Thursday, October 1, 2015

Home Economics of the Laurier Era 1880-1910

A POEM in Norman's 1880's diary.

"When the courting at midnight has ended
And he stands with his hat in his fist,
While she lovingly lingers beside him,
To bid him TA TA and be kissed,

How busy the thoughts of the future
You bet you his thoughts he don't speak,
He is wondering how they can manage,
To live on 6 dollars a week.

A man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife

So goes the famous line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  That book was about the 1810's.

The bank book above is from about 70 years later, the 1880's, when Elizabeth and Darcy would have most probably passed on ;)

A novel tells a story. In the case of Pride and Prejudice a story that resonates two hundred years later, when some things have changed, and some things have stayed the same.

There are also epistolary novels, out of fashion today, that tell stories using letters, fictional and real. 

But bank books can tell stories too. Indeed, they get to the essence of things. 

Norman Nicholson, the patriarch of the Nicholson clan, born 1850, left behind his bank books, two of them covering 1882 to 1907, mid Edwardian Era (or Laurier Era) when my School Marms and Suffragettes story begins. 

The page above is from 1882, when Norman is 32, and ready to marry, for he has 2,600 in the bank. His hemlock bark business is thriving! And indeed he gets married the very next year to pretty, feisty Margaret Macleod.

Setting up house was a major expense in those days. The couple spends at least 400 on furnishings! I know, because Norman also kept 'store books' of his expenses, from 1882 to 1921, when he died.

The Cost of Setting up House. 45.00 for furniture! Table mats, flat irons and flour sieve.

And soon, as often happens, in 1884, baby arrives. Baby Edith. The birth is difficult, the doctor's bill huge! But Mom and Baby survive. Edith stars in the second part of School Marms and Suffragettes: Diary of a Confirmed Spinster.

Still, as you can see, times are good in the late 1880's for the Nicholsons. There is plenty of hemlock in the Eastern Townships, needed by tanneries all over Quebec and New England. In 1884 Norman has  2,700 in the bank.

And in 1888, 3,000 dollars! By this time Norman and Margaret have three children, Edith, Marion and Herbert.

If healthy, children didn't cost a working man too much back in those days, not if he had a resourceful, capable wife.

He paid for hired help, even if middle class, but that help came in the form of a young female relation, who used the time to practice for her own future life as a home-maker.

Norman's store books reveal that family expenses remained stable between 500 and 600 dollars a year throughout the decades, 1880's to 1910's, with a jump during the war years. And a one time 700 plus 1896, perhaps caused by a doctor's bill. Inflation!

Of course, as with life in general, business has its ups and downs. In around 1900 the hemlock bark industry collapses and Norman turns to pulpwood for a living. 

He also takes a salaried position as Town Clerk and works part time as a bill collector for one Doctor Stewart of Montreal, who has clients in the Richmond area. Norman can at least count his blessings, he has the money to pay his medical bills when needed. 

(And there were a lot of dangerous illnesses back then, pneumonia, diphtheria, small pox and typhoid. Norman contracted typhoid in 1896.)

In 1903 Norman has 400 dollars in the bank. Flora Nicholson, his third and youngest daughter is one year old that year. But girls are not as expensive as boys. 

The Mom sews up all the girls clothing. 

Men and boys suits had to be purchased and they are expensive. 5.00 for a suit!  

The major expense for all children is shoes and boots, the purchase and the mending of, and in the case of the Nicholsons, who value a good education, school fees!

Things bounce back for a short time, but in the early years of 1900 Norman never has more than 500 in the bank. Of course, he owns a house, Tighsolas, built in 1896 for 2, 718 dollars. The mortgage on Tighsolas is 30 dollars a month. The rent he paid before 1896 was 25.00 a month! Unfortunately, property values in Richmond are on the decline as people move away to find work.

Norman is burdened by  a lot of debts too. He writes about them. He calls them notes due.

 Then in 1907, things get real dicey. Norman has only 79 dollars in his bank account. Luckily, his kids are mostly all grown up. Still, his eldest daughter Edith has to take a low-paid job in Radnor Forges, a small company town near Three Rivers as a country teacher, for she has no diploma. She doesn't make enough to help out her parents, but at least she isn't a burden on them.

Marion, who has a diploma, is in her first year of teaching at Sherbrooke High School making a little more than Edith. She does help her parents out.   Herbert is working at the Eastern Townships bank in Montreal, then Cowansville. He is a wild one and always in debt himself.  Flora is studying hard at Academy Level. (High School). She hopes to go to Teachers College in the future.

And that's where my Threshold Girl begins.

Margaret and Norman 1884 ish.