Tag: Canadian West

Fashion Authenticity

In my continuing quest for authenticity, I’ve been looking at photos from the late nineteenth century in British Columbia.    Here is a sampling.

This is a photo of Mrs. Friend of Atlin. B.C. taken near the turn of the twentieth century. High necked blouses and flared skirts were the order of the day.  Note the detail in the lace of the blouse shown on the right, and the decoration on the skirt on the left.  There is an almost “mannish” appearance to these two women, but the feminine touches are there if you look.

This photo of the Esquimalt Ladies Cricket team is in the B.C. Archives and dated 1890. Can you imagine playing cricket laced up that tight?

This one of women gold seekers in the Yukon in 1898 shows more work-a-day clothes than the cricketers, but those long skirts would be caked with mud and heavy.

Cecelia Spofford had her picture taken in 1890. Notice the puffs at the shoulders.  Of course, these professional photographs would show women in their best attire, not what they wore in the kitchen or the field.  Also, only persons of wealth and standing were likely to have a formal portrait taken.

This one of Windimere Pioneers is dated 1890. I find it useful because Windimere is off the beaten track – not a leader in ladies fashions.  Still, the women are well-dressed and out numbered.  When writing of this era in the interior of British Columbia it is well to remember that men grossly out-numbered women.  If a girl had a yen to marry, she’d not be short of proposals if she headed for the hinterland.

Finally, here is a page from the Eaton’s catalogue of 1897. Since women in even remote situations could order from a catalogue and expect the goods to be delivered, even if it took weeks to reach them, those with enough money could dress like this.  Note that Eaton’s is now selling attire for more active young women like those who rode a bicycle.

Still laced tightly at the waist, but those puffed sleeves would allow for a little more movement than the narrow ones of a few years previously.

Ginger Rogers is famously believed to have said, “I do everything a man does only backwards and in high heels.” Well, in the Canadian west, women did everything men did, only they did it in corsets and long skirts!

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The Not-So-Wild West

Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony  were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England.  Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.
      Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner.  Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me.  As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”

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