American Collections blog

10 June 2015

An Oil Creek Valley Diary: a guest post by Janet Floyd

Diary cover

This is a diary kept for four months during 1873, between August and December. The bills tucked into its pocket tell me that it belongs to one Thomas M. Patterson. The notes accompanying it describe this man as an engineer in the petroleum industry in Pennsylvania. To have a precise time, a name, a profession and a setting is to have the sense of a solid starting point for diving into the contents.

Yet encountering diaries is always an uncertain business. They may be difficult to decipher. They stop and start according to events we know nothing about. We’re faced with questions about why they’ve been written and for whose satisfaction. Some are immersed in private affairs and written with a sympathetic audience in mind. Others are penned with an eye to posterity, a confident conviction that the diary will set the record straight, that the writer’s walk-on part in history will give a fresh and vivid insight into matters that he or she recognises as historically significant: wars, major political events, emigration.

This diary does none of these things. It tells us almost nothing about the private emotional world of its writer, although the item itself has been produced to evoke secrecy and containment. It is small, three inches by five, folded like a wallet and it has a faux clasp made of brass. The black leather, discreetly decorated with a few gold flourishes, has a little pocket into which papers can be slipped. Patterson has tucked some bills into it. But there are no secrets revealed here. On two occasions he refers to feeling ill. On December 20th he expresses loneliness:

felt rather out of heart today had nothing to do all week wonder how my wife and boy are today

 Thomas Patterson is not given to recording his feelings, never mind exploring them.

Nor does he have any comment to make on ‘news.’ No reference is made, for example to the major stock market crash in New York on 18 September that year, an event that produced financial panic and a serious depression. The diary helpfully provides its owner with a printed list of important events in world history (at least from the point of view of an Anglo-European American from the Northern states), as well as the dates of the births and deaths of a range of British and American writers. This little volume has actually set the stage for the writer to take his small place in history. But Thomas M. Patterson has not used the little volume to make claims for the importance of his experiences. And yet he was undoubtedly undergoing something of a personal adventure, and at major turning point in what we might argue to be the defining American industry, petroleum: defining in the sense that the modern industry was born in Pennsylvania in exactly the place in which this diary was written, and also in relation to the nation’s modern history and international relations.

Patterson was an engineer, and the backdrop for his entries was the petroleum industry in the area of Pennsylvania known as Oil Creek Valley. Drilling for petroleum was the new extractive industry of the age, the focus of all the excitements of strikes, rushes, huge fortunes and dirty tricks that we associate with the gold, silver and diamond strikes of the era. Newspaper and magazine readers couldn’t get enough of these stories or of details of the boomtowns, the chaotic scenes or indeed of the new technologies that made these industries so profitable. Perhaps petroleum’s particular fascination lay in its gushing plenitude and in its newness as a commodity. When petroleum first flooded out of the ground in Titusville in 1859, it was mostly being used as a medicine. It took time to work out how to deal with it all: how to collect and transport it as well as how to process it into something profitable, a source of lighting for lamps, as well as a machine lubricant.

By the time Thomas Patterson wrote his diary in the village of Tarr Farm, Pennsylvania, these early problems had been partially resolved. According to the historians, 1873 was a climactic year for Oil Creek Valley: ten million barrels of oil were produced, though prices plummeted as a result. At the same time, the early 1870s saw the industry on the cusp of profound change: in the process of shifting from a situation where there were multiple stakeholders (workers, land owners, mine owners, wildcatters, speculators, mining professionals – such as Patterson – dealers, refining and transportation companies) jostling for survival or dominance, towards an industry dominated by the austere figure of John D. Rockefeller, whose achievement of a monopoly on oil refinery famously enabled him to dominate the industry. There was certainly a tale for a diarist to tell.

As an engineer, our diarist had a pivotal role in an industry that was making the running in terms of production, profit, business practice and cultural visibility, not to mention environmental destruction. Engineers were at the heart of the extractive industries powering the late nineteenth century American economy (as well as making vast profits for European and especially British investors). They were the ones who assessed sites, wrote reports for the corporations and investors who employed them, who could plan the work and manage the operation, who thought through and instituted improvements. Before coming to Tarr Farm, Patterson had invented an improved method for removing drill bits and extensions that had become stuck deep underground, a major impediment to the smooth running of the drilling process. These improvements were much written about in the press during the 1870s and 1880s, while the engineers themselves were considered rather glamorous and modern. It was a profession for an educated man of ambition, even a well-connected man.

Diary text

Returning to our diary, then, the possession of an engineer at the cutting edge of a high profile industry, and turning the blank pages till we reach Thursday August 21st, here is how Patterson begins at the top of the page (filling the full eleven lines of the entry space with his neatly slanting writing):

Walked to Marrs[?] and Hardison well and run the mill about an hour when Jim came and I walked to [?]. after dinner walked to Lawrence by the way of Petersburg and the Hop Farm. seen Innis at his house and then went to the Station and took the cars for home found all well

The day clear and warm

What can we make of this? Not much, but then beginning a diary is a difficult thing to do. Inevitably it raises a testing question about what (and how much) is worth setting down and, a stickier question still, what the diary is going to be for. Does Patterson wish to use his diary to record his movements, to remind himself of what he has undertaken or achieved, to set out the topography of the area? Is it that he needs to justify his use of time to himself or perhaps, implicitly, to his employer? Or is this a way of making notes of a particular episode? As he began, had he already decided how to write this diary?

I think he had. The next day has a shorter entry, this time filling only nine out of the thirteen available lines. But Patterson settles down to usingthe form of unpunctuated notes that he adopts for the rest of the diary, using, once again, and as he continues to do, a separate line at the bottom of the entry to record the weather. On Friday 23 August he adds two new forms of content that occur throughout the diary: train times and sums of money paid:

Stayed at home till 11.38 went to Oil City to Boices Office recd $100.00 of him then on the 4 O’clock train to the center went to Fishers house paid him $100, 00 and walked back to Tarr Farm

The day clear and warm

Patterson covers a narrow range of his daily experience, then. And this brings us to one the great challenges that diaries (perhaps all private writing) present to the reader. How can we use these entries to grasp something of this key episode of industrial history? What might be the relationship between the record we’re reading here and the history we read elsewhere? Is it possible, for example, to enmesh the two in a narrative about an unpredictable and still, at this juncture, relatively unplanned and unregulated industry, a setting in which populations mushroom and disappear, a landscape and an agricultural economy in turmoil, and, at the heart of the matter, a substance scarcely understood? So should we guess that it is the chaos of the industry or its shifting state that inspires Patterson’s rather haphazard, scarcely punctuated notes? Can we say that the experience of work in a place like Tarr Farm that cannot be plotted or told as an unfolding story in a diary in the way that an experience of war or a love affair can?

Another possibility is that working lives are actually like this in the nineteenth century; indeed perhaps many working lives are still like this. We associate the late nineteenth-century with routinized work, the rise of mass production and time and motion studies. Much of Patterson’s diary, though, is about work encountered on the spot, organised daily or over a few days; experienced, perhaps, as many, perhaps most, of us experience our work. He is clearly being directed to undertake the tasks he records (moving money, attending meetings, checking wells, trouble-shooting problems, writing reports), and he sometimes indicates how he is informed of the need to do a task. But he does not refer to or write about his employer, their relationship or the way in which his working life is shaped or organised. Rather – increasingly as the diary goes on – he just writes down exactly what he has worked on. Here for example, on Thursday 16 October, he writes about a recurring task: dealing with the iron casing surrounding the tubing that brought out the oil:

Went to the well tyed the casing it would not come. Drew up tried to make another cut but the cutter would not work tried it higher would not work drew it out sharpened upright wheels put in again cut 300 ft drew out took out casing. first in cutter could not enter the casing drew out called it done got to town 9PM clear pleasant

Patterson is not working to a routine. He is well aware of train times and records precisely the times of the trains he catches around the valley. But in his working life, meeting people and achieving ends is a rather untidy affair:

Rec’d a Postal Card from M to meet him at Oil City went down on the 8.38 train went to Brice’s Office then across to M house but he was not at home. came back to the depot and Boice’s office looking for Mr Drake. Then to Innis shop to see his new Engine. Then on the 2PM freight train and cut wood.

We think of this period at the moment when work and leisure are decisively separated. But across Patterson’s week, time is divided unevenly between work and home. In the first week of September, for example, on Monday (1 Sept) he writes:

Walked to Pitthole and picked berries all day

Picked about 10 quarts got home about 8PM                                                                   

There is no entry for Tuesday. On Wednesday he receives money and pays it to someone else and then returns home. On Thursday 4th:

At home all day making 

Blackberry wine

 Patterson doesn’t ‘balance’ work with ‘life’ or favour one above the other.

Perhaps it is the diary rather than his practices of work that evade the routines of work and a separation between home and job? In the 1970s Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor wrote a study of ‘resistance to everyday life’ called Escape Attempts in which they described how, when we are oppressed by relentless routines, we invest in particular activities that create a sense of distance from the habitual. Was this why Thomas Patterson filled each small daily space in his diary?

At the end of every entry, Patterson made a comment on the weather, frequently using the same words. They are not especially descriptive:

cloudy to cold

Cool and Pleasant

Forenoon rain afternoon clear

Rained til about four, then cloudy 

Where possible, he left a space between his notes on the day and his comment on the weather. When he had filled the space with his notes, he squeezed his weather report into a corner at the top of the entry. Why does he do this? Why does he create this routine in a diary that evokes a life of dealing with unpredictable events?

There’s no guessing an answer to this. Thomas M. Patterson’s small, compact diary keeps its secrets after all.


A guest post by Janet Floyd

Reader in American Studies

King’s College London

Patterson's diary was recently acquired by the Library, and can be made available via the Manuscripts Reading Room



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