On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our book of family stories to be published in November. My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.
The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s great-grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretensions. Or is it?
The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)
In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.
The potato patch was a particular concern:
“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.
“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”
So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.
You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’ as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)
In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.
Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)
Norman, in his letters home, warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)
An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.
The same letter continues:
“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.
We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”
This sounds like typical Quebec weather, doesn’t it? So up and down. It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.
Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)
Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:
“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”
Her small family is no exception. “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”
Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.
It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition – and so many other things.
Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)
Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food: “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”
Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.
- 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.
It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917, living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.
- 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
- 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
- 5. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.
- 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.