clock it broke away so that the sun shone”; about noon it rained again in showers”; at 3’oclock there came a thunder gust from the west, and rained excessively hard”; a while in the evening it cleared very pleasant.” The unpredictable weather during the 1766 harvest season brought great anxiety to Cohansey farmers. When the rains came as consistently as they did during this particular summer, the Fithians were given only a small window of time to harvest their crops. Philip had never seen Cohansey farmers so apprehensive. “From this time to next Wednesday,” he wrote, “will be the most hurrying and engaging time for harvest Men that perhaps ever was known; on account of the later rains.”
While these concerns were certainly real, they were made less frightening by the power of the Presbyterian God. During times like the summer of 1766, Philip placed his hope for a successful harvest in the hands of a God who knew what was best for the farmers of Cohansey and worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him. During times of uncertainty Philip did not turn to superstitions or the wisdom of man-made almanacs but instead did his best to rest in God’s care for his family. In 1766 the God who controlled the weather looked favorably on the people of Cohansey. “When the descending rains seemed to threaten us with entire desolation,” Philip reflected, “God is pleased to withhold the Showers.” Though God could have chosen not to save the Cohansey harvest, this time around He elected to answer the prayers of His people. The only response was thankfulness, a virtue that was not lost on any of God’s creation in Cohansey. Even the “beasts & birds,” Philip proclaimed with appreciation, “express a sense of their joy and gratitude, for the plentiful provision, by their chearfulness and merryment.”
At other times, however, unfavorable weather patterns could be interpreted as signs of God’s judgment. In the summer of 1769 Coahsney suffered through a particularly difficult drought…
If you have read this far, you can find out what happened on p.31. 🙂