An Ill-fated Social Experiment
Posted by Dorothy Nixon
Royal Arthur School
80 Canning Street
September 30, 1912
I am writing this in school to tell at last taken that long talked of flat and while I think (of it) will tell you the address; it is 2401 Hutchison St. and is almost next door to the McCoy’s 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, too, 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 take an Amherst car up Bleury and get off at St. Viateur. And we will let you see what sort of housekeepers we are.
This is the first part of a missive written by Marion Nicholson, school teacher at Royal Arthur School in the Little Burgundy district of Montreal, to her mother, Margaret, back home in Richmond, Quebec.
By today’s standards, the letter contains nothing earth-shattering: a young working woman has taken an apartment with three other girls and is anxious to tell Mom all about it.
But, it is,indeed, an extraordinary letter. In 1912, when the correspondence was penned, it was unacceptable, borderline illegal even, for women in the big cities of Canada to move in together to share expenses.
First, there was the problem of prostitution, so any such arrangement was highly suspect. And then there was the problem of, well, personhood, that is no one would rent to a woman, even a woman with a steady salary, because these women couldn’t sign a lease.
Most women didn’t have a bank account, and those wealthy women who did couldn’t keep more than $2,000. in it.
Marion cashed her paycheque of 60 dollars a month at Renouf’s, a store that sold textbooks to the Montreal Board.
Official records reveal that between September 1912 and May 1913, 2401 Hutchison, in the Mile End district of Montreal, was occupied by another family that had been living there for years. So, Marion and her friends did not sign any official lease.
Their unusual sublet was no doubt enabled by the McCoys mentioned in the letter. The McCoys were family friends from a pioneering Richmond family.
Margaret Nicholson and daughter Marion in Richmond in 1912. Letters reveal that her family was afraid for Marion, she had become so thin.
The earlier letters in ‘the Nicholson collection’ explain why Marion was so excited about getting her own apartment. For a few years, she had boarded at a rooming house on Tower, in Westmount, run by a widow named Mrs. Ellis. As was likely the custom, this Mrs. Ellis “lorded it over” her female charges, (Marion’s words) making sure they towed the line, especially when it came to male visitors and curfews.
In 1910, in the big bad city, even a well-connected 27 year old women like Marion Nicholson was considered in need of protection. Besides, no respectable widow wanted to be accused of running a bawdy house.
In late 1911, Marion began seeing a certain Mr. Blair, a very eligible lumber merchant, which made her especially hate her curfew. In 1912, already bone-tired from managing her class of 50 “very bad” second graders, she ran herself ragged in her spare time looking for a flat to live in.
Then, in late September she found that flat. And it even had electricity, a luxury her lovely family home in the fancy section of Richmond, Quebec wouldn’t have until the next year.
Family letters reveal that Mr. Blair or “Romeo” was a regular visitor at 2401 Hutchison during the fall and winter of 1912/13, not that Marion talked about his visits in her letters home. Flora, her younger sister, was the one who spilled the beans.
Still, in the end, this bold feminist experiment didn’t work out, but not because of any sex scandal.
Running a home back then was just too labour intensive for women who worked during the day, even a home with a newfangled gas stove.
That’s why, during the winter of 1913, Marion and her flat mates relied on a series of older female relations, including mother Margaret, to keep house for them on a rotating basis.
In May 1913, the girls abandoned their flat on Hutchison and moved into a hotel room downtown at the Mansions on Guy Street. Supposedly, they left behind a big fat mess.
Flora (front) and Mae Watters, around 1908 in Richmond, Quebec. Mae would get married in 1914 but Flora only much later, when in her forties.
Marion Nicholson soon became engaged to Mr. Blair. She was disillusioned at work because a “mere boy out of school” had been hired over her head and given the much coveted 7th form, a position second only to the (male) principal, is how she described it to her father.
Sister Flora and Mae, a first cousin, returned to Mrs. Ellis’ much despised rooming house on Tower because they simply had no other place to go.
In the 1910 era, there was a dire shortage of accommodation for working women in Montreal. In fact, Montreal’s leading citizens, including Mssrs. Birks and Reford, Mrs. Molson, Reverend Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral and Miss Carrie Derick of the Montreal Local Council of Women, were holding public meetings to organize a hotel downtown just for women, ‘respectable’ women (sic) where the girls could spend their evenings engaged in wholesome activities and presumably not cavorting around town at Vaudeville theatres, motion picture palaces, or at Dominion Park, the enormous thrill park on Notre Dame East.*1
Marion, who enjoyed all of the above activities, didn’t write anything in her letters about this critical community project, but I can guess what she thought about it.
In 1906, while attending McGill Normal School near what is now Place Bonaventure, she roomed at the YWCA on Dorchester and simply hated it. “Too many rules,” she wrote home to Mom.2
- Montreal Gazette. Definite Start to Women’s Hotel. November 18, 1910.
- Marion Nicholson would marry, have four children and be widowed in 1927. She would go back to teaching and rise to be President of the Montreal Protestant Teacher’s Union during the WWII years. She fought for higher salaries and pensions for teachers, but died before she could earn one herself. She was honored with an editorial in the February 16, 1947 Montreal Gazette that began: With the death of Marion A.N. Blair the teaching profession in the province, indeed, the whole Dominion, has suffered a serious loss.