Research in the time of Covid-19

Like all else in this strange era, historical research will likely be disrupted in some ways in the time of Covid-19.

The situation is changing rapidly and adaptions are being made to balance safety with access, so call or monitor websites of research material repositories you need to use.

The Vancouver Public Library is still not open as of today. However, you can call or email questions and access the regular online collection of periodicals, e-books, and audio books.

Many online historical resources are also still available including directories, some fire insurance maps, some early building permits, and photos.

Archives may have online resources such as file lists available, as usual. These allow you to do as much preliminary research at home as possible so that when you can get to the actual site, you can make the most of your time and immediately begin to look at original records.

The City of Vancouver Archives is restricting the number of researchers permitted into the reading room at this time, and an appointment is required.

I called this week and the earliest appointment I could get was for May 21.

Here are their current research room restrictions:

·         Abide by 2 meter physical distancing.We have placed yellow strips on our flooring to help mark spacing requirements for both staff and patrons.

·         Handwashing can be maintained through the Archives’ public washrooms and we  also provide hand sanitizer in the Reading Room.

·         Please wear a mask. You are welcome to bring your own or we can provide one for you. Reference staff will also be wearing masks.

·         Stay at home if you’re sick or showing symptoms. Appointments can be rescheduled for a future date. We will refuse service to anyone displaying symptoms.

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Gastown – never an official name for what became Vancouver

Gastown was never an official place name for what later became Vancouver, even though it shows up on some historical maps.

It was a local sobriquet,  an

  •  assumed name.
  • nickname; or fanciful appellation
  • affectionate or humorous nickname

The tiny place, officially named Granville, aka the Old Granville Townsite (OGT) was only a few blocks long in each direction and the majority of the businesses there were saloons servicing the men who lived and worked outside the town limits, at Hastings Sawmill.

And, like everywhere, it had a local character who put a stamp on the place – in this case Jack Deighton, who kept the Deighton House Salooon. He was the kind of guy who liked to talk and had a quick wit and a boisterous voice to boot. You can almost hear his hearty laugh as he sipped whisky and teased one of the millworkers who frequented his saloon.

Someone who talked alot was said to be Gassy – hence his nickname, Gassy Jack.  And in the guys from the mill who headed over to Granville to drink and gamble started calling it Gastown, the name stuck and evern shows up on maps.

As an aside, Hastings Townsite was much further east – closer to where Renfrew Street is now.  It was a vacation spot  with a few houses and hotels.


Seems promising but often isn’t – Diaries


While doing your historical research in an archive, you might find a collection with a diary in it.

Not to be discouraging but proceed with caution!

A lot of the diaries that end up in archives aren’t the juicy, detailed, scandalous, social historical documents you read about in Jane Austen.

Instead, a lot of them are rather simple weather reports or statistical data tracking miles traveled in a day stops along a route, or something like that. Could still be useful of course.

Just warning you 🙂

(SMOC) Society for the Museum of Original Costume, Fashion history, Ivan Sayers, Local heros, Uncategorized, Vancouver history, women's history

Beauty by Impairment

Here she is! My protagonist, Annie (possibly without a corset and definitely without a crinoline) while still working in the woolen mill in England, before coming to Vancouver in 1885


Last week I wrote about trying to sort out what clothes my protagonist would wear for her wedding in 1886 Vancouver and the help I got from local costume historian Ivan Sayers.

One thing I really appreciate about Ivan – one of our local historical heros – is the empathy and insight he shares about the social history of women as reflected in the fashions of the day.  He not only knows the minutiae of fashion from the 1800s to the present, from clothes to accessories, but he also knows and shares his social political knowledge through the historical fashion shows he commentates.

Beauty by impairment – that’s what he calls the various practices over time that have had detrimental effects on women’s health and mobility.

Historical documents frequently tell of the pain, discomfort, and constraint that women endured from their clothes and underwear – conditions that were unhealthy in the short and long term, and especially so during special times like pregnancy and travel. There was a good reason women called them instruments of torture for the pinched, bruised, and made it hard to breathe.

In the west, the smaller a woman’s waist and the more it could be squeezed and shaped to fit the current ideal of beauty, the more attractive she was considered. It’s no different from women in traditional Chinese culture whose feet were bound, causing such pain that the girls whose feet were bound to confinement cried themselves to sleep and ultimately limiting their mobility and making them virtual cripples.

Before about 1800, corsets were made of the oft-mentioned whale bone and were called stays, but later, softer padded fabrics were used to contour the body as fashion demanded – either rigid and straight, or curved and flowing.

From about the mid 1800s, crinolines were de rigeur. These were made of steel that was heavy and unwieldy or else so wide that women couldn’t move from one room to another.

Later, collapsible versions allowed women to sit on the ground at picnics, while still maintaining their modesty by concealing (and denying?) their natural shape.

My protagonist Annie, wouldn’t have had the time or energy to be too concerned about getting all her layers of confinement down pat, what with having to bend and lift and carry in the course of her 12-14 hour workdays in the factory.

But once she came to Vancouver, even though she worked as a domestic in the home of the sawmill manager, she would have had more leisure and more opportunity to enslave herself to the dictates of fashion, exchanging one task-master for another some might say.

And her wedding, in the spring of 1886 would have given her the chance to go all out, to wear the most fashionable clothes and undergarments she could afford or find in the backwater that was Vancouver, and binding herself up to be acceptable to her husband and to society.  I am going to try to show some of this in the opening scene which I have been writing and re-writing off and on for several weeks!

Women are still going to extremes to fit the current standard of beauty as witnessed by breast implants, Botox, skin and teeth whitening, bulimia, anorexia….. Sadly the list goes on and women continue to feel compelled to go along with unhealthy practices in order to fit an unrealistic standard of beauty.

If you’re interested in fashion history and women’s social history, or would like to learn more about Ivan’s projects, check out SMOC, the Society for the Museum of Original Costume which he founded in 1992 to build, preserve, and study historical textiles, fashion, and traditional costumes.

His next fashion show is entitled Beastly Habits on Sept 21 and will coincide with the Beaty museum exhibit Skin and Bones which opens Sept 15 and runs until next summer.


Beaty museum, Fashion history, Historical research, Ivan Sayers, Local heros, Society for SMOC, Uncategorized, Women, women's history

A wedding in Vancouver, 1886

Although men’s long-underwear would be hung to dry on the clothesline, women’s “unmentionables” would never be so publicly displayed but would be dried in the house, inside a pillowcase or towel (unlike in this picture!!)

As I’ve been working on writing a wedding-day scene for my historical novel set in Vancouver 1885-1911. I realize I need help to get my protagonists’ underwear and clothes right.

I’ve been reading historical novels for years, but have always glossed over these terms to get on with the story, and only ever had a vague idea about what some of the pieces actually were.

Now I understand that part of the reason I never fully understood is because their design, purpose, and construction changed according to the whims of fashion and the social position of women .

The study of the history of fashion is a complex and detailed discipline and one I don’t claim any proficiency in. But in Vancouver, we’re fortunate to have a knowledgeable and passionate costume historian, Ivan Sayers, who not only knows the minutiae of fashion, but also the social history of women as it relates to it.

From details about the multiple layers of underwear and the way a corset was tightened. From the colour and pattern on fabric to the way a woman wore her hair. From the kind of jewelry to the style of shoe – Ivan knows these details as they went through their subtle and profound changes every few years from at least the 1880s to the present.  As well as  what was available and acceptable in the early days of Vancouver.

I spent a fascinating couple of hours with him last week and he gave me the low-down on Vancouver fashion of the 1880s – what the women here knew about the latest fashions in Europe, how they tried to replicate it, and what they’d do to fudge it the parts they couldn’t, whether because it wasn’t available or was too expensive – specifically for my servant-girl protagonist.

Shifts, crinolines, bustles, petticoats. Here was my chance to get the low-down without having to pour through books and try to figure out which style was appropriate for the time.

Ivan is a local historical hero in my books – and we’re lucky to have him.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Ivan’s projects, check out SMOC, the Society for the Museum of Original Costume which he founded in 1992 to build, preserve, and study historical textiles, fashion, and traditional costumes.