A female perspective on aging: The diaries of Anna Maria Preiswerk-Iselin (1758-1840) as resource for cognition and coping with age, disease, pain and death in the 1800s.

Selina Bentsch

Age and aging have become important topics (not only) in historical research during the past decades. Increasing changes in demographic structures of the so called «western societies» lead to intensive debates and research activities. However, this is different for Early Modern research. This is what the current research project wants to approach. Focusing on the extensive diaries of Anna Maria Preiswerk-Iselin (1758-1840), a well-to-do and educated citizen of Basel, insights on the aging of a rather «young» general public and society should be gained and this specifically from a female perspective. The project uses an historical-anthropological perspective in order to investigate phenomena of aging processes of body and mind. Further, this will be set in a broader context by comparing the given diary with other (mainly Swiss based) personal testimonials written by females during the same period of time, as well as using research results (concerned with age and aging in pre-modern societies) that have already been published.


Source material:

Diaries of Anna Maria Preiswerk-Iselin (written between 1795 and 1839) are used as a main source. In addition, the private archive of the Preiswerk-Iselin family and other private archives (like PA Vischer) contain letters and other personal testimonials by Anna Maria Preiswerk-Iselin and are located in the National Archives of Basel («Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt»). They are mainly about her later years, but also include sources by her children and grandchildren, who wrote about her (grand)mother and especially her achievements and impact within their family and beyond. All this and further sources should be accessed and consulted for the present research project.


Previous research:

Age and aging during the Early Modern period

Research on age and aging in Early Modern times has been done rather sparsely so far (which is different for the middle ages and modern era). This might be due to a highly complex situation in the Early Modern period, since very few conclusive types of «pension schemes» and old-age poverty existed (and they have been highly diverse, depending on regional, denominational and cultural practices). However, the topic has already been researched by English-speaking scientist, focusing on circumstances and developments in Britain (and sometimes France). Studies on the German-speaking realm are rather scarce.


Aging from a historic-anthropological and female perspective

Studies on widowhood often provide results on poverty among old people and social problems of elderly women during the Early Modern period. They are mainly concerned with questions of legal issues, social inequity or positions of power of (aristocratic) women. However, they often neglect female experiences of aging, disease and death.


Personal testimonials by female authors

Research on (rare) female diaries has increased over the past decades and is concerned with issues of religion, experiences of disease, love, marriage and family relationships. This also counts for documents with Swiss origin, like the diaries of pastor’s wife Ursula Bruckner-Eglinger from Basel, who wrote her testimonials between the years 1816 and 1833, as well as the ones by Anna Pestalozzi (1738-1815) and Regula von Orelli-Escher (1757-1829) – both natives of Zurich. However, the topics of age and experiences of aging processes have not played any essential role in research on this specific time and location. That also applies for the (as of yet unpublished) diaries of Anna Maria Preiswerk-Iselin (1758-1840). Although, Esther Baur-Sarasin has worked on them with regard to female identity, current affairs and specifically civic forms of self-display and introspection.