Have you ever wondered how Christabel Pankhurst sounded when rousing women to fight for the right to vote? Or Aga Khan III speaking to Muslim people? Or the Queen mom as a young woman exhorting the women of England to be brave during war? How about Robert Baden Powell, speaking to young boyscouts in the early 20th century?
We can easily find material to read about these people and what they stood for. But it is rare to actually hear their voices and hear their passion and personality come through in speech.
The British Library Sound archive holds recordings of various public figures including these and many more, most of them recorded before the advent of long-playing records and tapes.
They are recordings of speeches and messages addressed to the British parliament or the public at various events.
The library warns users to be aware that the recordings are historical documents and that language, tone and content could be offensive to present-day listeners
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.
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.
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.
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.
I can’t tell you enough how much I love looking at old paintings and photos of a place, not only for the artistic pleasure they give but, from a historical research perspective, for the detail they convey.
Take this painting of the early Vancouver waterfront by Edward Roper, for example. It shows people working – from what I can tell possibly some Squamish people hauling boats onshore, a couple of Chinese men, and others at the waterfront. It gives me a strong image from that very time, from the perspective of an astute observer.
And even thought the complete image is undoubtedly contrived, there is a lot here to feed my imagination and fuel the creative process for the novel I’m writing set in Vancouver beginning in the 1880s.
Whereas many photos of the times are of people of prominence or group shots of factory workers or picnic groups, there is a lot of historical artwork that shows everyday people doing ordinary, everyday things.
Clothing, attitude, work being carried out, tools, scenery, and more can be conveyed in a single painting that could take a long time to discern through written records or be difficult to set up in a photograph.
Yet, along with historical photos, they are a rich resource for any creative or documentary research you may want to do. They are further different from photos, however, in that an artist can add in details that might not be present or apparent from a photo.
Check your local archival repositories, art galleries, and museums for any local historical paintings they might have in their collection. Even though, in some cases, the artwork itself may not be very good, drawings and paintings will give you a “snapshot” impression of a place that may be just enough for you to imagine your own creative work emanating from it.
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.