Thursday, August 5, 2010

A List for the Laurier Era in Canada (and earlier)

Girl's boot from the 1899 Eaton's catalogue on

On an earlier blog I have a picture of what is supposed to be King Arthur's round table, from a castle in Winchester, UK. I mention how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, ie. iron from ore. It's an iron age myth. (So Joseph Campbell says.)

Well, I want to do the same thing for the Laurier Era. I want to pull stories from the 'store list' Norman Nicholson left behind.

I've transcribed 12 months from 1895, when the Nicholson's were a young family, when Flo, of Flo in the City, was two here: One Year's Expenses. I have the entire list from 1883, when Norman and Margaret married, to 1921, two months before he died. He even managed to keep some kind of list in the 1908-1913 era, when he was away working on the railroad.

Like every family's list of expenses, it is very repetitive. I had to write "Minister's Stipend 40 cents,"52 times. And every once in a while 4 gallons Coal Oil, for that's how they lit their home, until 1913, when they got electricity. And 1 llb (bushel) of flour, for about 4.75. Margaret baked A LOT.

And like every family's list, every once in a while a 'new item' gets on the list, Keen's mustard starts around 1895, or an unique purchase, like Kodak 5.00 in 1904.

Around 1900-1910, some of the most famous 'brands' of the 20th century, were being promoted in popular women's magazines, Jello, Heinz beans, Quaker Oats, etc etc. (I've noticed that the brands that did advertise heavily, like Ivory Soap, were the brands that caught advertising works.)

In fact, the very first item I pulled from the Nicholson trunk in 2003 was a Direct Mail advertisement for Crisco, from 1916. It was addressed to M. Nicholson, and I had no idea who she was! Margaret Nicholson. My gosh, I know her well, now.

I'm a former advertising writer, so I recognized the angle and style of the copy. Very polished and professional. In fact, I later learned it probably was written by a legendary woman advertiser, I forget her name, for J. Walter Thompson.

I guess way-back-when someone had the brainstorm that if you want to reach women in the home, you should use women copywriters. And then they realized that there was big money to be made working in advertising, so they fired all the women :) And now we have Madmen, in the 60's, with the one woman struggling to get ahead. And me, in the 70's, just out of school, being told at a job interview at an ad agency, that I would have to start as a receptionist and then move up to secretary, 2 years at least in each position. The woman who interviewed me was nuts, strung out and not inclined to be generous with career advice.

The ad in question is 6 by 11 flyer, in cardboard, folded in three with a fake letter on one side from a local merchant and cute Norman Rockwell style image of a child sneaking a bun off a plate. And one third of the flyer once contained a 'coupon' to bring to the grocer for a free sample.

MacRae Brothers
Pure Food Products (PURE was certainly the buzzword back then, for a good reason. That will be one episode of my series.)
Table Luxuries and Groceries
Richmond, Quebec, Canada

Dear Mrs. Nicholson,
Do you feel that breakfast seems incomplete without a hot bread of some sort? (I'll answer for her: "NO, we're Scots. We eat oatmeal. My grandmother lived to 99 on a diet of oatmeal..." Actually, Margaret was a great baker, as were all the Canadian Scots, I have read.)

Just break open a hot biscuit made with Crisco....Crisco costs half of what ordinary butter costs (war years!)...There's no waste with Crisco, because it doesn't turn rancid like lard....Hundreds of thousands of experienced bakers have adopted Crisco."

Well, Margaret never did adopt Crisco, I have her 1917 butter bill. But my own mom did. I grew up eating cakes and muffins baked with Crisco. And the other day, I pulled out this old family recipe for my favorite cake in childhood, Chocolate Mint Dream, which called for Crisco, of course, so I had to go buy some. The cake turned out awful, I can't bake, and I still have one block Crisco, which will stay in my cupboard until I throw it out. I use canola or olive oil for everything. Times change. I'm not alone: the baking section in the grocery is tiny now. But there's a fresh sushi section and I think they are trying to genetically modify tilapia so that the fish has blueberries in its blood.

I wonder how I can format these Nicholson 'store' stories. I'll try to imitate BBC radio four. They do great popular and social history.

And I might start at the bottom: one thing that struck me about 1885-86 was how much the family spent on buying shoes, boots and rubbers and getting the same mended. Even baby shoes seem very expensive, 1,00.

I guess, that's the same for every middle class family. Kids' feet grow.

The Paul Thompson book The Edwardians, that I am reading right now (on a Kindle) claims that poor Edwardian children went barefoot. No kidding.

Which accounts for my mother in law's complete disdain for bare feet. She's Marion Nicholson's daughter and like most women born around 1920, who lived through the Depression, she thought going barefoot was a horrible thing. It meant you were poor! (And the next generation, born in 1950, when times were good, floors warm and Hippies part of the culture, liked bare feet.) I'm barefoot now. I seldom wear shoes in the house. And I'll put a pair of socks on if my feet are cold, not slippers. My own mother, natch, had the same attitude towards going barefoot as my mother in law, but she tried to convince you that going barefoot deformed your feet or something.