Collecting and Selling Antique Diaries

Updated on January 16, 2018
Virginia Allain profile image

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

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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. | Source

Figuring Out 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.

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How Much Is An Old Diary Worth?

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 of an Appraiser Assessing the Value of a 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. | Source

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 planning to use the donation on your taxes. Never discard a diary. If you don't want it and can't sell it, donate it somewhere.

Video of Another Diary Collector

Example: Finding the Family for an 1886 Diary

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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?

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Tracking Down the Family Related to a Diary

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.

© 2018 Virginia Allain

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