Tuesday, August 9, 2016

1911 Family Life, Canadian Middle Class: A Letter


Excerpt from the Nicholson Family Letters


Dufferin Street,
June 6, 1911

Dear Norman,

Your letter with your address just recd this evening so I thought I must write at once.
Seems such a long time since you left.

I also recd a letter from North Bay and one also from Cochrane. You certainly have done very well about writing, only I was longing for the address.

I came home the Sunday after you left, came out on the late train. Edith and Flora had retired but they were not long in coming to the door.

It had been a very hot day in Montreal but when I got here it had rained and was quite cool which was a pleasant change.

Came up in the bus.

I stayed with Marion all the time in Montreal (Boarding House on Tower) and only stayed at the Cleveland's the day you left. Dr. C. said he had not seen you for such a long time.

I am very glad that you are to be on the rails (and not 50 miles into the bush). Hope you will like the Scotchman better than the last (supervisor, an Englishman). You will because he is Canadian.

I have figured the distance.. over seven hundred miles.

Still, I see this letter recd tonight is stamped Cochrane the 5th was not long in coming that distance, the delay was East of Cochrane.

I have not heard from Herb since you left. I am looking for a letter in two days as he would likely write Sunday.

Although, he missed writing one Sunday.

I wrote him after you left, but you better write and send him your add. Anything I get will mail to you.

I have not heard from Marion since I came home. I think she will come to Richmond as soon as school closes.

I got the cheque for 10.95 from your man. Edith took it to the ET Bank and had it cashed so we will be all right for a while. I also got receipt for money sent for Westminster and Presbyterian. (Magazines, both Presbyterian.)

Sorry you forgot the mirror. The other things I will mail you at once.

The weather has been cool here just as you have it there.

Evenings we are glad to sit in the kitchen. The days are fine to wash so we have got our washing and ironing done.

We could not get a man to cut the lawn last week so Edith, Flora and myself thought we would try it on a nice cool day. We mangled the front but could not attempt the back.

Charlie Moore did the back lawn Saturday and is to do the front tomorrow night. He has promised to do it once a week in the evening as he works in the Boston and Last Factory. (With Grand Trunk Railway the major employer in Richmond.)

We really were too tired, we will not try it again. I don't think.

Tonight Flora and I went up to Bella's (Sister, Isabella Hill, around the corner on prestigious College Street). Edith walked down to the mail. Clayton (Isabella's husband) took us down to the mail in his auto, then brought us home. It is running fine now.

He was out in Kingsbury Sunday. William left Monday on his trip out West. He has a ticket on the CPR. He came down to bid us goodbye, did not know you had gone till he came to the house. Seemed disappointed; he really seemed so lonesome going. Too bad he was going alone. I told I wish you were going with him. I gave him Herb's add (ress).

Montgomery (next door neighbour) is working at his house (renovations). Says he has all the men he wants now. Skinners (other next door neighbours) are having the same pleasure in their auto. Going all the time. Earnest and wife left Monday for Montreal. We had them in for tea. Saturday eve then we went over and played cards until near Sunday morning.

They took Edith to South Durham one day last week, stayed for tea there. They all seemed to enjoy our tea as they are all fond of my home made fresh bread.

Now I am glad that you are particular about your diet and that you are feeling well. I trust you will take good care of yourself around and about the trains.

Tell me how you like this work.

Flora is keeping very well. She comes home every afternoon at 3 o'clock studies for a change and stays out on the veranda. The vines have filled in so we can sit there the whole afternoon.

Our Church sale is Wednesday and Thursday so they will be by about that this week. Edith is feeling well and is getting with the housework all right...Later….

Miss Denton called me to go down to the hall at 9 am. I thought Edith would finish this letter and send it on. Sorry it was delayed. The great crowd that was expected did not turn out. We are going back this afternoon will tell you how much we make.

Had a letter from Marion said she got your letter.

Hoping to hear from you again very soon,

With much love Margaret.

Town life for women in Richmond, Quebec, in the 1910 era, consists of walks to the mail, afternoon teas, both given and received, and a long list of daily household chores, if you weren't lucky enough to have a servant. (Margaret was a gifted homemaker who won prizes for her baking and crafts at the local fairs. Indeed, the family genealogy has this fact written after her name.)

There are also card parties and church socials. And church, of course. A person could go twice a day if she wished.

Daughter Edith, 27, is back at home from her teaching job in the city. She has been employed for two years at French Methodist Institute in toney Westmount. Edith has no diploma and works for a small wage of $250 a year. Flora, the youngest daughter at 19, is in the crunch year at St. Francis College, a distinguished local institution, which, until 1900, had been affiliated with McGill University. Flora must pass her exams if she is to be accepted at Macdonald Teachers College and earn a diploma and a decent living as a teacher. The problem, she freezes from nerves at exam time.

The Nicholsons live in a posh area of town, which explains why both neighbours - as well as the brother in law - have brand new automobiles. Motorcars in 1911 could cost as much as a house ($2,000 range) and you couldn't get them on credit. But they were definitely, the "in" thing, especially in towns like Richmond, especially with middle class men. And everyone seemed to enjoy car rides, men and women alike. The Nicholsons are in no position to buy an automobile. Their financial situation is extremely precarious. Well, they are broke, basically, and 'house poor' as they owe a large mortgage on Tighsolas, their charming brick Queen Anne style home, built in 1896, the year Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals came to power, by Norman for 2,718.00.

In 1909, when Margaret first learns that her neighbour is looking to buy a 'motor' as they called them, she writes to her husband "Mr Montgomery is going to buy an auto. Nothing but will satisfy him now. He is going to sell his horse. Mrs. Montgomery doesn't want to buy one. Too bad he is so foolish." In 1911, brother-in-law Clayton Hill's new auto is breaking down a lot, which amuses Margaret greatly.

The Clevelands are family friends who live on Lorne, east of McGill University. Mr. is a dentist so referred to as Dr. C.. The Clevelands are are the descendants of a handful of pioneering families in Richmond County of the Eastern Townships.

These Clevelands are wealthy enough to have a live in maid, a young English woman, newly arrived from the UK. The 1911 census reveals that most people on Lorne had maids. Still, there was a serious servant problem in 1910 in Canada, which was worrying the upper crust and forcing the middle class to increasingly make-do.
The 1911 Census reveals that only two families living in the Nicholson's Richmond neighbourhood have a live-in maid. (Not the Hills or Montgomerys or Skinners. And certainly not the Nicholsons.) But in 1901, according to that Census, virtually everyone on the street had a live-in domestic, including the Nicholsons. (Maggie Mclean, age 58)
Something changed between 1901 and 1911 - and it is affecting the Nicholsons.