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.
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Historical documents frequently tell of the pain, discomfort, and constraint that women endured from their clothes and underwear – conditions that were unhealthy in the short and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.
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.
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.