Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Howard Cant, the Sleeman Trophy, and the Diamond Jubilee

On its first birthday, the Sleeman Trophy sat on display in the window of H.F. Cant & Co., druggist, at 20 Lower Wyndham Street. Doubtless, crowds of avid and occasional curling fans crowded around to see the trophy that Guelph's most famous brewer and sports fan, George Sleeman, had purchased for $350. It was to be the prize for a Guelph curling bonspiel that would attract teams throughout the province west of Toronto.

The tumid tankard can be seen in the possession of the team that won it the following year, consisting of W.W. Macalister, Charles R. Crowe, E.J. Presant, and John Kennedy.

("Royal City Curling Club, Winners of Sleeman Trophy, 1898;" Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.84.1112.)

Howard F. Cant was a young man of 26 years, newly arrived from his hometown of Galt. There he worked as a druggist and had bought out the business of W.G. Smith of Guelph in 1896. A curling man, he no doubt hurried hard for the chance to be the one to publicly exhibit the shiny trophy and burnish the reputation of his new store in the doing. To ensure the success of this plan, Mr. Cant took out a special ad in the Guelph Mercury (18 February 1897):

Hm. Why can't you get a bottle of "Beef, Iron, and Wine" at the corner druggist's today?

Happily, the building still stands, now 20 Wyndham Street North:

(Courtesy of Google Street View.)

The historically inclined may recall that 1897 was a special year in Canada, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60th year on the throne. The event was celebrated in 22 June, in honour of Victoria's ascension on 20 June 1837. Naturally, the event was observed copiously in the Royal City, with decorations, speeches, parades, games, and so on (Mercury, 23 June 1897). The little triangular park created ten years earlier, previously known as "Alderman Stull's Park" was renamed "Jubilee Park" in honour of the occasion. (In 1911, the VIA station was built on this site.)

No doubt, the window of Herbert Cant & Co. was suitably dressed too.

("Souvenir scarf, 1897," courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1975.21.30.)

Another way in which the world-wide empire was celebrated was with the creation of a special postcard. At this time, shortly before private, picture postcards were allowed, the postcard's design was modified for the occasion by having a new frame around the title "Canada Post Card" as well as a "stamp" that showed Victoria as she appeared in 1837 and in 1897. Luckily, one such card was sent from Galt to Howard Cant in Guelph:

The addresse was Lorren Cant, one of Howard's younger brothers. The message on the back reads:
Aug 26/97. // Dear L // Arrived home last night on 6.10 train. Was in Buffalo for the G.A.R. and stayed for a couple of days. Blanche O. came down with me from Peoria and we had a fine time. You better write her if you want to get a photo. All the folks at Caledonia are well and wished to be remembered to you & How. Will be up some day soon. // D —
I assume that "D" was Duncan, Howard's other younger brother. Duncan, it happens, was attending the Buffalo Dental College, where he had recently passed his second examination (Mercury, 14 April 1897).

Like the Jubilee and commemorative postcard, Howard F. Cant's stay in Guelph was brief. Besides his fondness for curling, we learn only a few things about him from the 1897 Mercury. On 1 February, the paper reported that:

The authority to sell postage stamps and postcards, granted the late W.G. Smith, has been transferred to H.F. Cant & Co.
It sounds odd that someone would need a license to sell stamps and postcards but recall that both were strictly regulated by the government before private postcards were allowed a few years later.

On 6 October, we learn of Mr. Cant's success at the "World's Fair" held by the Puslinch Agricultural Society at Aberfoyle:

The following is the prize list: … Toilet set with pin cushion, 1st by H.F. Cant & Co.
Unhappily, we can only guess at the design of this world-class pin cushion.

American immigration records show that Howard Cant migrated to New York in 1897 and there married Minnie Fowler in 1899. However, the couple subsequently relocated to Galt, where they appear to have remained. Thus, it is in the Cambridge archives that a picture of Howard Cant is to be found, posing with members of the Galt Stamp Club around 1950.

("B/W photo of the Galt Stamp Club c.1950;" Courtesy of the City of Cambridge Archives.)

Howard is standing in the second row, second from the left, as shown in the detail below:

Although a Guelphite for only a year, Howard Cant left us a bit of our postcard history, as a good philatelist should. Thanks, Howard!
This post is the third in a series on postcard history before view cards. Here are the previous posts:
  1. Before they had pictures: Wm. Stevenson gets one of Guelph's earliest postcards
  2. A model of industry: J.B. Armstrong, postcards, and the carriage trade

The Sleeman Trophy continued as a curling prize for many years. Here it is in the possession of the Guelph Curling Club in 1938, on the occasion of the club's centennial at the Baker Street rink:
("Centennial year at club;" courtesy of Guelph Public Library F51-0-3-0-0-1.)

A record at Artefacts Canada from 1986 says that "the present whereabouts of the trophy are unknown." So, if you notice it in your attic, basement, or at a yard sale, be sure to let me know!

Sunday, 31 October 2021

A model of industry: J.B. Armstrong, postcards, and the carriage trade

In 1884, the City of Guelph was offered a statue of a blacksmith to place in the recently vacated centre of St. George's Square. The project gained support and the Blacksmith Fountain was officially dedicated on Victoria Day in 1885. On its base was engraved, "Presented by J.B. Armstrong, 1884."
(A real-photo postcard of the Blacksmith Fountain, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the John Keleher collection.)

Born in Guelph in 1838, John Belmer (J.B.) Armstrong was the eldest son of Robert and Janet Armstrong, recent immigrants from Scotland. Robert was a blacksmith who had set up a smithy on Macdonell street east in 1834, where he specialized in making wagons and axes. John later boasted that his father had made the first axe in Ontario (Globe, 10 Sep 1886), though this claim may be open to dispute.

Disaster struck when Robert died in 1848, after which his widow ran the business (Mercury, 12 Dec 1892). Adding to the family's woes, the smithy burned down the next year. However, it was rebuilt and leased to Mr. Thomas Anderson, who resumed the manufacture of carriages. It was under Mr. Anderson's tutelage that young John learned the blacksmith's trade.

Subsequently, J.B. decided to seek his fortune south of the border, working for a time in New Jersey and then in Eddyville, Kentucky. There, when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the carriage trade was disrupted and J.B. returned to his hometown.

Back in Guelph, J.B. entered into a partnership with his brother William at the family factory, going under the name of The Armstrong Bros. The business seems to have gone under a number of names in subsquent years. By 1866, the smithy was styled the "Excelsior Works," then apparently a common name for a foundry looking to gin up a reputation for excellence. By around 1870, the business was also known as the Guelph Carriage Company or J.B. Armstrong & Co. In 1876, J.B. entered into partnership with Thomas Scarff (William having left some years previously), to form the J.B. Armstrong Manufacturing Company, which finally stuck.

The new company had some impressive new digs. In 1875, J.B. had a new structure erected where his foundry stood at what is now 92–98 Macdonell street, named the "Armstrong Block" in his honour. The new edifice was described fulsomely in the Mercury (21 July 1917):

... J.B. Armstrong has erected a block of stone stores three storeys in height, which are second to none in the town for elegance of design and substantial appearance. The stores have a frontage of 70 feet. The most westerly has a depth of 70 feet and the other part is 40 feet in depth. Besides this the old shop fronting on the street has been raised. Two thirds of the ground floor of the new building is to be used as a show room. The additional accommodation in the two flats above the old shop is to be used for trimming room, etc. Entrance to the yards and shops in rear is obtained through an archway between the new building and the shop.
Although much altered inside by the Cooperators in the 1990s (which added an attic storey), the facade constructed by renowned Guelph masons Matthew Bell & Son was kept and graces the streetscape to this day, as can be seen in the image below:
(Courtesy of Google Street View. Zoom in to see the carved plaque "Armstrong Block. A.D. 1875." on the second floor wall.)

J.B.'s plans for his works were ambitious. Besides making carriages and other vehicles, the company began to make carriage parts to sell to other manufacturers. Among the most sought out was the patented Armstrong Carriage Spring, sold across North America and the United Kingdom, as described breathlessly in the Guelph Herald (22 May 1878):

The principle of tempering adopted in this establishment is in use by no other manufacturer in the Dominion, and is the result of many years close study and observation by Mr. Armstrong. Suffice it to say that the process is patented in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, and the effect of its working is such as to command the admiration of those competent to judge such matters.
Another section of the works produced some of the toughest buggy seats then to be found on Earth:
As an instance of the great strength of the patent iron seats for buggies it is only necessary to say that though their weight is no more than if made of wood they are so strong that a two hundred pound biped recently stood with a foot on each end of the seat, and though he exerted his whole strength was unable to warp it out of shape.
Beyond carriage parts, the company also diversified into parts for agricultural implements, such as rake teeth, cultivator springs, harrow teeth, and so on (Globe, 6 Aug 1892).

One of the ways that J.B. decided to advertise his wares was by postcard. These cards from the early 1880s were very similar to the earliest ones adopted in Canada, which featured an address on the front and a message on the back, without any picture.

Compare this card sent to J. Sheldrick of Hagersville on 8 July 1882 with the postcard sent by Guelph lawyer William Merritt ten years earlier:

The only notable difference is that the address of the British American Bank Note Co. is now simply "Montreal" instead of "Montreal & Ottawa."

However, the back of this card is quite different. Instead of a hand-written message, it contains a pre-printed advertisement for the wares of the Guelph Carriage Goods Co.

The carriage step depicted look as though it could support the weight of a very substantial biped!

The back of this card is reminiscent of the trade cards that were then popular with stores that sold consumer goods. Concerns such as the Bell Organ & Piano Co. would distribute cards with pictures on one side and advertisements on the other for giving away to potential consumers. Stores would give cards to people who walked in the door, hoping to increase their chances of a sale.

In this case, the Guelph Carriage Goods Company has used an illustrated postcard to entice another business to purchase their carriage parts. Mr. Sheldrick must have been a likely prospect, as he was sent several similar cards in the weeks following the one above:

This card is a little less interesting as it does not depict the Adze eye nail hammers on offer.

In any event, Mr. Sheldrick was favored with at least two more advertising postcards:

At this point, you may be wondering if Mr. Sheldrick was "sold." As it happens, a later postcard appears to confirm that he was.
This sort of card is known as the "scroll style" for the obvious reason that the "Canada Post Card" label is now contained within a fancy scroll. (The "stamp" has also been changed to have an oval frame.) The scroll style was introduced in 1882, and Mr. Sheldrick was sent this card on March 5 of the next year.

The back of the card contains a hand-written message recorded within a form for business correspondence:

The message on the back reads:
Mar 5th, 1883 // J. Sheldrick Esq // Hagersville // Dear Sir // In reply to your favor of 2 inst[ant]. // we will carry out your instructions // about orders but have received none // from you since our Traveller was // with you[.] // Yours truly // Guelph Carriage Goods Co.
So, it appears that Mr. Sheldrick's interest was piqued by the advertising cards, to which he responded, prompting a visit by a traveling representative of the Guelph Carriage Goods Co., as was standard practice. Follow-up postcards, in the new style, were sent the following year.

J.B. Armstrong & Co. continued to send interesting pictures through the mail. Below, for example, is the back of another scroll-style postcard sent to Messrs M.A. Stephens & Sons of Glencairn, Ontario in 1894. It contains both a form letter acknowledging receipt of an order and a lovely drawing of the Armstrong "Peerless" road wagon:

Along with many other going concerns, the Company also had drawings of its factories printed on its letterhead. Here is an example sent to a potential supplier in 1900:
J.B. Amstrong & Co. are the picture of prosperity, showing off its works in Guelph (upper left) and in Flint, Michigan, (right, established in 1889). Information on the right-hand side indicates that the Company had offices in Great Britain and Australia as well.

The prowess of the Company had not gone unnoticed and was the subject of a glowing review in the Toronto Globe (6 Aug 1892). Besides relating the breadth and reach of the company's lineup, the article provided some interesting pictures. The first was a (somewhat murky) photograph of the works taken from the Bell Organ Co. building across Macdonell street:

(Courtesy of Wellington County Museum and Archives, A1985.110.)

The second was a nice drawing of the man himself:

(Courtesy of Wellington County Museum and Archives, A1985.110.)

The last was a picture of J.B.'s bolt hole at 85 Queen street, built by his brother-in-law James Massie, which J.B. named "Gilnockie" after the residence of a Scottish ancestor:

Gilnockie can still be glimpsed from Queen street.
(Courtesy of Google Street View.)

The extent of the Guelph Carriage Works can be seen in the map below, in which the plan of the Works from the Fire Insurance Map of 1892 is superimposed on a Google Maps satellite image of the north side of Macdonell street.

As noted in the Mercury, the Works extended all the way from the Armstrong Block on Macdonell street to Quebec street at the rear (upper right corner of the inset), now covered by the Quebec Street Mall.

Just as J.B. Amstrong had ascended to the pinnacle of success in the vehicle trade, he was carried away by death (as was a common expresison at the time), dying on 11 December 1892, at the age of 54, following a period of ill health. He was buried in what is now the Woodlawn Cemetery.

The J.B. Armstrong Manufacturing Company continued the trade for a number of years but was wound up in 1913.

J.B. Armstrong was a model of the industrialization of Guelph in the Victorian period and left behind a substantial legacy. The Armstrong Block remains in place along Macdonell street and the Blacksmith Fountain is now located in Priory Square, next to the former Guelph Carriage Works.

(The Blacksmith Fountain in Priory Square, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

J.B.'s personal legacy is also suggestive. The importance that he attached to the trade, and to control of it, is indicated by some of the terms of his will:

... in his will in 1888, he stipulated that his son, Bertie, would not receive his full inheritance, at age 25, if he had not proved himself to be industrious and frugal or if his mother did not approve of his marriage.
How Bertie felt about these terms, I don't know.

In addition, although the postcards sent by the Guelph Carriage Goods company are ephemeral, they provide us with an instructive reminder of the conditions in which J.B. did business. When I, for one, think about horse-drawn buggies and sleighs, my impression is of the quaintness of the Victorian era and how romantic it might have been to travel the streets of the Royal City in them.

This may have been the case but the cards also remind us of the centrality of horse-drawn transportation to contemporary life. As Tarr (1971) points out, cities depended on horsepower not only for personal transportation but for shipping. Adoption of steam railways meant that tons of goods from long distances could be delivered to cities in a short period. These arrived at centralized locations, such as warehouses at the edge of town, and were then delivered by horse-drawn vehicles. The expansion of railway networks reinforced this trend.

As a result, the working horse population in the United States became quite substantial:

[In 1900,] Chicago had 83,330, Detroit 12,000, and Columbus 5,000. Overall, there were probably between three and three and a half million horses in American cities as the century opened, compared with about seventeen million living in more bucolic environments.
The situation was similar in Canada.

To be put to work, millions of carriages and carriage parts were needed, which the Guelph Carriage Goods Company helped to supply. For the business to work, reliable and affordable communciations were needed to coordinate activity, which the postcards shown above helped to provide. (Not coincidentally, J.B. was one of the first Guelphites to have a private telephone line installed in his house in 1879.) For J.B. Armstrong and his contemporaries, there was nothing quaint about the carriage trade or the means of carrying it out.


For fun, here are some representations of the vehicles made by the Guelph Carriage Goods Company as depicted in their ads.
(Evening Mercury, 25 July 1869.)
(Toronto Globe, 27 November 1886.)
(Guelph City Directory, 1892.)
("The Armstrong Standard Buggy," ca. 1896. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Musems, 2002.88.2.)

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Before they had pictures: Wm. Stevenson gets one of Guelph's earliest postcards

When you think "postcard," you likely of a small paper rectangle with a picture on one side and some writing and maybe a stamp on the other. This postcard form has been almost ubiquitous since about 1900 and remains so today. Yet, the first postcards were in circulation decades earlier and did not usually feature pictures at all, apart from a small portrait of the Queen.

What might be called the "pre-history" of the postcard was recently outlined by Andrew Cunningham in Cardtalk (2021, v. 42, n. 2) the newsletter of the Toronto Postcard Club (of which I am a member). He explains that the idea of postcards as a specific and regulated piece of mail was introduced in Austria in 1869. Postcards could be sent through the mail just like letters but at a lesser rate (often half-price), the downside being that they could convey only short messages and afforded less privacy than regular mail.

The idea proved immediately popular and was soon copied elsewhere. In 1871, the Canadian government adopted rules allowing postcards in domestic mail. As abroad, "post cards" or "postals" were soon adopted by Canadians. Unlike later practice, postcards were then used chiefly for business correspondence, to request prices of goods or acknowledge receipt of payments, for example.

Here is an example of this type of card, sent to "Wm. Stephenson Esq." of Guelph on 25 Sep. 1872:

A brief inspection reveals that this item was indeed a novel form of mail, since it has strict instructions printed on it: "The address only to be written on this side." No chit-chat here! In place of a stamp, it has a portrait of Queen Victoria printed in the upper-right corner. This portrait assured the post office that the fee for mailing the card—one cent—had indeed been paid as part of the purchase price of the card. Since the right to print this "stamp" lay solely with the government, they were the only printers of these cards. Some very small type at the bottom of the card reveals that the printer contracted for the job was the "British American Bank Note Co., Montreal & Ottawa."

The back of the card could hardly be plainer: It was a complete blank—write whatever you like. This may sound potentially exciting but most messages are disappointinly uninspired. Here is the back of the card sent to the Mr. Stephenson:

The message says:
Deeds to you & Fleming duly executed. When will you & he be in to complete the purchase. W.M. Merrit // Sept. 25/72
Short and to the point—businesslike. Indeed, the point of the card is apparently to further a real estate transaction. Let's see who was in on the deal.

Mr. Wm. M. Merritt was a Guelph lawyer. He studied law in Toronto and was called to the bar in 1868, at which point he took up practice in Guelph in the firm Dunbar & Merritt (Globe, 1 Apr 1898). He specialized in commercial law, so handling the deed in a real estate transaction was right up his alley. So, it appears that this postcard was sent from a Guelph address to another one—a short trip!

The year after he sent this postcard, Mr. Merritt moved back to Toronto, where he remained for the rest of his life. Even so, Guelph seems to have made an impression. He returned briefly in 1876 to marry local girl Miss Elizabeth Robertson, in what the Mercury (23 Feb) described as a notably fashionable wedding.

The "Fleming" mentioned in the postcard was likely Mr. George Fleming, a recently retired farmer. Mr. Fleming was an early settler of Guelph, having emigrated from Paisley, Scotland around 1836, when the former was still mostly a set of modest, log buildings (Mercury, 6 Dec 1876). For 32 years, he farmed a 100-acre lot a short distance east of town and then relocated to a residence on Berlin st. (now Foster Ave.) upon retirement.

It seems that shortly after his arrival, Mr. Fleming was the victim of disrobement (Mercury, 12 Aug 1868):

Guelph Police Court.

James Fitzgerald was charged with the theft of a shirt from Geo. Fleming. He took it off the clothes line and put it on, and when the Chief Constable caught him he became pugnacious. At first we was for having the case tried at the County Court, but after the witnesses were examined he thought better of it, pleaded guilty, and consented to its being disposed of summarily. He was sent to gaol for a month at hard labour.
Perhaps this incident could be taken as a compliment to Mr. Fleming's good taste in shirts.

The recipient of the postcard was Mr. Wm. Stevenson, an important figure in Guelph's early days. Mr. Stevenson was born in 1817 near Thrumpton Hall, Nottinghamshire and immigrated to Guelph at the age of 20, at about the same time as Mr. Fleming. In religion, he was an active Methodist. He and James Hough were the prime movers behind the organization of the Norfolk Street Methodist Church in 1836, and he served as a preacher there from 1841.

(Norfolk Methodist Church, Guelph, ca. 1910., printed by the International Stationary Co.)

Wm. Stevenson took quite an active part in the governance of the city. He was a Town Councilor in 1851 when Guelph became an incorporated town, separate from the surrounding township. He also served as town alderman (Councilor) in 1854, 1872, 1879, and 1880–1884. In 1885 and 1886, he was Mayor of the Royal City. One of his accomplishments in that time was organizing the Guelph Junction Railway, which connected the city with the Canadian Pacific Railway, thus providing some competition with the Grand Trunk Railway. While this connection helped the commercial interests of the city, its adoption of the Priory as a station set that building on the road to ruin, an outcome that Mr. Stevenson certainly did not anticipate nor would have approved.

("William Stevenson," perhaps at the time he served as Mayor; Courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, F38-0-4-0-0-4.)

Apparently a fan of reading and education, Mr. Stevenson also served on the Board of Education and took an active part in the founding of the Central School which competed with the Church of Our Lady for attention on Guelph's downtown skyline from 1876 until its replacement with a more modest structure in 1968.

("Central School, Guelph," printed by A.L:. Merrill, Toronto, ca. 1910.)

Did I mention that Mr. Stevenson had a day job? He was a "nurseryman," that is, he grew and provided plants and trees to order. An ad from the Mercury (13 May 1874) gives an idea of what was on offer:

In 1872, when the postcard above was sent, Mr. Stevenson made a number of entries in Guelph's Central Exhibition, which was his usual practice. The Mercury (4 Oct) records that he won prizes in a number of categories, including Gravenstein apples, pears (variety and Bartlett), grapes (Adirondac, "ereveling," Hartford), and melons (scarlet flesh), not to mention his first prize showing in floral design.

All of this work was carried out at his ample residence of "Maple Bank," at the corner of Grange and what is now Stevenson Street (yes, named after Wm. Stevenson).

(The location of Wm. Stevenson's nursery and Maple Bank in Wellington County Atlas, 1877.)

The house itself was built sometime in the 1850s and is quite a nifty example of the Gothic Revival style in Ontario.

("Maple Bank," ca. 1960; Courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives C6-0-0-0-0-466.)

Happily, Maple Bank survives today and can be glimpsed from Grange street, as in this Google Street view scene:

Here is a picture of the Stevenson family, posed at Maple Bank, ca. 1860:

("Stevenson family," ca. 1860; Courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, F38-0-14-0-0-473.)

In the back row stand Wm. Stevenson next to his second wife, Isabella, with Ephraim in behind. The girls are probably Miriam, Laura, Belvedera, Caroline, and Clara (ages, 10, 8, 6, 5, and 1, respectively, in the 1861 census). Given that Clara appears to be about 4–5 years old in the photo, it was likely taken around 1865.

Among Guelph history buffs, Mr. Stevenson is also remembered for the brief reminiscences he delivered in a speech in 1877. It follows the usual form of dates, names, and brief recollections, which the reader would like to know more about. For example, here is his brief recollection for 1854:

In October of 1854, about a dozen of the best stores on Wyndham and Macdonell Streets were burned down, causing a loss of many thousand dollars. About this time the town limits were enlarged, much to the disgust of those parties included in the new limits.
Why were the new Guelphites so disgusted, and what form did their distaste take? It would certainly have been nice to know more of Mr. Stevenson's thoughts on the matter, particularly since he was a town Councilor at the time.

In any event, our humble postcard serves to remind us of one of the influential figures of Victorian Guelph.

Wm. Stevenson died on 6 June 1899 at the age of 81 and is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery.


It would be remiss of me not to mention that some of the Stevenson children became noted figures in town. Ephraim Stevenson was a member of the Guelph Maple Leafs baseball club that held the semi-professional world championship in the early 1870s.

In a reminiscence about his early years in Guelph, Frank Coffee describes his memory of the team in these words (Mercury, 26 Oct 1918):

The original Maple Leafs had won a Canadian championship; Jim Nichols, Bill Sunley, Eph. Stevenson, Johnnie Colson, Tommy and Billie Smith, Jack Goldie, Kenneth Maclean, Harry Steele, were names to conjure with, as in successive seasons they held, against all comers, the championship emblem—the first silver ball.
I have yet to find a labelled photo of Ephraim in his Maple Leafs uniform but I think that this photo from a collage assembled in 1871 is a good match for the young man posed on the porch of Maple Bank above:
(Detail from "Maple Leaf Baseball Team, 1871." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1979X.00.762.)

Despite his prowess at baseball, Ephraim's calling was to be a Methodist clergyman.

William and Isabella's youngest daughter, Maud, achieved fame as a singer. A paragraph from a short biography provides some details of interest:

The Toronto Globe of November 4, 1899, carries an account of Miss Stevenson and mentions that she is known from coast to coast across Canada for her concert work. Also in London, England, she received flattering comments on the tone and quality of her voice as well as the keen dramatic instinct she possessed. She was, it said, able to sing with equal ease, the most difficult classical selections and Scottish ballads. Her soprano voice had a magnificent range and sweetness. She was called "Guelph's sweet-voiced singer."
There is a portrait of her from ca. 1880 in a Notman photograph in a dark outfit and looking rather severe:
She is identified by her married name of Maud Stevenson Pentelow. (Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2014.84.1066.)

Maud's older sister Clara was also an excellent singer, though she did not enjoy an international reputation. Nonetheless, she is commemorated in the name of Clara Street in the St. George's Park neighbourhood. The reason is not clear to me, although it may not be a coincidence that Clara was the second wife of local mover-and-shaker J.W. Lyon. Anyone who knows the story is invited to fill it in in the comments below.

A portrait of the children of William and Isabella Stevenson, taken ca. 1925, is shown below:

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 12.)

From left to right, the figures are Belvedera, Clara, Carolina, Minnie (Miriam?), Maude, Rev. Ephriam, and Laura.


Sources consulted for this post include:
  • Sudbury, H. "Stevenson, William." Publication of the Guelph Historical Society 1965. 5,9: 1–2.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

In "Dolly Varden" and Lillian Spencer, Guelph receives a comical treat

When you examine the scene below, what do you see?

One of the pleasures of looking at old postcard views, such as this one printed for the druggist A.B. Petrie & Son, is they can be enjoyed in many ways. They can be enjoyed simply for their aesthetic value. They can be enjoyed for the glimpses that they afford into the people and things depicted in them. They can also be enjoyed as puzzles, challenging viewers to figure out what is happening and when. What you see depends on what you are looking for.

Of course, the image in the postcard above is of St. George's Square, an image that was reproduced in several Edwardian postcards and that I have discussed in a previous post.

In aesthetic terms, the image is nicely layered. In the foreground is a woman with a parasoal strolling away from the camera, off on some unknown errand. In the middle ground is a two-wheeled cart. Although such an item would draw attention in the middle of the road today, no one is paying it any mind in the image. In fact, it is a sanitation cart, whose purpose was removal of horse droppings from the streets. In an era before motor vehicles, the sanitation cart was a familiar, unremarkable sight, as was its cargo.

Nearby is a wagon being drawn by two horses. The driver is speaking to someone on the street, who may well be the custodian of the sanitation cart. The errand of the wagon driver is not clear, although the sign on the side of the tank on the wagon is suggestive: "Gasoline." Why is a tank of gasoline being pulled down Wyndham Street on a wagon? Perhaps that is what the custodian wants to know.

In the middle of the Square is the Blacksmith Fountain, a symbol of "industry" and the industrial aspirations of the Royal City.

In the background stands the old Post Office/Customs House. The structure projects both forwards and upwards, presiding over the Square as a reminder of the authority of the Canadian state that it and the city belong to. Curiously, the clock face that one would expect in the circle at the top of the tower is missing. This little puzzle is easily resolved: Although the clock tower was added to the old Post Office in 1903, the clock itself was not installed until late in 1906—not an unusual sort of occurrence at the time. This fact also helps to date this image to that interval.

Although the image is largely static, there is one dynamic element, namely the streetcars approaching down Wyndham Street to the left. These cars were the small open ones (no windows) that were bought for the system when it began operations in 1895. A closeup of the front of the nearest car shows that it was carrying a sign on its fender:

The sign reads, "Dolly Varden // Opera House // To-Night." This little detail dates the image to exactly one day, since Dolly Varden played in Guelph on 19 Sep. 1906 only (Mercury):

As the ad states, Dolly Varden was a "dainty comic opera," that is, a musical comedy with a marriageable woman in the lead role. In fact, the character Dolly Varden has an interesting history of its own.

"Dolly Varden" was a character from Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, a beautiful coquette distinguished by her colourful manner of dress. The character proved to be a popualar one and inspired a whole style of Victorian ladies' dress that was named the "Dolly Varden" after her. It was a Victorian reintepretation of the fashions of the 1780s, when Barnaby Rudge was set. Clothing stores advertised Dolly Varden dresses, hats, and shoes. Women could wear such outfits to costume parties, where they were sure to be recognized as a "Dolly Varden."

("Music sheet cover depicting women wearing Dolly Varden costumes." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

With the commercial potential of this character in mind, it is no surpise that Dolly finally got her own day in the sun. Around 1900, writer Stanislaus Stange and composer Julian Edwards wrote a comic opera with her as the main character. The plot has little to do with Barnaby Rudge, beyond being set in the 1780s and featuring the gaily-dressed Miss Varden. In the opera, Dolly Varden is an very pretty, assertive, but somewhat unsophisticated orphan girl set to inherit a tidy fortune. She visits London with her jealous guardian, Jack Fairfax, who desires to have her to himself. However, she manages to outfox him and marry her true love, the dashing army officer Dick Belleville. Not only that, Dolly prevents her friend Letitia from marrying the inappropriate fop Lord Gayspark, instead setting her up with the manly Captain Harcourt.

Naturally, this sort of action called for a great deal of singing. The opera was packed with comic and romantic ditties including:

  • For the knot there's no untying;
  • An aural misunderstanding;
  • Song of the sword;
  • The girl you love;
  • The lay of the jay;
  • My ship's the girl for me;
  • Dolly Varden (of course);
  • We met in Lover's Lane; and
  • A cannibal maid!
Sheet music for the opera sold well and "We met in Lover's Lane" became a number one seller.

You can hear this hit single, sung by William F. Hooley in 1902 (courtesy of the Library of Congress):

The piece was cast and rehearsed in New York but opened in Toronto on 23 Sep. 1901. In brief, it was a smash. The review in the Globe gushed (24 Sep 1901):

A crowded house last night at the Princess Theatre gave an enthusiastic reception to the new comic opera, “Dolly Varden,” which was presented for the first time on any stage by the Lulu Glaser Opera Company. So emphatic was the success with the audience of the “premiere” that the composer, Mr. Julian Edwards, who conducted for this occasion only, the librettist, Mr. Stanislaus Stange, and the star, Miss Glaser, were repeatedly called before the curtain on the close of the first act, and Mr. Stange had to make a little speech on behalf of himself and colleagues, in acknowledgment.
The lush costumes and rich settings were praised to the roof. The music was praised as "bright and tuneful" and Sullivanesque.

The songs were well recieved, with the audience demanding encores and sometimes double encores on many occasions. The composition was ambitious and demanding, and much praise was heaped on how effectively it was presented:

The ensemble finale of this act is a clever bit of work. The composer has contrived to work up the volume of sound by simple means to a grandeur approaching the effect of grand opera, and here the excellent material he had at command in the number of leading voices, showed to advantage. In the second act, in addition to a taking dance and chorus at the opening, and a pretty minuet, with a flavor of an Offenbachian Tylorienne, there may be mentioned a double quintette of fine tonal effects and light and shade, and an octette that won instant approval. The quartette of leading women’s voices also showed to advantage in this act.
Naturally, the leading lady, Miss Lulu Glaser, won particular admiration:
The star of the company, Miss Lulu Glaser, is too well known as a clever and attractive comedienne to need much comment upon her performance. Vivacious and bright, with a superabundance of spirit, and possessing a voice of good quality, she held the stage whenever she had anything to do, and as the sprightly Dolly Varden, she was well suited with the role.
The show stayed in Toronto for a week before hitting the rails. As a big hit, and seeking to be worthy of the New York stage, it stuck to the big cities and did not visit Guelph, though Guelphites must have heard of it.

Certainly, it was a big breakthrough for its leading lady, Lulu Glaser. She featured prominently in promotional material, like this picture of what must be a key scene (Hamilton Times, 26 Sep. 1903):

Miss Glaser's image, in costume, appeared in the promotional postcard below:

("Lulu Glaser." Courtesy of the New York Public Library.)

A similar picture appeared on the cover of The Billboard trade magazine in 1902.

The show toured the continent twice. A company was formed to present it in Britain as well. It also achieved its highest aspiration, a lengthy run in New York. In fact, it was staged in Herald Square, New York City, for the entire summer of 1902. This was no small feat since theatres normally closed between May and September. In the days before air conditioning, it was simply not feasible to pack hundreds of people into a dark and poorly ventilated auditorium for hours while the mercury ascended the thermometer to sweltering heights. (Nor was it healthy for the performers.) The Billboard (17 May 1902) noted that the theatre was specially modified for the occasion:

Eight big noiseless fans are being set in different parts of the house and a large hole is being cut in the top of the dome of the auditorium, in which is being placed a “suck fan,” through which the hot air will be removed. New summer costumes for the whole cast are promised for Decoration Day.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and Lulu Glaser left "Dolly Varden" after the 1903–04 season. The show ran for one more season with Maud Hollins, who was Miss Glaser's understudy (I think).

There the matter may have rested, and Guelph deprived of this musical spectacular, but for the intervention of the Aborn Operatic Company. Milton and Sargent Aborn were on the lookout for a vehicle for a potential star they had picked out, Miss Lillian Spencer. She had attracted their attention after graduating suddenly from the chorus to the lead in the musical comedy "Florodora" along with her subsequent work. They felt that she would be a good fit for the lead role in "Dolly Varden" and so purchased the rights to stage another run of the show.

("The Aborn Company presents Dolly Varden;" ca. 1906. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

They had good reason for this judgement. Although only 21 years old, Lillian Spencer had a long history in showbusiness, particularly in comedy. At the tender age of three years, she trod the boards with American-German actor Joseph "Fritz" Emmet. Mr. Emmet cut his teeth in the post Civil War era in a minstrel troupe, where his claim to fame was singing songs in German while in blackface. He graduated to ethnic comedy, speaking and singing in a stagey German accent while yodelling and performing spectacular dance numbers.

He was most noted for his roles in the character of "Fritz," a German who experienced misadventures in various locales, while singing, dancing, and playing the guitar. The first "Fritz" show involved the character's arrival in America, with later reditions set in Ireland, Australia, etc. The plot and details of each play made little sense but that was of no consequence: The audience always wanted the same dances, the "Cuckoo song," and whatnot.

("Joseph K. Emmett in the stage production Fritz, Our Cousin German, 1869." Courtesy of the New York Public Library.)

Part of his act was interacting with children: searching for missing ones, singing them lullabies, and so on. So it was that a three-year-old Lillian Spencer tumbled out of a prop suitcase on stage in 1888, probably during a production of "Uncle Joe; or, Fritz in a Madhouse." Audiences took to the little waif immediately and she became a professional, child actor.

Why Lillian Spencer entered the theatre at such a young age is unclear. However, the 1900 US Census shows her living in a boarding house in Manhattan along with a Jessie Spencer, age 35, whose occupation is also listed as "actress." Her marital status is listed as divorced. Although records are sparse, it seems that Jessie was Lillian's mother and may have put her on stage as a way of earning a living while being a single mother, although that is speculation.

In her early career, she was often billed simply as "Baby Spencer" and made her way as an actor and a model (The Labor World, 1 Dec. 1906):

For a number of years, she played children’s parts, and at the same time, became noted as an artist’s model. Her piquant style of childish beauty made her much sought after for idealistic paintings, and her likeness was used by many famous artists.
It would be interesting to track down some of those images.

In any event, "Dolly Varden" returned to the rails for the 1906–07 season. It played in many of the same cities as the earlier runs, such as Toronto and Hamilton. However, although the show had been revised for its new rendition, some of the novelty had worn off and it played one-night stands in smaller cities that were bypassed in previous years. And so it was that "Dolly Varden" arrived in Guelph, where, as in many other small cities, advertisements that hung on streetcars carried with them Miss Lillian Spencer's hopes for a career as a mature performer.

(The Opera House Guelph—now the site of the Guelph Community Health Centre at Wyndham and Woolwich streets— printed by the Pugh Mfg. Co. of Toronto, ca. 1910.)

The Mercury did not review the show, so it is hard to say exactly what sort of reception it got. However, the publicity stills below, published in the Sep. 12 and 14 Chatham Daily Planet provide some idea of what audiences saw.

("Lillian Spencer with 'Dolly Varden.'" Miss Spencer appears to have a flower in her teeth and is covered in straw.)
("Lillian Spencer and Huntington May in 'Dolly Varden.'" Mr. May played Jack Fairfax.)

In lieu of a report from Guelph, this short review from the performance in Duluth, Minn. (26 Sep 1906) provides an idea of the show's reception:

“Dolly Varden” was very prettily produced at the Lyceum theater last evening. The production is worthy of its title of comic opera success. Its music is a delight, and the stage pictures and costumes are charming. When first in Duluth, with Lulu Glaser in the title role, it met with great public favor, and last night this success was repeated, although Miss Glaser is no longer with the company. For some reason or other the audience was a small one, but what there was of it was enthusiastically appreciative.
Lillian Spencer is the present Dolly Varden. She is a small, very active person, graceful and light of foot, with a piquant air and a contagious laugh. Her singing was well received, and her acting full of spirit. Her support was quite satisfactory.
Piquant to Miss Glaser's sprightly, it sounds as though Miss Spencer succeeded in putting her own impression on the role. We may assume that Guelphites gave it their approval also.

To my knowledge, Miss Spencer never returned to Guelph. Her encounter with the Royal City was fun but largely inconsequential to both. Even so, the incident is illustrative of the life of small cities of Ontario in the Edwardian era, and how they were connected to the larger world. In matters of popular entertainment, Guelphites relied on the theatrical circuits centered on the metropolises of the day, as also illustrated in the case of the play Officer 666. The entertainment world has changed substantially in the meantime but we may enjoy a glimpse back in time through media like old postcards, if we are willing to look for it.


Although "Dolly Varden" did not catapult Lillian Spencer to stardom, it does seem to have provided her with a lasting career separate from her early stint as Baby Spencer. She remained in New York and featured in many productions, although not usually as the star. In 1917, she joined the Charles Coburn company, which prompted the following review of her career up to that point (Sun, 27 Jan 1917):
A newcomer in the company now presenting “The yellow jacket” with Mr. and Mrs. Coburn at the Harris Theatre is Lillian Spencer, who plays the roles of Duc Jung Fah and See Quoc Fah (Fuchsia Flower and Four Season Flour). Miss Spencer’s interpretation of the role of the Second wife is a sprightly contribution to the performance and a somewhat intimate rendering of a part to which full justice has not heretofore been done. Miss Spencer may lay claim to the irregularly expressed but nevertheless clearly understood title of “natural born actress.” She has been on the stage since she was 5 years old. She was known as the youngest star in the theater when she appeared in the title role of “Dolly Varden” under the management of Milton Aborn. She has played important parts with Maude Adams in “What every woman knows,” “Chantacler” and “Jeanne d’Arc,” and although she never actually publicly appeared in place of Miss Adams, she was that eminent actress’s understudy and substituted for her at most of the rehearsals of these plays. Miss Spencer has appeared also in the support of Fritz Scheff, Blanche Ring and Julian Eltinge. More recently she enacted the role of the Lisping Girl in “The Girl who smiles” at the Longacre Theatre, and also impersonated one of the matrimonial chances offered to the hero of “Seven Chances” played originally at the Cohan Theatre.
The final record that I have found about her is a notice in Variety (17 Nov 1926) stating that she had a role in the Coburn production, "Ole Bill, M.P.".

If any reader has further information about her, please leave it in the comments below!


Pictures of Miss Lillian Spencer are not exactly common. Besides the publicity images shown above, there is a set of photographs taken in the 1910–1915 period by photographer Arnold Genthe, who was particulary known for his images of notable persons of the day. I will show a few here; the rest are accessible at the Library of Congress website.

A photo from Theatre Magazine (Jan 1918) shows Miss Lillian Spencer luxuriating in a Balch Price motor coat made of finest Australian opossum. She looks warm! Perhaps she continued to do modeling work in addition to acting.