Archives, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, military history, Record keeping, Remembrance Day, social history, Women, women's history

Trying to study war no more

chessmen

 

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.

Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice.  Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness.  Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.

Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.

When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.

And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting  the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.

I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.

And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?

The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.

And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.

Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.

Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.

Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.

And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle.

 

 

 

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

A wedding in Vancouver, 1886

trousers-underwear-nostalgia-past-54611
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.

 

As I’ve been working on writing a wedding-day scene for my historical novel set in Vancouver 1885-1913 I realize I need help to get her underwear and clothes right so I can be as authentic as possible.

I’ve been reading historical novels for years, but have always glossed over these terms in my effort to get on with the story, and only ever had a vague idea about what they 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 over the couple of hundred years they were worn.

The study of the history of fashion is a complex and detailed discipline and one I don’t claim any proficiency.  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 the 1800s to the present.  As well as  what was available and acceptable here 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 in.

Ivan is a local historical hero in my books – and we’re lucky to have him. Next week I’ll talk about his work to create a costume museum in Vancouver and his fashion shows featuring original clothing that he commentates, bringing a feminist historical perspective to the issues, trends, and movements as they relate to clothing of the time.

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.

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

Archives, Artists, British Columbia history, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Paintings, Photos, Research, Vancouver history, Women, women's history, Women, Women's History, Vancouver History, Lisa Anne Smith, Michael Kluckner, Nursing History, Midwifery, Journalism, Early women travellers, Women writers

A picture – the proverbial 1000 words

Red Cross booth 1918
Red Cross booth at a war-time carnival in Vancouver. Image by James Crookall, circa 1918. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives (photo 260-1048)

 

As with paintings, a photograph can give so much information about a place and its people and they are well worth the time and effort of tracking down. But stay focused or set a timer for yourself because it’s easy to unintentionally spend a lot of time on this kind of research.

Like many people, I am fascinated by historical images and find that as I work on my novel, set in Vancouver 1885-1913, I return to archival photos, either online or in person, to review scenes that help me re-imagine and hone the details of my story to bring it further to life.

This picture from a WW I era carnival in Vancouver in 1918 is a great example of the kind of detail I love. I can see the fashion of the time, including hats, hair-styles, nurses’ uniforms, street lights. Even the price for admission to some event at this carnival.

It gets me thinking how tenacious people are, trying to carve out a semblance of normalcy during times of war or disruption. There is an inherent seriousness to this carnival scene with the Red Cross as its focus.

So as I let my imagination go with the idea of setting a scene there with all the carnival’s inherent energy and sensations – the smell of popcorn and feel of it getting stuck between your teeth. Or getting sticky fingers from eating candy-floss. Of watching out for horse manure on the ground. And hearing the sound of children squealing as they come over the top of the Ferris wheel. The music and the hucksters.  The coloured lights as darkness falls.

And what was that 10 cent attraction?

A temporary reprieve from the worries of loved ones on the front.

Because there’s a good chance the people in the picture had lost someone close to them, in the Great War, the name given to WW I at the time. Or had a family member on the battle front. Or missing.  The Red Cross stand and its link to the war brings all the frivolity back down to earth and speaks to what’s really on everyone’s mind

You can write an entire scene of a novel, or a play, or a movie – maybe even an entire story based on this one picture.

As a writer or artist of any kind, these are the real-life images that you can hold in your mind’s eye as you ponder your scenes and characters, absorbing historical details and events almost intuitively.

As for the nuts and bolts of doing photo research itself, I’ll come back to that next week.

 

Alberta history, Alexander St, Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Chinese Canadian history, Fairview, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Manitoba, Northwest Territories history, Research, Southeast Asian community in Vancouver history, Vancouver history, Women, women's history

The Imperial Automatic Voting Machine Company

space contraption
Artist: Chanut is Industries License: CC Attribution 3.0 Unported

 

In Vancouver in 1903, a company called The Imperial Automatic Voting Machine Company was looking for investors to raise 250 thousand dollars, issuing shares for a dollar each.

The mood in Vancouver was ecstatic that year following the depression of the 1890s, and along with all that money came the a period of scams and reckless speculation.

I wonder what that voting machine was like and how it worked –  if it ever even came into being.

Less dramatic, perhaps, but interesting in a different way,  the city directory where I found the Imperial voting machine company also showed me that on Hastings Street – what is now downtown Vancouver – a couple of blacksmiths, a couple of Chinese laundries, and a few warehouses. Even a foundry with a few boarding houses interspersed here and there.

A little further away there was a harness-maker, a prospector, a steam-boatman, a cannery manger, and a shingle sawyer.

Not the kind of people who live in the city today!

All this I found in the collection of BC Directories 1860-1955 which are available online through the Vancouver Public Library.

And here is a link to a collection of directories covering Alberta, Manitoba, and Northwest Territories Directories going back to 1878.

And another link to locating historical directories across other Canadian jurisdictions. The years vary. Links to Canadian historical directories

Directories exist in almost every other jurisdiction in the English-speaking world and possibly elsewhere in some format, but that is beyond my ken.

If the above links aren’t helpful for your research, do a google search using the term, “historical directory” and the name of jurisdiction.

 

 

 

Vancouver history, Women, women's history

Emily Patterson – The Heroine of Moodyville

A couple of books have recently come out on two dynamic women in Vancouver’s history, Emily Patterson by Lisa Anne Smith and Julia Henshaw by Michael Kluckner.

I thought I’d shed a light on Emily Patterson because she, or a character based on her,  will have a part in the novel I’m writing which is set in early Vancouver.

Emily Patterson was a nurse and midwife here from the early 1870s at a time there were incredibly few other white women. She earned a reputation for being fearless, kind, and dedicated to helping settler families and others on both sides of Burrard Inlet. She is most vividly remembered for an episode one night when she traversed Burrard Inlet in a small boat to help someone in Point Atkinson  That act was later immortalized in a poem in which she earned the sobriquet, The Heroine of Moodyville (the settler name for what later became North Vancouver).

I’m not sure if I will portray Emily as herself in my story or if I will conjure up a character at least partially based on her.  I would love to put her in as herself, but since there will be some issues in the story – possibly an abortion and likely some discussion about birth control – that might be contentious, I don’t want to put her in a position where she will take a stand or give advice or assistance unless I can find out for sure that she would have supported these things.  A big challenge.

But I can use her life and experiences to give me a sense of how midwives worked here in the late 19th century, along with general early midwifery, abortion, and birth control history, and conjure up a character loosely based on Emily.

In any case, if you’re interested in Emily Patterson and the experience of an early white woman in this part of the world I recommend the book, Emily Patterson : the heroic life of a milltown nurse by Lisa Anne Smith.

The author will be speaking at the Vancouver Historical Society meeting this Thursday (May 24), 7:30 pm at the Vancouver museum – FREE.

Here’s a link for more info.

http://www.vancouver-historical-society.ca/index.html

 

 

Bradford, England, Historical documents, Historical research, Industrial revolution, Novel excerpt, Research, Women, women's history, Yorkshire

Getting a feel for Bradford

No matter how much you read or watch, there’s nothing like travel to get a deeper feel for a place whether you’re doing historical research or not.

There are things you just don’t think of asking or looking for while researching a place from afar. And things that other sources might not mention because they seem too mundane or obvious.

But by being in a place, you absorb so much, whether consciously or not, that adds depth to understanding your story’s or your ancestors’ settings.

I spent a few days in Bradford in West Yorkshire this week, a place that’s currently going through some tough economic times.

I felt a sadness there – a feeling that was much more palpible than all the research I’ve been doing about the place over the past year.

Is this a vestige of its history? Did the working poor of the 19th century have the same apparent feeling of defeat as I perceived in Bradford this week?

A few people made a lot of money in the textile industry of Bradford in the 19th century.

But the vast majority of its 200,000 inhabitants, including thousands of children – and my protagonist Annie – worked 12-hour days in appalling conditions, earning barely enough to keep body and soul together.

And they lived in dark, dingy, and overcrowded housing surrounded by 200-foot high smokestacks spewing sulphurous smoke from factories throughout the city.

A classic Dickensian scene of the industrial revolution.

Adding to the misery, then and now, Bradford is a very windy place. Relentlessly so. And last week it was really cold too despite the spring season.

It wore me down the way I imagine it wore Annie down as she walked, hunched over in the pre-dawn light on her way to the factory where she worked.

But there were times when the simple pleasure of hearing songbirds chirping made me smile as I walked down the street, or looked out onto the famous moors of the Bronte sisters, and I imagined it bringing some happiness to Annie too.

Along with the more linear research I’ve done so far, I am holding fast to these feelings and impressions of Bradford, adding fuel to the fire of my imagination as I conjure up Annie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

And also to work them into her memories as she traveled miles from the only home and life she ever knew before arriving in the village of Granville (later Vancouver), in 1885, a tiny settlement with a lumber mill, surrounded by towering evergreens, and a dearth of white women.

Bradford, England, Historical research, Industrial revolution, Novel excerpt, Women, women's history, Yorkshire

Bradford – where Annie comes from

factorygirl
Annie

I’m going to visit the city of Bradford next week – now the curry capital of the UK, so I’ll definitely be trying out curry and banghan bharta.

But the main reason I’m going, is because the protagonist of the novel I’m working on comes from there.  Her name is Annie and she was one of thousands of girls and young women who moved to Bradford to get work in a woolen mill. Here is a picture of what I imagine her to look like.

Originally Bradford was a small market town, with a population of about 7000 people. Up until about 1800, women came from the surrounding villages to sell their spun wool and cloth. But as technology developed, the home-spun work these women did couldn’t compete with the hundreds of yards of fabric that could be produced every day in the mills of Bradford.

It ended the century’s-old spinning and weaving tradition in the countryside. As a result, thousands of girls and women migrated to Bradford from the surrounding towns to get work in the factories, swelling the population to nearly 200,000 by 1850.

By then the city had earned a reputation for being the wool capital of the world, but at a cost.  There were frequent outbreaks of typhus and cholera and mill workers in the city had a life expectancy 20 years.

More than 200 chimneys spewed out sulphurous smoke, polluted the waterways with dyes and other chemicals and had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in England.

Annie and her sister Mavis are only 10 when they get pawned off by their orphanage, and sent to work 12-14  hours a day in one of the textile factories in Bradford