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Martha Farnsworth Diaries

Martha FarnsworthMicrofilm MF 3167-MF 3170




This collection consists of diaries of Martha Farnsworth,1882-1922. There are a few gaps: Diaries for the years 1900-1902, and 1923-1924 are missing. Martha Farnsworth lived in Topeka, Kansas, during these years, and the entries in her diaries not only reveal her values and the activities in her life, but also provide a picture of Topeka at that time. Some of the notable aspects of Martha's life include her participation in social reform movements, membership in social clubs and activities, her deep religious convictions and her vigorous energy level. For a published version of the Farnsworth diaries, see Marlene and Haskell Springers' book, Plains Woman: The Diary of Martha Farnsworth, 1882-1922.


1 ft. or four reels of microfilm.


Farnsworth, Martha, 1867-1924.


Martha Farnsworth diaries, 1882-1922


Collection Identification

Microfilm MF 3167-MF 3170
Manuscript collection no. 28


Kansas State Historical Society (Topeka)


Martha Cordelia Van Orsdol was born in Iowa in 1867. Martha's mother died when Martha was three years old. Soon, her father remarried, but Martha's relationship with her step mother was tumultuous and unhappy. When she was five, the Van Orsdols moved to a farm north of Winfield, Kansas. By the time she was sixteen, the situation between her and her step mother had deteriorated to the point where she felt she had to leave. At first she moved in with a neighboring family, and in 1887 moved to Topeka and resided there for the rest of her life.

Martha married twice in her life, and her first marriage, to Johnny Shaw in 1889, was a very unhappy experience. Johnny turned out to be an alcoholic and this influence would be the impetus for a lifetime of repercussions for Martha. In addition to his alcoholism, Johnny contracted tuberculosis, a condition which produced a body odor that Martha could hardly bear. In spite of her loathing for Johnny, Martha behaved dutifully toward him throughout their marriage, nursing him through illness and tolerating his alcoholism. As fate would have it, Johnny died of consumption in October of 1893. Martha's reaction to his death was a mixture of grief and relief. She felt free at last, and yet mourned his death with a strong sense of guilt as a result of her newly found liberation.

While married to Johnny Shaw, Martha suffered several miscarriages. In January of 1892 she successfully gave birth to a daughter, Mabel Inez Belle Shaw. Tragedy struck six months later when her only child died.

Though Martha was miserable in her first marriage, she recommended it – for others. Nevertheless, she did remarry only about seven months after the death of her first husband; this time to Fred Farnsworth, a postal worker of modest means. Though Martha had apprehensions about this marriage, it was quite successful and happy.

Though the financial situation of the Farnsworth household was always difficult and precarious, Martha's fiscal policy was a mixture of domestic frugality on one hand, and generosity to her friends, neighbors and family on the other (especially to the boys in her Sunday school class – her "adopted" children). Fred and Martha took in a few surrogate children – her niece Freda Gilbert, and Roy Penwell, and also took care of a number wards of the juvenile court.

For the most part, Martha was a typical woman of the Victorian and Edwardian ages. Having a strong sense of social responsibility, she was active in social reform movements (suffrage in particular, and temperance because of Johnny Shaw's alcoholism), joined and participated in social clubs (at least nine of them), and had strong religious convictions -- even in the darkest hours of her life. She was an isolationist when war broke out in Europe, and resentful of President Wilson when the U.S. entered the war. Nevertheless, she was intensely patriotic, and firmly supported American veterans who went "over there," and even encouraged her "boys" (over fifty of them) to enlist. When all of them returned alive and mostly uninjured, she attributed it to her belief that ‘God protects Kansans.'

Personality-wise, Martha's overriding and most noticeable attributes were her sense of independence, her high energy level, and the strength of her religious convictions. The combination of her independence and high energy would inspire her to ride across country, and swim across a local lake at the age of forty-two (she was the first woman to do so). She was inclined to walk anywhere at any time with little regard for her personal safety. Even so, she was not the sort to be confrontational. Rather than wear her down, routine household chores served as an outlet and stimulation for her energy. When chores were done, she dove into social and recreational activities.

In her religious life, Martha made church attendance a standard activity. Her diary entries include frequent mentions to divine providence and God's will in her life. She refused to leave her first husband on moral and religious grounds, even though he invited her to do so. Still, she was not inclined to pass judgement on others who had divorced. Martha bore pride in the fact that she was a descendant of John Rogers who was burned at the stake for his religious convictions, in Smithfield, England, in 1554. There is little doubt that Martha would have made the same sacrifice if she had to. Martha taught Sunday school for many years, and with this way exerted a degree of influence in the Topeka community. Martha delighted in religion, a source of sustaining strength through major illnesses and hardships.

Martha was a truly patriotic Kansan. Nothing could shake her love of and appreciation for her state – not the 100o heat or sub-freezing temperatures. To Martha, there was no doubt that Kansas was the heartland of "God's country." She felt a closeness to the land and loved the topography of Kansas' prairies and plains.

One of the more notable aspects of her life in relation to the time and place, were advances in technology and how they affected her. During her youth, railroad construction and development increased tremendously, making it easier for distant family and friends to visit. Telephones, which she was rather suspicious about at first, proved to be a great convenience. However, they also reduced the frequent face-to-face socializing with friends she so much enjoyed. The advent of automobiles, electricity in the home and moving pictures all had an influence on her life, either in making household chores easier, or altering the way in which she spent time with friends and neighbors.

Though Martha was normally vigorous and energetic, she died in Topeka on 13 February 1924 at the age of fifty-seven. The diaries for 1923 and 1924 are no longer extant, but a newspaper account of her death and funeral states that she died of "malignant hepatits." Her "boys" (former Sunday School students) came from around the country to participate in her funeral and act as pallbearers.

Scope and Content

The Martha Farnsworth diaries span a forty year period from 1882 to1922 (the diaries for 1900-1902 and 1923-1924 volumes are missing). Martha recorded her diaries in bound ledger books with a handwriting that is mostly legible. Punctuation is less than perfect, but does not detract from its readability. Martha was fourteen years old and living near Winfield, Kansas when she began her diary, a time during which she had an unsettled domestic life vis-a-vis her step mother.

Martha also collected and augmented her own writing with newspaper clippings, playbills, post cards, letters and the like. These enclosures have been removed form their original locations and placed in folders at the end of the collection.

Her diary entries generally fall into two different categories: "one-liners" briefly indicating where she spent her day and what the weather was like; and longer, more elaborate entries revealing how she felt about what was going on around her, and the people in her life. In the early years of her diary keeping, the entries were usually brief, but as time went on and her life became more complex, the entries lengthened as she became more interested in recording her life activities. The black and white microfilm of the original diaries do not reveal that Martha had a tendency to underline selected parts of her writing in red. Even in difficult times, Martha was more inclined to express her gratitude that things were no worse than they already were, rather than complain how bad things were.

In terms of her writing style, Martha's writing was influenced by the popular novels of the time: Robinson Crusoe, Ivanhoe, Inez: a tale of the Alamo, St. Elmo, Lena Rivers, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another source of writing influence were her religious convictions. Martha frequently interjected her entries with a sense of divine providence.

By her own account, Martha let no one read her diary -- even her first husband did not even know she kept a diary. Still, she exercised a great deal of caution and discretion in her writing for fear that they might fall into the hands of others. Though diaries are inherently personal, Martha's are never too personal.

Not only does this collection reveal the life of a woman in Kansas at the turn of the century, but it also serves as a barometer of social and technological changes taking place in Topeka in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not only were new inventions being made and introduced to middle-class American life, but they were changing society. Such things as railroads, telephones, and automobiles were making distant friends and family members seem not so far away. Telephones made communication more convenient, but reduced the face-to-face socializing with her friends -- something she missed.

Diaries such as these will be of interest to students of important social issues of the day, such as suffrage, temperance, the peace movement during World War I, and the extent to which religion influenced in the lives of women at the time. The Farnsworth diaries also indicate the nature of life and society in Topeka during the late Victorian and Edwardian years.

In 1986, Marlene and Haskell Springer edited and had published Martha Farnsworth's diary. A copy of their book, Plains Woman: the Diary of Martha Farnsworth, 1882-1922, is located in the Kansas State Historical Society's research library. The Photographic Section of the Kansas State Historical Society has ten photographs of Martha Farnsworth, many of which appear in the book.

Contents List

Arranged by volume number and then years covered therein.

Microfilm MF 3167

Volume 1, 1882-1889

Volume 2, 1890-1893

Volume 3, 1894-1895

Volume 4, 1896

Volume 5, 1897-1899

Microfilm MF 3168

Volume 6, 1903

Volume 7, 1904-1905

Volume 8, 1906

Volume 9, 1907

Volume 10, 1908-1909

Volume 11, 1910-1912

Microfilm MF 3169

Volume 11, 1910-1912

Volume 12, 1913-1914

Volume 13, 1915-1916

Volume 14, 1917-1918

Volume 15, 1919-1920

Microfilm MF 3170

Volume16, 1921-1922

Items found in Diaries: 1882-1922

This microfilmed manuscript collection circulates through interlibrary loan from KSHS. Please indicate the reel number when requesting microfilm.

Related Records and Collections

Related collections

Temperance history collection, no. 645.

Woman Suffrage history collection, microfilm MF 1049; available through interlibrary loan

Women's Christian Temperance Union history collection, no. 657.


Springer, Marlene and Haskell, eds., Plains Woman: The Diary of Martha Farnsworth, 1882-1922, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Index Terms

Access Points

American diaries -- Kansas -- Topeka.
Farnsworth, Fred, 1866-1946.
Shaw, Johnny, d. 1893.
Social conditions -- Kansas -- Topeka.
Suffragists -- Kansas.
Temperance -- Kansas.
Topeka (Kan.)
Topeka (Kan.) -- Social conditions.
Woman Suffrage -- Kansas.
Women -- Social conditions -- Kansas.

Additional Information for Researchers

Administrative Information



Other forms available

The Martha Farnsworth diaries, 1882-1922, are available on microfilm through interlibrary loan (roll nos. MF 3167-MF 3170).

Publication rights

Notice: This material may be protected by copyright law (title 17, U.S. Code). The user is cautioned that the publication of the contents of this microfilm may be construed as constituting a violation of literary property rights. These rights derive from the principle of common law, affirmed in the copyright law of 1976 as amended, that the writer of an unpublished letter or other manuscript has the sole right to publish the contents thereof unless he or she affirmatively parts with that right; the right descends to his or her legal heirs regardless of the ownership of the physical manuscript itself. It is the responsibility of a user or his or her publisher to secure the permission of the owner of literary property rights in unpublished writing.

Preferred citation

[identification of individual item and/or series], Martha Farnsworth diaries, 1882-1922, microfilm MF 3167-MF 3170, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka.

Acquisition information

Lucille V. (Mrs. Fred C.) Farnsworth, gift, 1949.

Processing history

Processed by Robert A. McInnes in 1999. Microfilmed in 2000 by the Kansas State Historical Society (Topeka); Lab. no. 50114-50117.