When I grew up in Winnipeg, the night before Hallowe’en was customarily known as “gate night,” when bands of teenagers too old for trick-or-treating went around egging houses, streaming rolls of toilet paper through trees, putting all sorts of disgusting things in mail boxes, and in general behaving in ways that were sure to charm the neighbourhood.
I never learned why a night featuring pranks was called “gate night,” and I’d forgotten all about it until I read this notice today about Hallowe’en mischief at Hibben’s book store in 1898:
It seems that “gate night” was a thing in Victorian Victoria too, only they meant it literally.
On Hallowe’en, citizens weren’t on the lookout for cute little kids coming through the gate for candy as much as for gangs of “roughs” who actually came for the gates, or fences—whatever they could get their hands on:
Similar reports from Vancouver, New Westminster, and other BC communities show that the pranking could get pretty carried away:
Picking up from my last post about the fantastic photo of Vancouver’s Clarke & Stuart, here’s one that takes us inside a 19th-century bookstore: T.N. Hibben & Co. of Victoria.
Here we can see all the wonderful books lining the walls (floor to ceiling, at least on the right) and displayed down the middle. I feel like I can almost smell their leather bindings.
Stationery and blank books, some of which we can see at the front right, were important parts of the business, as were items like photographs, maps, typewriters and office equipment, toys, and sporting goods, like the racquets hanging on the left.
Although the Royal BC Museum and Archives dates this photo as ca. 1891, I believe it was taken before January 1890, because that is when founder Thomas Napier Hibben died, and the man on the front right looks an awful lot like Hibben in the portrait below, with his distinctive white beard either side of an exposed chin.
I was recently contacted by someone who is writing a biography of Robert Carswell, founder of the legal-publishing firm Carswell Company in Toronto in the mid-1860s. She wondered, just as I once did, if there was any connection between her subject and my Victoria bookseller James Carswell, a partner in Hibben & Carswell from 1858 to 1866.
Both of us had come across claims, like one here, that after dissolving his partnership with Hibben, James had moved to Toronto to co-found the legal-publishing firm. However, based on newspaper articles from the time and various archival records I’ve collected, I have concluded that this is not true.
In 1867, just a few months after leaving Hibben, James was reported to have opened a general store in Cowichan:
James was still in Cowichan in March 1868, when he made the news for capsizing his canoe in Cowichan Bay:
By 1871, James had quit BC for Glasgow, where his wife, Elizabeth Ferguson (and likely he himself), was from. In a letter published in the Colonist, Reverend Thomas Somerville (a minister from Glasgow who had been with the Presbyterian church in Victoria) reported that James had set up an agency business there.
On October 19, 1872, James died in Glasgow. Although the local BC newspapers reported (with the same Rev. Somerville as the source) that James had “cut his hand severely and bled so freely that he never recovered,” his Scottish death certificate records the cause as epilepsy. It also states that he was 47 years old and a restaurateur at the time of his death.
Although it seems highly unlikely that James could have fit in the co-founding of Carswell Company in Toronto, I thought there might still be a familial connection between the two bookish Carswells. However, finding any evidence of this has also proved elusive.
We know from James’s marriage and death certificates that his parents were John and Anne (Finnie) Carswell, and that he was born in about 1825, whereas Robert was born in Colborne, Ontario, in 1838, to Hugh and Margaret Carswell, both originally from Glasgow.
So they weren’t brothers. But perhaps cousins or uncle/nephew?
Maddeningly, I haven’t been able to find a birth record for James Carswell in Scottish archives. However, John Carswell and Anne Finnie are recorded as having multiple children, including a son named Hugh in February 1825. Huh. James Carswell was 47 in October 1872, so I concluded that his birth year was 1825. Were James and Hugh twins? One and the same person? Or was James’s age perhaps recorded incorrectly at his death?
I still don’t know, but even so, this Hugh Carswell would have been too young to have fathered Robert Carswell in Colborne in 1838. And there the mystery still remains…
In Book ofSmall,her memoir about her childhood in Victoria, Emily Carr recalls the red cardboard sign that Thomas Napier Hibben hung in his bookstore’s window each December, its “Merry Christmas” message written with cotton wool.
In nineteenth-century Victoria (as now, judging by the lineup at my local bookstore the other day), Christmas shoppers flocked to bookstores for gifts. In addition to books, they were drawn to all the fancy goods and “requisites necessary in a first class stationery store,” as the following article describes:
Among the attractions were a fairly new item at the time: Christmas cards. The Prang cards mentioned above were those of Louis Prang, the Boston-based printer who is credited as the father of the American Christmas card when he became the first American publisher of Christmas cards in 1875.
Diaries for the upcoming year were another popular, heavily advertised Christmas gift item. Selections numbered in the dozens, with many bound in fine leather, edged in gilt, sized for a pocket, and complete with additional compartments for bills and calling cards.
(Feature image for this blog post on the home page is from http://blog.nyhistory.org/prang/, Christmas card, L. Prang and Co., 1876. PR 31, Bella C. Landauer Collection)
For sixty cents per volume, readers could walk away with now-classic works by Charles Dickens, Johnathan Swift, Victor Hugo, and Sir Walter Scott.
They could also find authors less familiar today (at least to me), like Jane Porter, Regina Marin Roche, Anne Bowman, Holme Lee, and Jane R. Sommers (humph…the women seem to be the ones whom history let fade into the mist).
All book images above are from HathiTrust, where modern-day readers can find and freely download most, if not all, of the books in the BC Stationery Company list.
Beginning in May 1886 with Pearson’s and Ferguson’s existing book and stationery stores in New Westminster, Vancouver, and Victoria, Robson’s British Columbian newspaper and printing operation in New Westminster, and $50,000 in capital (1), BC Printing and Stationery seemed strongly positioned to compete in the province’s burgeoning bookselling and publishing industry.
…Followed by a Series of Unfortunate Events
But only three weeks after the new firm was incorporated, the Great Vancouver Fire of June 13, 1886, destroyed the company’s Vancouver branch —the same inferno that devastated Seth Tilley’s book and stationery store. BC Stationery and Printing was located on Water Street adjoining the Granville Hotel, and its losses were estimated at $5,750 (2).
Just like Tilley, the firm wasted no time in rebuilding, this time on Cordova Street.
Just as things were settling down in Vancouver, another fire, this one on September 1 in Victoria, destroyed the company’s store on Government Street.
Fortunately, much of the firm’s $25,000 worth of stock was removed as the blaze spread, and insurance partially covered the rest (3). “[The company] will resume business in a few days, and doubtless do a good trade, as they have done heretofore,” declared Books and Notions (4).
And at first it seemed this prediction was right. Through 1887 and into 1888, BC Stationery and Printing’s enthusiastic ads in the Daily Colonist and elsewhere gave no signs that the company was in any distress.
But the company was, indeed, in financial difficulty. In January 1887, the partnership between Ferguson, Pearson, and Robson broke apart when Pearson withdrew from the firm, taking his Vancouver and New Westminster branches with him. BC Stationery and Printing also lost the British Columbian and David Robson when the newspaper was sold to a joint stock company controlled in New Westminster (5).
Ferguson tried to press on alone, but in the spring of 1888, BC Stationery and Printing Company declared bankruptcy. Ferguson issued a statement saying that the losses from the Vancouver and Victoria fires in the company’s first year of business, “some serious losses through our jobbing trade,” and “heavy expenses attendant upon the closing up of two branches” had left the firm unable to meet its financial obligations (6).
T.N. Hibben & Co., the company’s staunchest competitor in Victoria, bought the stock of the bankrupt firm at 57½ cents on the dollar, and Ferguson sold what was left of the business to Robert Jamieson (7).
As for John Bowerman Ferguson…
John Ferguson left Victoria in November 1888 and headed back to Winnipeg, where he once again opened a book and stationery store. But again, bad fortune seemed to follow him. First came the death of his wife, Harriett, in November 1891. And then came another bankruptcy, which prompted Books and Notions to conclude that “Mr. Ferguson has a poor record” (8).
But Ferguson didn’t give up. In 1894, he not only remarried, to Helen Walsh, but also reentered the book trade, incorporating Ferguson & Co. once again (9). In 1895, he sold the book and periodical side of this business to Alex Taylor and carried on as a wholesaler of wrapping papers, printing and lithographing papers, and office and school supplies (10).
Then in August 1896, Ferguson left Winnipeg—and the book and stationery business—for good. Over the next dozen or so years, he participated in some mining ventures in the Kootenays, was manager and local treasurer for an American life insurance company in Vancouver, was general manager of the Western Oil and Coal Company, and was involved in the Stave Lake Power Company with Charles Hibbert Tupper (a member of Parliament and son of former prime minister Charles Tupper Sr.), among others (11).
By 1911, Ferguson had returned to his home province of Ontario. He died there in 1919 and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto (12).
(1) “The B.C. Stationery and Printing Company,” Daily Colonist (May 22, 1886): 3.
(2) “Losses,” Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 2.
(3) “Fire on Government Street,” Daily Colonist (September 1, 1886): 3.
(4) Books and Notions (September 1886): 28.
(5) “The British Columbian Printing Company,” Daily British Columbian (January 28, 1887): 2.
(6) The Commercial, vol. 6, no. 32 (April 30, 1888).
(7) The Commercial (April 30, 1888); Books and Notions (December 1888): 87.
I was in Winnipeg (my hometown) for a few weeks this summer, and that got me thinking about a BC bookseller with a Winnipeg connection: John Bowerman Ferguson.
Part of the BC bookselling scene from 1885 to 1889 in Victoria and Vancouver, Ferguson was originally from Ontario. But before establishing himself in BC, he spent close to a decade in Winnipeg, initially as a school teacher and then principal at the Central School from 1876 to 1882 (1), and then as a partner in Parsons & Ferguson.
Building on the wholesale stationery business started by Silas R. Parsons in 1878, Parsons & Ferguson not only dealt in stationery, but also acted as agents for the sale of mining stocks, farms, and other property.
In March 1884, Ferguson’s intention to move to Victoria was announced in the British Colonist. Calling Ferguson “a leading stationer of Winnipeg,” the Colonist noted that he had leased the building formerly known as the Brunswick on Government Street and would soon be opening a “first-class stationery and fancy goods establishment” (2).
Located at 325 Government, three doors south of the post office, J.B. Ferguson & Co. opened on May 31, 1884, with an initial stock of books, stationery, and fancy goods valued at $18,000 (3). Later that same year, Ferguson raised his market profile by publishing Illustrated British Columbia, a book of lithographic prints of Victoria.
In May 1886, Ferguson took a huge competitive step in the BC bookselling scene when he partnered with Thomas Robson Pearson, David Robson, and J.A. Hart in forming the British Columbia Stationery and Printing Company. The new company absorbed Ferguson’s Victoria concern as well as T.R. Pearson & Co. in New Westminster and Vancouver.
“All the gentlemen are practical stationers and full of energy, and we predict for the new organization a bright and very prosperous future,” declared the Daily Colonist (4).
A series of setbacks, however, would challenge this prediction and ultimately prompt Ferguson to move back to Winnipeg. I’ll pick up from there next time.
In the 1890s, T.N. Hibben & Co. was the place to meet in Victoria. “On a Saturday afternoon, or in the evenings, when the stores were open, you were sure to meet just about everyone you knew waiting for somebody else in Hibben’s store, poking among the books and passing the time of day with other people who were waiting for the people who were always late,” wrote James Nesbitt in his popular column “Old Homes and Families” in the Colonist (1).
“It was a friendly store, filled with books and the latest in stationery,” Nesbitt continued, then mentioned the constant presence of Thomas Napier Hibben (son and namesake of the founder), his brother, Parker, and William Bone, a partner in the business.
“And there was also Miss Mamie Stewart, whom everyone said knew more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”
“And there was also Miss Mamie Stewart, whom everyone said knew more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”
This grabbed my attention, as I hadn’t come across Mamie Stewart’s name before in connection with Hibben’s.
Nesbitt’s article said Stewart had eventually left Hibben’s for a job at the Victoria Public Library. “Everyone missed her, and said Hibben’s was never quite the same.”
Who was this Mamie Stewart? In my research of BC bookselling history, I so seldom come across the names of women (an unfortunate reality of the times) that I felt extra-motivated to find out.
Childhood and St. Ann’s Academy: “Such Is the Way to the Stars”
Mamie Stewart, or Mary Elizabeth, her given name, was born in Victoria in 1870 to John and Margaret (McCoy) Stewart. John was a brass founder originally from Dundee, Scotland, while Margaret’s roots were in Ireland (2). Prior to arriving in Victoria in 1862, John spent five years in Lima, Peru (3). The family also included two sons, John Walter and Arthur Bernard, both younger than Mary.
As a girl, Stewart attended St. Ann’s Academy, an all-girls’ Catholic school in Victoria (4). “The school motto of St. Ann’s Academy was SIC ITUR AD ASTRA, which translates to ‘Such is the way to the stars’,” reads the history section of the school’s website. “Over and over again, the former students and teachers from the Academy spoke of the high expectations of the pupils there, and how this confidence in their abilities led them to achievements.”
The years she spent at St. Ann’s presumably instilled in Stewart her knowledge of and appreciation for literature.
T.N. Hibben & Co.
In 1894, Stewart worked as a clerk at C.A. Lombard & Co. (5). The music store was located at 61 Government Street, just a few doors down from T.N. Hibben & Co., at 69-71 Government, presumably giving Stewart lots of opportunity to stop into the bookstore and get to know its proprietors.
By 1897, Stewart was employed as a clerk at Hibben’s (6). She remained with the company until at least 1905 (7), during which time she gained her reputation as knowing “more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”
Victoria Public Library
As reported in the Nesbitt article, Stewart left Hibben’s for a position at Victoria Public Library, making the move sometime between 1905 and 1909 (8).
By this time, Mary’s father John had died of heart disease. Reporting his death, the Daily Colonist called him “a highly respected and well known resident of this city” (9).
At the library, Mary Stewart’s knowledge of books and way with people stood out, just as they did while she was at Hibben’s. In a 1914 report about the library’s rising circulation, the Daily Colonist gave Stewart much credit:
“The kindness and courtesy of Miss Mary Stewart, the manager of the circulation department of the library, makes the task of exchanging books a real pleasure to most people. There are many readers who must depend on the manager of this department for information and advice, and Miss Stewart is exceptionally well qualified to give both. To readers and book-lovers in Victoria she is an old friend, and she has added to her early training an earnest study of modern library methods. In Miss Stewart the head librarian has a very efficient and loyal co-worker, and the patrons of the library one of the kindest and most courteous, as well as most efficient, of public servants” (10).
“To readers and book-lovers in Victoria, [Mary Stewart] is an old friend.”
Mary Stewart is not to be confused with the other Stewart of Victoria’s early library history: Helen Gordon Stewart, who served as head librarian from 1912 to 1924.
Helen’s enormous contributions to the development of libraries and librarianship in BC are too numerous to mention here, but Mary made an impression on even this illustrious figure. In an interview Helen gave about her library career, she referred to Mary as “a fine a person as ever there was. I think she knew every person who came into [the library]” (11). Mary served as acting librarian a number of times when Helen was away.
Mary retired from the Victoria Public Library in 1936. After a lifetime of contributing to Victoria’s reading culture, she died at the age of seventy-four on November 11, 1944 (12).
(1) James Nesbitt, “Old Homes and Families,” Colonist (January 10, 1954): 1.
One of the books for sale at BC bookstores in 1888 caused a great deal of hand-wringing and finger-wagging among members of the book trade—and, no doubt, a large number of discrete purchases by curious and more adventurous readers.
The book was Émile Zola’s The Soil, the English translation of his La Terre, first published in France by Charpentier in 1887.
The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards (I’ve just finished it and was quite moved by it…more on that in a moment), caused quite a sensation on its initial publication in Europe.
The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards, caused quite a sensation.
In anticipation of an English translation coming to the shores of British Columbia, the Daily Colonist asked in October 1887 if such a book indicated an undesirable change in literary tendencies.
“Zola’s work will, of course, be translated for perusal in this country…it will be read all the more eagerly as it is declared to contain matter which…is unfit for publication,” the newspaper predicted. “In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order; they expect a lively demand for ‘La Terre.’ The question arises whether our taste is drifting into the direction of impropriety.”
A book’s suitability to be read at girls’ boarding schools seemed to be the Daily Colonist‘s standard for respectable literature.
“In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order.” [Daily Colonist, October 15, 1887]
In 1888, the London publisher Vizetelly & Co. released the English translation of Zola’s novel as The Soil, and soon Canadian and American book industry publications came out against the book’s importation. “It would appear that ‘La Terre’ is even more nasty than Zola’s other novels, although that was needless,” sniffed Books and Notions in Toronto in December 1888.
Noting that Vizetelly had been fined $500 for publishing the translation and that the New York Post Office and US Customs authorities had refused it admission to the US, the Books and Notions article concluded, “We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?”
“We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?” [Books and Notions, December 1888]
In the following months, the publication provided an update that Vizetelly had been imprisoned for publishing Zola’s novel and that Canadian Customs officials had seized a shipment of Zola’s works bound for a Hamilton bookseller.
Meanwhile, at least one Victoria bookseller, Robert Jamieson, stocked the novel, and in fact highlighted its controversial nature in his promotions.
“Public curiosity alone will give it an immense number of readers in this country,” the Jamieson ad declared.
The ad went on to praise the novel and its author. “It is certainly a great novel, powerful in the highest degree, and absorbingly interesting. Zola may well be proud of his latest production, for it is the crowning triumph of his literary career.”
I have just finished the 1888 translation published by Vizetelly, and was gobsmacked. Where has Zola been hiding on me all this time?
It turns out that La Terre is the fifteenth novel in a twenty-book series set during the Second French Empire (1852-70). La Terre takes place in rural France, and its characters are mainly farming peasants whose lives feature endless drudgery just to get enough to eat and to clothe and shelter themselves.
“Whole years were necessary for the accomplishment of any really perceptible change in that weary, dull life of work and toil, which began afresh with every returning day,” one passage reads.
Most of the characters are completely miserable, and there are, indeed, several difficult scenes of physical and sexual violence, particularly against women and the aged. But there’s a raw realness to the story that drove me through page after page.
Perhaps it was the glimpse into these peasants’ impossible and violent lives that made the book so objectionable to the establishment of the day.
In 1894, Publisher’s Weekly reported that US Customs authorities in New York had decided to admit La Terre into the state at last, “though the book in question is one that must be handled with care, if it be not avoided altogether.”