Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Diaries of Stella Mott

Stella and her brother Walter

Once again from the Norwich Archives we find the diary of a woman that provides us with interesting insight into her own life but also into local history and other broader historical fields.

I regularly take the train from Woodstock to Toronto. It is usually a lovely trip to begin with, but my last trek was a bit more of an experience. As the train swayed smoothly forward I couldn’t help but muse on what I’d learned about Stella Mott with the realization that I was travelling the same route that she took many years before, according to her diary.

Miss Katherine Stella Mott (1883-1973), a direct descendent of Sears Mott who came to Norwich in 1810, was born on the Mott homestead on Quaker St. just outside Norwich. A Quaker, she was educated in Norwich, Woodstock, possibly Hamilton, and at the University of Toronto, where she graduated with a BA in Classics and English in 1916. She taught in various places, including Norwich, before and after university and retired in 1942. She was heavily involved in the Norwich Pioneer Society and its successor the Norwich and District Historical Society. Throughout her life she researched and wrote newspaper articles on various aspects of the local history of the Norwich area and her own genealogy. The research for this is within her diaries and the other material housed here in Norwich.

The Norwich and District Historical Society is heavily indebted to her research and the material she collected. It is from her writing and collected research material that we have a firm base for much of our current local history knowledge. Her materials, currently stored at the archives, were suddenly rescued from a bonfire by members of the recently formed Norwich and District Historical Society after Miss Mott’s death in 1973.

Miss Mott’s diary Mott (something tells me should would have disapproved of me calling her Stella so publicly), is a wealth of information. As a teacher her diary provides insight into Ontario elementary education of the period, the areas religious cultural history, local women’s fashions and interior decorating trends, perspectives on the two world wars, medical practice of the time (she had work done on her face), local history before her time thanks to her research and hence also insight into the aspects of the area’s history deemed relevant to the period, and her childhood diary provides a glance into a child’s world of late 19th century Norwich Quakers.

She was never married and yes she became an old (and I’m told stern, hoarding) spinster. However, she is, as the phrase goes, a woman after my own heart. She was, at least in today’s context, a history student geek. Not only was she a geek, but she was a formidable woman. It was a feat in and of itself to enter the University of Toronto at a time when women in universities were still a minority. To illustrate, there were no female professors hired until 1920. As well, she may have fought off pressures to leave university to fill vacant male home front position for the war effort. However, I’m simply speculating.

Stella Mott graduating - likley from the University of Toronto, 1916

She loved history, research, books and had a yearning for a university education. A few passages in her diary warmed my geeky heart. She was clearly proud of her book collection, seen when she literally wrote a page and a half about her bookshelves. In her diary from January 1923 she began with, “Have finished tidying up my papers and arranging my books in my book-cases. I know own two sets of bookshelves and a walnut book –case.” Still very common to hopeful students, she yearned for university, becoming bored and impatient with her current education. In July 1906, at the age of 23, she wrote, “I don’t – have the same enthusiasm for study that – I once had – I should so like to go to University – at once...”

Her diary holds many interesting moments. In September 1917 she noted her father’s (Charles) death, in this she describes her mother’s (Rachel - nee Jacques) mourning, “Papa was ill all winter and on June 5th we lost him. I spent all summer at home with mother and Nellie…We have a beautiful garden at home. Poor mother couldn’t find any comfort anywhere but in working outside among the trees that papa had planted and into the garden he had planned.”

On a lighter note, she wrote once of her brother Walter, after he got a new hat as a birthday present, “Walter is twenty years old today and went to Woodstock to get a derby hat which is very becoming. He tried it on before every mirror but one in the house, setting it at different angles to admire the effect.”

Her research notes were often mixed in with her diary. She interestingly noted in January 1931 that she went to see some letters of William Lyon Mackenzie (WLM), the leader of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, held by Leila Carroll of Norwich. In those letters from the 1850’s she found that WLM was invited to Norwich, “…for some occasion, a banquet, a meeting, a speech.” It seems members of the Norwich community owed dues for subscriptions to his newspapers, “He was most interested however in collecting arrears due him on his paper…” In other research she writes about Lord Elgin’s visit to Norwich and notes that, “Those who were pardoned in the Rebellion had to promise to vote Conservative for the rest of their lives.” Keeping in mind this was in the days when votes were cast verbally in public on the hustings, making such a promise difficult to break without a secret ballot.

Keeping with politics, she wrote of Prime Minister Laurier visiting Norwich in May 1905 along with the Premier of Ontario (Sir James Whitney) and the federal cabinet for the funeral of Oxford North MP and former cabinet minister James Sutherland.

Coincidentally, Miss Mott was in hospital in London (Ontario) in the summer of 1905 where she wrote a detailed and lengthy description of London’s Old Boy’s Reunion, similar to Norwich’s Centennial Celebration in 1910. Old Boys and Girls Reunions were usually anniversary events that invited former members of a community (the old boys and girls) to come back and celebrate the town’s milestone. These occasions recall a time when white English Protestant Canada was still quite British, Ontario being the heartland of those nationalist sentiments.

Stella Mott the teacher is borne out in her diary. Several passages reveal the lighter side of her school experiences and one that reveals how intimately Canadians on the home front were involved in the Great War. She would often talk about her students, writing about chores around the school, going on excursions in the woods and fishing, and playing hide and go seek. One example from 1905 is particularly endearing, showing both her soft and stern nature as a teacher, “…the little ones had had a glorious time in the schoolhouse playing school and all writing on the board. The last privilege was granted them on condition that they did not use too much chalk. But they cleared off some questions put there for homework for the Third Class so they won’t write again on the board for a while.”

Miss Mott took an interest in following the Great War, both its events and the comings and goings, and fates, of local soldiers. This seems odd as she was a Quaker, a group generally composed of pacifists, and were among the few groups to initially oppose Canada’s entry into the war. She brought her interest of the war into the classroom, “We have also very good discussions on the war and are anxiously awaiting news of the Romanians in their fight to keep the Germans and Austrians out of their country. We put up a map on the board and mark the places on it.”

Another endearing moment comes from her childhood diary in January 1895 at the age of 12, “I was skating this morning at-least learning to skate. I can go as far as I want to but my ankles would not stay where they ought to stay.”

She records a buggy crash, and one can tell from reading the account that she was likely being a touch cheeky. “Frank B. had broken the shaft of his buggy last night driving recklessly down the road and running into a vehicle coming this way. I heard the crash near the bridge. He brought it back [a borrowed buggy] this morning apparently much [injured?] in spirit. Am glad he wasn’t hurt. He was shouting like our crazy milkman when he went past here last night.”

Lastly, a strange event she noted in August 1906 is intriguing but needs research to find out more details. She wrote, “Aunt Phoebe told us what Dave had been telling her of Albert Acker’s last escapade. It is said he was found hiding under the bed at Wilson’s Monday night & arrested Wednesday morning.” Anyone who grew up or lives in a small town knows how powerful such gossip can be!

My hope is that a researcher, perhaps an intrigued graduate student, will see the value in reviewing her diaries and the collected research material housed here at the archives. She's an absolutely fascinating woman, and my summary of her diary doesn't do her justice. Her research and newspaper writing has been suggested to possibly be one avenue where middle class Ontario women could find a foothold in the public sphere. Especially since, it seems, in the Norwich area there were several of these women local history writers with an abscene of male writers. Thoughg men were consistently involved in local history societies alongside women, I don't see much evidence of them undertaking much writing in the early and mid 20th century.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zeitag TO - history image app for iphone!

You'll have to excuse my history geekiness for a moment (come now people, you know you have it too)...THIS IS SO COOL!!!

It's an app that allows you to view historic photos of Toronto in your current location on your Iphone. I've seen things like this before, but never specifc to Toronto. Oh how I love the "historical gaze", what I define as the attempt to picture and formulate past actions in a particular historical space. This project and simiar ones being born from the Iphone phenomenon allows the 'historical gaze' to be rooted moreso in reality than ones imagination can do alone.

I especially enjoyed this comment from the above article:

" 'We don’t want the city covered in bronze – there are various platforms to bring information to the public. This way, you can tell as many stories as you want,' Blakeley recently said. Physical plaques serve a purpose, especially for those without smartphones. But apps on iPhones and other devices offer the ability to expand the number of (virtual) plaques, and what a plaque can do."

Also, I've spoken to John Walsh at Carleton University about another exciting project:

" Historical Landscapes of the Chaudiere: Augmented Reality Apps for Environmental Histories, currently in development, will use AR to translate an existing walking tour of Ottawa created by graduate students in the Public History program at Carleton University to one you can do with your smartphone. The project, funded by the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE), will 'demonstrate how the very direct relationships between geographical ‘mappings’ of heritage and place-based mobile computing privileges narratives of environmental history and will provide a model for using this technology in other landscapes.' Exciting stuff."

This reminds me of the Heritage Toronto iTours:

Posting elsewhere...

Hi everyone (all 6 of you), remember that I'm regularly posting on Christopher Moore's blog. Here's the latest post by me:

I'll try to remember to post all my postings here as well as there!