Tuesday 26 December 2023

Merry Xmas Guelph, 1925

The Christmas card has been a staple of the western, Yuletide celebration since at least 1843, when Sir Henry Cole commmissioned a set of 1,000 engraved holiday cards. As 1843 was also the year that Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," it's fair to say that this was a big year for the origins of contempoary Christmas celebrations.
Naturally, postcard makers got into the act during the medium's heyday in the Edwardian era. Although the foldable Christmas card continued on strong, the postcard version faded from the scene. Still, it is not unusual to find Xmas postcards in the 1920s, one of which found its way to yours truly.
This is a fairly standard scene, presumably of Bethlehem, in a festive frame, made by Whitney Made of Worcester, Massachusetts, a company not confined to the Valentine's Day cards it is most remembered for.

The card is addressed to "Mrs. Jno Mitchell, Arkell, Ont // ℅ D. Tarzwell," with the following message:

with best wishes to Mrs. Mitchell for a Merrie Xmas & a Happy New Year. // Susie Atkinson.
The card was postmarked in Guelph on 20 December 1925.

With generic cards of this sort, the main interest tends to be personal: Who was Susie Atkinson and why was she sending a Christmas postcard to Mrs. Jno Mitchell of Arkell (a village a short distance from Guelph)?

Susan Agnes Atkinson (née Coker) was born in Eramosa, Guelph Township, on 4 March 1887 and seems to have grown up on the family farm there. She became Mrs. Wesley George Atkinson on 15 December 1909. The couple was married in the Speedside church, a lovely rural church that I have blogged about, and had the pleasure of visiting.

The Atkinson's were thick on the ground in Guelph Township. William Atkinson, of Yorkshire, England, arrived in Upper Canada in 1832 with a large family and became a successful farmer with hundreds of acres under cultivation. One of his sons, George, carried on the tradition and, according to the County Atlas, was known as the "King of Marden" (a small village in northern Guelph Township).

(George Atkinson, the "King of Marden;" courtesy of the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Wellington County.)

Wesley, I believe, was a grandson of George's brother Joseph.

In any event, Wesley and Susie moved to Guelph and lived at 25 Queen street (now 25 Arthur street) for a number of years. They lived at 186 London Road west when Susie sent the postcard to Mrs. John Mitchell.

(25 Arthur street; courtesy of Google Street View.)

Wesley worked as a clerk or salesman for local businesses such as the Penfold Hardware store.

Now for the recipient! Mrs. John Mitchell appears to be Lydia Maria (née Haggett) born 21 May 1848 on another farm in Eramosa. She married Mr. John Mitchell, originally of Flamboro, on 10 September 1873, who owned a farm in Eramosa. That makes her a generation older than Susie Atkinson, who also does not seem to be a family relation. So, why were they corresponding?

The answer seems to lie in the 1901 census. In that document, the Mitchells are listed right below the Cokers (spelled Coekers). In short, they were neighbours! Even after Susie got married and moved to town, she seems to have kept in touch with her former neighbour, Lydia Mitchell.

The remaining puzzle is the relationship between the Mitchells and David Tarzwell, whose farm in Arkell was the destination of the postcard. Here, the 1921 census helps out. David Tarzwell, a widower, is listed as the owner of the farm. Not only that, three Mitchells are listed as living under the same roof: Harriet (occupation Housekeeper) and Lydia & John (boarders). In fact, Harriet is a daughter of Lydia & John. It seems that the senior Mitchells had moved in with their daughter, not an unusual arrangement for retired folk at that time.

Still more interesting is that Harriet officially became Mrs. David Tarzwell on 5 December 1929, four years after the postcard was sent. One can't help wondering if Harriet's occupation as "Housekeeper" listed in the 1921 census was some sort of euphemism for common-law wife.

Also interesting is the fact that Mrs. John Mitchell (that is, Lydia) died on 18 August 1929, only a few months before the wedding. Was Lydia's death a factor in the timing of the nuptials? Who now can say?

Alas, the Guelph Mercury for all of 1925 is missing from archival records, so local news is somewhat lacking in detail. However, some highlights show up in various sources and can give an idea of the state of affairs in Guelph late in 1925 when the postcard was sent.

The assets of the Guelph Co-operative Association were sold off in December (Globe, 12 December 1925). The Co-op had been founded in 1903 by the Guelph Trades and Labour Council in order to provide bread at affordable prices to the working people of the Royal City (Durtnall 2004). The enterprise continued successfully for over 20 years and greatly expanded its affordable offerings but, for reasons that are not entirely clear, went under at the end of 1925.

The Guelph Ontario Hockey Association intermediate team got off to a promising start. The Orange-and-Black of the Royal City handed a 7–2 drubbing to the Green-shirt senior team of Kitchener-Waterloo in an exhibition game on 19 December. A 3-to-2, come-from-behind exhibition decision over the Excelsiors of Brampton on December 22 stoked excitement in the local squad. Interest in competetive hockey had only recently led the owners to expand seating at the Guelph Arena (now the Royal Plaza mall).

However, the year ended on a bit of a low note when Guelph was handed a 3–1 defeat by their hosts for the first regular-season contest in North Toronto. Though the Guelphites skated well and launched many shots at the Toronto goalie, the netminder was hot and the larger ice surface at big-city rink gave the visitors more trouble than they could handle.

Big regional news was the undertaking by the Provincial Department of Public Highways to keep the Guelph-Hamilton highway (now Highway 6) open throughout the winter (Globe, 21 December). Chief Engineer Hogarth said that the Department would keep the "immense" motor plows available in Aberfoyle or Morriston to plow roads out immediately in the event of a big snowfall. In previous years, the highway could be closed for days at a time after a big storm. With increasing reliance on trucking for regional commerce, such interruptions became more and more costly. Regularized plowing was the government's response.

("Snowplough No. P.2." 7 Jan. 1924, courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 2910. I have the feeling that the highway plows were more "immense" than this street plow. If you have a contemporary highway plow photo, let me know!)

The Ontario Agricultural College Review (v. 38, n. 4) celebrated the season by reprinting a short story by Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock, entitled, "The Christmas ghost." In this story, the unnamed protagonist gets to thinking about how Christmas has changed over the years:

I was contrasting Christmas in the old country house of a century ago, with the fires roaring up the chimneys, and Christmas in the modern apartment on the ninth floor with the gasoline generator turned on for the maid’s bath.
Suddenly, a dejected looking ghost appeared and asked if he might haunt his host for a while. Upon receiving the invitation, the spectre sits and complains about his situation. About one hundred years earlier, he had murdered a man on a public road and was, after death, condemned to wander the Earth, dragging around great chains, moaning, and haunting a house.

This employment was finally undone by modernization:

The days of the motor car came and they paved the highway and knocked down the house and built a big garage there, with electricity as bright as day. You can’t haunt a garage, can you? I tried to stick on and do a little groaning, but nobody seemed to pay any attention; and anyway, I got nervous about the gasoline. I’m too immaterial to be round where there is gasoline. A fellow would blow up, wouldn’t he?
Further haunts proved fruitless. Upon hearing a ghost, modern children simply wanted to see if they could pass the radio set through him, whereupon he discovered that electricity "knocks me edgeways."

Worse yet, the ghost says, spiritualists have learned how to summon ghosts at will, thus reducing him to a kind of on-demand entertainment. At that moment, the ghost begins to vanish, saying:

There’s a group of fools somewhere sitting round a table at a Christmas eve party and they’re calling up a ghost just for fun—a darned poor notion of fun, I call it ...
Spiritualism plus motor cars, pavement, gasoline, electricity and radio had certainly changed the world, and Christmas, since Dicken's day.
Works consulted include:
  • Durtnall, B. (2004). "Each for all and all for each: The Story of the Guelph Co-operative Association," Historic Guelph 43, pp. 59–66.

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