Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Good Girls and Bad Girls: Edwardian Era

My grandmother and mother and aunts on the steps of 72 Sherbrooke Street, around the corner from the Red Light District, but a million miles away in lifestyle.


It's a beautiful day, I live not far from water, but I had a hankerin' for the ocean.

So I put on a YouTube video of the ocean, put on earphones, and went into the hot tube (but the hot tub smells of bromine)..

So I got some sea weed and sea salt, but that's not quite the smell of the ocean. Ocean smell is ozone or dimethylide suphate or something.

But not to worry, I found some Coppertone and NOTHING evokes the feel of the ocean to me than sunscreen. It's the only time I wore it as a child, when at Old Orchard Beach.

And I don't wear much now, so it still works for me.


The smell of fried clams or cotton candy might be nice, but I've become allergic to clams.

Oh well.

The closest ocean is in Maine or New Hampshire and my husband has let his passport expire, and we have dogs.

I am working today, on my play Sister Suffragette about the 1913 Montreal Suffrage Scene. Here's the post I wrote this morning, when the Internet was down.

In We Walked Very Warily, Margaret Gillett quotes a former McGill Royal Victoria College student in her later years who says she went to Murray’s (the famous 'ordinary' Montreal restaurant) to drink coffee and to smoke cigarettes, because they looked the other way at such a transgression. 

The woman is clearly proud of having broken the rules, because these were silly rules in retrospect.

I know for a fact, because it is in the RVC archives at McGill, that in the 1920’s only four city places were sanctioned as appropriate venues for the girls of RVC:  the Windsor Grill, the Ritz, Henry Morgan’s Department Store  and Mount Royal Hotel.

No doubt, this former Donalda wasn’t the only RVC student to brazenly break the rules with only four places a girl could go in the city to have fun, all very expensive places.

(Goes to show: RVC students were treated like upper class girls when they were largely middle class.)

Good thing for me: I am writing  a play about the 1913 Montreal suffragists and I need to capture this kind of rebel spirit to inspire the plot.

 I am going to have two RVC students try to break the rules by having a Suffrage March down Sherbrooke.

That might not sound so rebellious to us today, but it would have been.

Even the well-connected society ladies of Montreal, the ones who controlled the suffrage debate in the city, didn’t feel they could hold any marches. Far too controversial.

Another  McGill thesis available online is proving very useful to me: the Great Ladies Hotel, by Deborah L. Miller, claims that RVC was built on Sherbrooke just above Phillip’s Square for a good reason.

Philip’s Square was the one area of town a good girl could visit without raising eyebrows.  

 It had a church on both the east and west sides, the Henry Morgan’s department store at one corner, Birks’ Jewellers at the other corner,  and the Art Gallery across from that. 

It also and a park with no benches.  

No loitering (or flirting) possible.

I am reading yet another McGill thesis pertinent to my play, this one from 1995 by Tamara Myers who is now a professor at UBC. It is titled Criminal Women and Bad Girls and is about Montreal between 1880 and 1940.

If I am going to depict good girls in my play, I am going to have to know the definition of a bad girl in the period.

This thesis does a superb job of explaining all that.  


RVC taken by me last year.. It  now houses the music department.

“You talk like a girl from De Bullion street,” was what my French Canadian mother in the 60’s sometimes said to me when I swore, repeating the words of her own mother no doubt, an upper middle class bourgeois.

In the 1920’s, my mom’s family lived in an elegant four storey greystone on Sherbrooke near St. Laurent.

Sherbrooke was the fancy Avenue in Montreal. Parts of St Laurent skirted the Red Light district.

At the time, I didn’t know exactly what my mother meant by de Bullion, being quite na├»ve,

 (In 6th grade a policeman came to our classroom to warm us girls about bad people at Expo 67 who might kidnap us and force us into white slavery but I thought this was something about working in Siberia.. the Cold War, you see. )

 But I got the gist of it.  Low class women swore.

Montreal had a quasi-European attitude to prostitution in the Victorian Era.

Myers'  thesis explains that vagrancy was the No.1 charge against Montreal women in the late 1800’s… and most of those charges (80%) were laid by the parents of the girls, who wanted them at home working, or outside working.

There were plenty of prostitutes around, mostly women who had no job and no male protection but they were considered fallen women, a necessary evil.

 (Many of these women were domestics apparently, who had been forced to put out sexually at their  jobs, for no money, so why not make money.)

Apparently, the 1910 era was pivotal when it came to how female criminals (and female sexuality) were seen and dealt with.

(No surprise, this era was pivotal in many many ways. That’s what makes my story Threshold Girl, based on family letters, so interesting.)

Around that time and especially during and after WWI, prostitutes were starting to be seen  as victims and not perpetrators.

 (Hey, isn’t this happening again right now in Canada?)

And if these women were considered victims, so it came to be that any other sexually active women were also seen as victims of society or circumstance.

This is a lesson we don’t seem able to learn: Laws designed to protect people also end up controlling people.

And when it comes to female sexuality, well, we don’t need to read the Bible to know that many people consider it a scary force to be reckoned with.

So was born in that era the ‘female delinquent’.

Male delinquents were defined by their law-breaking, their committing of petty criminal acts. Female delinquents were generally just sexually active.

So this is the context the privileged and  over-protected RVC students in my play are living and studying and playing in, although they are likely oblivious to how the other half lives.

(My mother, born upper middle class, told me she didn’t think about the girls on de Bullion very much, despite the fact a sister had  been plucked off the streets, a waif, and adopted.)

Funny, the Nicholson sisters of Richmond, who figure in Threshold Girl, who worked and  lived in the city Montreal in 1910 era, were not inclined to be controlled, despite being raises strict Presbyterians.

They had a wide social circle and visited around a lot. Marion took three street cars to work at her school in Little Burgundy.

In 1910 or so, Edith, living in resident at Westmount Methodist Boarding School complains in a letter about not being able to go out at night, because she has no one to go with.

She hates it, she says, being stuck in her room.

Marion Nicholson  hates her boarding house on Tower because the matron lords it over her. Marion is 27 and used to doing pretty well what she wants; she's a very dynamic woman.

In early 1912, she spends all her spare time out of school looking for an apartment to rent with her sisters for the 1912/13 school year.

She eventually finds one on Hutchison. (She gets it by promising that her mother is coming to keep house for them, a bit of a lie.)

This all proves a bad experiment and they give up the house in May of the next year. 

Edith says in a May 1913 letter that they left a mess behind. 

Marion gets engaged in May.  I guess marriage seems easy compared to finding a place to live in the city.

In 1910, keeping house was a lot of work, so busy teachers didn’t have time to cook and clean. I think they had a gas stove, so at least they didn’t have to keep that machine stoked with coal or wood.

Still, it was a very bold move on Marion’s part to try to live four girls to an apartment.
 Later on in the late 30’s, widowed and working as a teacher and union activist, she had a lover, I heard anyway.

Marion, always independent-minded,  didn’t want to get re-married  in 1927 after being widowed, and took a lot of flack for it because she had four children and many thought it was her duty to do so.


1913 letter from Marion to Dad about her new flat.. a letter in The Nicholson Family Letters on Amazon.com

Area of Hutchison and St Viateur, where Marion and her sister and two friends, including the daughter of an M.N.A. lived in 1912/13. The street numbers have changed so I can't pinpoint the house.



 Royal Arthur School
80 Canning Street
September 30, 1912
Dear Father,

I am writing this in school to tell at last taken that long talked of flat and while I think will tell you the address; it is 2401 Hutchison St. and is almost next door to the McCoys which makes it fine for us. We moved in on Sat last (Sept 28) and they have been in cooking and doing all sorts of things for us. Mr. McCoy gave us a basket of peaches to start on.

The flat is completely furnished and is lighted by electricity and we do all our cooking by gas. There are four girls in the scheme, Flora, May, Lena Bullock who is a school teacher and yours truly. We are planning to pay 20 dollars each per month and hope to be able to make ends meet but if we cannot then we will get another girl to come in with us.

The flat itself costs us $40.00 then we will have the rest for running expenses. When you come home take an Amherst car up Bleury and get off at St. Viateur. And we will let you see what sort of housekeepers we are.

Yesterday Chester Coy and Ross called on us for a while in the afternoon and also the McCoy's and Smiths and last but not least Mr. Blair - or Romeo for short.

Now I must stop and get my lunch but will write later and if there are any details I have not mentioned I will in the next.

Lovingly
Marion