The late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century was a golden age of working class newspapers across North America.
Labour newspapers were launched across the continent to give news of workers’ actions and positions, a perspective largely absent from mainstream news reporting then and now.
The British Columbia Federationist was one of these early labour newspapers. Originally issued as the Western Wage Earner, it was owned and operated by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) that, at the time. was affiliated with 52 unions, representing 8000 (mostly male?) wage earners across the province.
Its motto was “The Unity of Labour; The Hope of the World” and its mandate was “to seek to reflect and voice the needs of organized labour”.
Edited by Parm Pettipiece, a leading socialist, the BC Federationist was published twice a month following VTLC meetings, and reported on its work, its decisions, and priorities. The paper also included reports from provincial unions generally, and on strikes and job actions in the province as well as Canadian Trades and Labour Congress Reports, and national and American labour news.
Each issue of the Federatist also included a directory of provincial unions and listed the officers and location of each member union, and the day, time, and location of their meetings.
Many of the unions represented in the Federationist are still in existence today, but others, like the ones listed below, are vestiges of a different era.
Street and Electric Railway Union
Paper Hangers and Decorators Union
Newspaper names and runs are notoriously difficult to pinpoint but from my preliminary research it seems like it ran until 1916 and later resurfaced as the BC Labour News in 1921.
The BC Federationist is a valuable resource, and, along with the Canadian Labour Gazette gives a rich snapshot of working class life and issues – a perspective that is generally under-represented in mainstream archival records.
We know about the ravages of smallpox in the colonies of North America, and the devastation they brought to the First Nations communities here but lesser known is an outbreak that occurred in Vancouver in 1892.
Stories about the outbreak can be found within Early Vancouver, a 7-volume set of books filled with the documented interviews of early Vancouver settlers undertaken by the city’s first archivist Major James Skitt Matthews.
Early Vancouver includes stories and first-hand accounts and details about early Vancouver people, places, businesses, and events, including a few stories about the smallpox outbreak here, in 1892.
I will write about some of the idiosyncracies of Early Vancouver (of which there are many) in a later post but for now, here are some stories I found about the 1892 smallpox outbreak. In them you will also find information about the volunteer fire brigade, Port Moody, Dupont St (now part of East Pender St.), prostitution, the character of various streets in the city at that time, and more.
From Early Vancouver Vol 1, p. 85 from Mrs. J.Z. Hall
” I think it must have been in 1892 that we had the smallpox scare in Vancouver. It was supposed to have come in by the “Empresses”[steamships] from the Orient (sic).”
“It was a terrible July; yellow flags were everywhere; no one who went through it will forget the scare we got. Houses were quarantined back and front—there was no getting out of them; people were quarantined all over the city. We lived on Nelson Street—I was Miss Greer then—Nelson Street was very sparsely settled, so was Robson Street, but there were cases on Robson Street. One young man, [who helped] Mr. Hanna, the undertaker, contracted the disease and died.”
“It was the custom to put those stricken in an express wagon, and with the driver ringing a bell to keep people away, warning them, the load of sick, frequently girls from Dupont Street, who had been visited by the sailors from the Empresses, would be driven down to the dock, and taken by boat to Deadman’s Island”
From Early Vancouver Vol 4, p 171, from A.W. Fraser
“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a ship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf. The news soon spread through the little city.”
“It was this way. Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in [to Vancouver] she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers. So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”
“The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade. The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the [cold water] hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.”
Since 2011 Early Vancouver has been available electronically, allowing for online searches.
I’ll write more about Major Matthews and about Early Vancouver in the weeks to come
It’s been many months now since the City of Vancouver Archives has completed its project to digitize more than 5000 photos taken by early Vancouver photographer, Don Coltman that I first wrote about in a post last February.
The Coltman collection offers a rich selection of Vancouver and Lower Mainland scenes from post-WW II and includes such subjects as:
B.C. industries and small businesses such as canneries, ports, sawmills, fishing, pulp and paper making and manufacturing
Community activities, fashion, businesses, events, sports activities, factories and production
Vancouver parks, bridges, beaches, streets, buildings, schools, shipyard and dock
Portraiture including weddings, families and local employees.
All photos are in the public domain and have been uploaded to the Archives online database with accompanying descriptions.
I’ve been trying to pin down some details – gritty stories and actual day-in-the-life specifics of a young seaman working on a sailboat in the late 1800s – what they ate, what work they did, where they slept, what they did in the lulls and anything about pets or children onboard.
But I’d been having trouble finding much that was useful. I did keyword searches on the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) using the terms sailing and sailboat and history and “daily life” and came up with a lot of current information about how to sail, where to sail, and contemporary sailboats in general with a bit of historical information thrown in about the heyday of sailing and the advent of steamships in the late 1800s, but still not finding quite what I was looking for.
When you’re doing historical research in particular you may need to think about some older and even antiquated terms for the activity or concept you’re searching for, though I had a similar challenge trying to come up with just the right search term when carrying out research on a (current) aspect of environmental science as well.
Finding the right term is like finding the right key to the lock and is sometimes the first step in finding useful material. Try turning phrases around in your head us, brainstorming different terminology for your subject, and trying this keyword-to subject-heading research in order to come up with the right term that will bring you success.
Before Google and keywords changed the world of online searching in the late 1990s libraries catalogued material using a thesaurus to ensure that all librarians were using consistent terms for classifying books and related material in different formats.
This meant that when terminology migrated (from ecology to envirormentalism for example) related material would still fall under the same classification heading and researchers wouldn’t have to look up multiple terms for the same thing.
Subject headings originate in the classification thesaurus used by libraries (usually Dewey or Library of Congress) and follow a rigid format as you’ll see from my research example, below.
But now, when you’re carrying out research, you can use a combination of keyword searching and the more traditional subject classification searching to pinpoint more specific or obscure information. The subject classification will encompass books and other resources that use terms you might not think of.
For example in my research on the daily life and conditions of sailors in the 19th century I did the following keyword searches.
I then chose a book from my results and scrolled down to find the library subject headings under which it was classified. On the Vancouver Public Library site, subject headings appear on the far right, a little down from the book title, and are hyperlinked.
Using the keyword “Sailing” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing”
Using the keywords “Sailing history” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing ships pictorial works”
So I clicked on “Sailing ships pictorial works” to see what other books have been put into that classification, but they were mostly about yaching and racing, neither of which I was interested in.
So I tried another tack (pardon the pun)!
Using the keywords “sailing daily life” – gave me no results
Using the keyword “sailors – pictorial works” brought up books with photos of sailors, a few novels, and some analysis of gender issues among sailors.
Finally I remembered the word ‘seafaring” and once I entered that term I hit paydirt because suddenly there was a plethora of books on the daily life of a sailor aboard a sailing ship in the 1800s, from the work they carried out in stormy weather, in port, and while in the calm waters, the doldrums of southern South America, near the Magellan Strait, to the fo’cs’le where they lived and slept, to the food they ate.
So if you aren’t finding the material you need, try thos little librarian trick of starting with keywords and then looking at subject headings of books that come up in the results that yield other sources on the subject you’re looking for.
Of course you can always ask a librarian for help. They will probe you for specifics and relevant terminology in this same way as I’ve just explained, but it’s always heavenly to have someone else to work on it with.
Don’t resort to being a mere mortal and thinking you can do everything yourself because it will save you a lot of time and frustration to use the professionals who know these things and more, so well.
Many archives are now working to digitize collections of their photos to make access easier for researchers to do preliminary research from their home or office, and to minimize the handling of originals.
To track down digital images, start your research in the appropriate archive for your location or subject (municipal/provincial/federal OR cultural/industrial/artistic), and see if they have a photo database you can search.
Every database will be slightly different but generally, you can enter date parameters, location, and photographer information, plus a subject you think will be appropriate to carry out your search.
But not all of these databases are user-friendly so write or phone the archives and ask for step-by-step instuctions or help in using them.
Don’t feel embarrassed or shy about asking for help.
Archivists know that their databases can be challenging to use and are usually more than willing to help you navigate and find something you’re looking for.
They want you to succeed!
Bear in mind that the images you see may only be in a thumb-nail version, or they may be bigger, but regardless, your use of them will generally be limited to research purposes only unless and until you’ve made arrangements with the archives that holds the copyright to that photo.
Considerations of fair use, copyright, and costs for various kinds of use including replication in books or used for a commercial purpose such as a poster, t-shirt, mug, or marketing material.