William B. Cowan diaries

Biographical and Historical Notes

William Bird Cowan was born on December 30, 1820, in Clark County, Ohio, to Joseph Steel Cowan and Phoebe Anderson Cowan. Cowan lived in New Paris, Indiana, for the majority of his adult life where he worked as a tradesman and hardware dealer.

William was married to Elizabeth Cowan. Together they had at least three children: Barbara, Samuel, and Phoebe. William died on December 8, 1884, in Hagerstown, Indiana.


"1880 United States Federal Census." Ancestry.com Library Edition. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2004. http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed January 11, 2016).

"William Byrd Cowan," Geni. http://www.geni.com/people/William-Cowan/6000000037413484471 (accessed January 11, 2016).

Scope and Content Note

This twelve volume set of diaries was kept by Indiana tradesman William Bird Cowan between 1839 and 1877. Each volume features brief entries about local events, weather observations, business trips taken to other towns, and household tasks.

Cowan’s frequent diary entries began with a brief description of the day’s weather (cloud cover, precipitation, wind direction) and was followed by a sentence or two regarding the day’s events. These events included work done during the day, local events such as rallies and festivals, family visits, and household tasks.

In addition to serving as a diary, each volume served as a record of Cowan’s business transactions. He included lists of expenditures by item, pay for hours worked, and a variety of other business-related information. Beginning in 1873, Cowen’s diary entries became somewhat more verbose and provided more detail, contrasting with the rather terse entries for previous years.

Cowen used annually published diaries for use by tradesmen, with blank spaces for each day of the year. The first few pages of these commercially published diaries featured calendars and various charts listing information such as the distance and travel times between major cities, “notable days” of the year, dates of astronomical events such as eclipses, and tables for calculating interest.

The blank and front endpapers contain a large number of handwritten mathematical calculations and a number of simple sketches.