Skip to main content

How to Collect and Sell Antique Diaries

A librarian through and through, Virginia Allain writes about book topics, researching, and information for library users and librarians.

Antique diaries are fascinating artifacts

Antique diaries are fascinating artifacts

Collecting and Selling Vintage Diaries

For many years, I collected antique diaries and journals. It's fascinating to read these accounts of bygone times. Selling these is tricky. Some have little value on the open market, while others are priceless. If you like history, vintage paper items, and learning about people's lives, try collecting antique diaries. Here are some guidelines for how to sell these or to restore them to a relative of the journal writer.

Inside cover of a pocket diary from World War I. This gives the name and the military unit that the person served in. Those are valuable clues to start your search for information of the writer. This is my grandfather's and is not for sale.

Inside cover of a pocket diary from World War I. This gives the name and the military unit that the person served in. Those are valuable clues to start your search for information of the writer. This is my grandfather's and is not for sale.

How to Identify What You Have

Start by reading at least part of the diary. Often the handwriting is difficult to decipher and may be faint if written in pencil. Many diaries are the pocket variety so there's little space to write. Cramped handwriting can be difficult to read.

While reading the diary, take notes on what you find. Make lists of names, dates, and locations that you discover in the diary. These clues will lead you to the potential buyer for that diary. Note down interesting activities and the general feeling of the writing and personality of the writer. These can make a difference in the value to a purchaser.

Determine the audience for this diary. Is it a personal account only of interest to a descendant of the writer or is it one of historical or collectible interest? Particularly sought after are diaries relating to the Revolutionary War or Civil War.

Was the journal written by someone well-known at the time? Even if a diary is not a hot collector's item, it still has some value to a descendant of the writer or to a local historical society or to an organization or business that features in the diary.


How to Determine a Diary's Value

Determining the value of the diary is quite tricky. I've seen many diaries go for a few dollars on eBay because there was nothing to attract a collector. Negatives: poor condition, pages missing, many blank pages, illegible handwriting, water damage, boring entries.

Research on eBay to see the going rate for similar diaries. If you suspect it is particularly valuable, you may need to contact a major auction house or one that specializes in historic items. You can sell the diaries through either method.

Don't try to sell a nondescript diary on eBay or other online auctions as it will draw few bidders and a very low price. If you can determine the writer's name and town, you can search for a relative. Look on genealogy sites and post a message saying you have the diary of XXX from XXX town, dated XXXX. If you see that someone is looking for the name you have, contact them and offer to sell them the diary. Usually, these potential buyers aren't looking for an ancestor's diary. They don't even know it exists. This is why you have to find them, as they are unlikely to be on eBay.

Video: Appraiser Assessing Civil War Diary

Finding the Right Buyer for a Journal

I was able to sell one diary to a college library. The writer was a student there in the 1800s, so the daily details in this diary had value to the college. They were quite interested when I described what the student wrote about the teachers, entertainment, daily expenses and events of that time. They willingly paid the price that I set for the diary, plus the shipping costs.

Photo taken at a Civil War museum.

Photo taken at a Civil War museum.

What If You Can't Find a Buyer?

If unable to find a buyer for a diary, consider donating it to a historical society in the town where it was written. Get a donation acknowledgment from them if you are planning to itemize the donation on your taxes. Never discard a diary. If you don't want it and can't sell it, donate it somewhere.

Video: Diary Collector

I have an 1886 diary for J.M. Boyles of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

I have an 1886 diary for J.M. Boyles of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

How I Found the Family for an 1886 Diary

I have an 1886 diary for J.M. Boyles of New Castle, Pennsylvania. It's been in my collection for years. It's time to find the descendants of this man or at least place it with a historical museum in that area. He isn't related to me.

Looking on Ancestry, I found census records and family trees with James McWilliams Boyles of New Castle. He mentions attending church with Lula in the diary. On the trees, I see a daughter Elizabeth L. "Lula" Boyles of New Castle, so that looks like a good match.

I contacted one genealogist and described the pocket diary and asked, "Would you be interested or know of someone who might be?"

The entries are brief. "April 10, 1886 - Transplanted cabbage in cold frames. Went to town in afternoon. Drew check for $30 gave to ??? for cash. Wife has neuralgia."

He kept a record of expenses in the back. In the diary and in the expenses, he names many people that are neighbors or people he does business with.

Wouldn't you love to find such a record of one of your ancestors?


Using Ancestry to Track Down the Family

Since I have a membership on Ancestry, I did some targeted searches on there to find a family tree that included this man. At first, I only had his initials, last name, and location that he had written in the front of the pocket diary. I put those in the search form and added some details that I found in the diary.

In one entry, he mentioned his daughter Lula went to church with Ellen. I wasn't sure if Ellen was a hired girl, a neighbor, or how she fit in. I had the year of the diary, so I included that.

I found one census record with a J.M. Boyle of New Castle. He listed his work as "market gardener." That seemed a good fit, since in the diary he frequently mentioned taking produce to sell in town. In the census, there was a daughter Lulla (possibly a misspelling by the census taker). The census also listed a wife, Sarah, and sons Harry and Herman.

These names and dates seemed a good match for James M. Boyle born in 1840 that I found on a number of family trees on Ancestry. I sent a message to one genealogist on there and described the pocket diary. It turns out that J.M. Boyle is the husband of his 2nd great aunt Elizabeth "Lizzie" McDowell. He even has an old picture of her. Now he will have a diary kept by his relative's husband, where she is mentioned many times.

I'm so happy that the pocket diary is back in the hands of the family.

Video Tutorial: Archival-Quality Storage Box for Storing Journals

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I have a diary written by John Wendell Phillips. Whom do I inform? I think it is very important.

Answer: I see at least three with that name when I do a Google search. One died in 1947 in New Brunswick, Canada, another died in 1994 in Queensland, Australia, and a third died in Ogden, Utah in 1948. Use the clues in the diary to figure out where and when they JWP lived, look for surviving family who might be interested. If the diary tells about his work, it may be of interest to a place or employer.

Question: I don't know where to begin with looking for a diary from 1800-1900. How do I get started?

Answer: If you are looking for a diary for a specific person or family name, contact local museums where they would have lived. Through a wider net by putting your search on eBay and then making it a saved search. They send you an email when anything related shows up for sale.

If you've taken the Ancestry DNA test, you can contact all the 4th and 6th cousins that show up through that and ask if they know of any family diaries.

If just looking for 19th-century diaries in general, the eBay search is the way to go. There are many that can be read online from various libraries if you just want to read some and not necessarily own one.

Question: I have a diary written by Gene Autry Sept 6,1952 (first tour of South Pacific, mentioned Mikey Rooney, Jackie, the Hearst ranch, his experiences in Japan and Korea). Is it valuable?

Answer: This is truly a unique piece. I searched and did not see other diaries of his appearing on the market so we can't use that as a guide. You could contact an auction house that specializes in celebrity or Hollywood memorabilia and sell it through them. Another avenue would be to approach the Autry Museum ( to see if they will give you an offer.

Question: Have you ever appraised a diary? I recently came across a five-year diary written from 1940 to 1944, and I am trying to determine its value.

Answer: I'm afraid I don't have the expertise for that. Research the writer of the diary to see if they are notable in any way. Read some of the diary to see if it covers any remarkable events. Look on eBay for diaries from that era and what they are selling for.

© 2018 Virginia Allain

Share Your Comments Here

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on September 11, 2019:

How wonderful to have that as part of your family history. Take good care of that journal.

carolyn crawford on September 11, 2019:

I have my father in laws journal he wrote to his wife daily while he was in the Airforce from 1936 until 1960

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on March 01, 2019:

I was recently asked, "I am wondering how I can find vintage diaries that are not online. How do I find old diaries locally? What sorts of stores should I try to browse? I live in the USA if that helps. Thank you for your information."

My answer was "It's possible that you'll find old diaries at yard sales or antique shops or auctions, but it is pretty random and will take a lot of time. I'd say your best bet is estate sales where they are selling everything in a house after a death. To save time, most people turn to the online auction, eBay. You can put in a search and have it alert you when one shows up."