The Telegram (St. John's)
Buttons or berries
Celebrating 125th anniversary of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s arrival in Newfoundland
Could you outfit your children in winter coats if all you had were six partridges and two gallons of blueberries?
Many people have heard of British doctor, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who came to Newfoundland in 1892 with the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishers to assist the poor of the Northern Peninsula and Labrador. This summer Dr. Katherine Side, associate professor in the department of gender studies, faculty of humanities and social sciences, at Memorial, and Emma Lang, PHD student in the department of folklore want people to learn more about Grenfell.
“When Grenfell set up his mission here, he didn’t just provide medical services, he also encouraged industriousness so that people could meet their own needs,” said Side.
“Grenfell asked that local recipients provide the mission with goods, like wild game and berries, as well as services like laundry and housekeeping, in exchange for donations of clothing. That system of exchange ensured the Newfoundlanders and Labradorians received what they needed — clothing, food and medical services.
“Using historical records, we could calculate exchanges, six partridges, for example, were exchanged for two new pairs of boy’s corduroy pants; and a young ward maid worked at the hospital in Indian Harbour for one month in exchange for one new apron,” said Side.
These examples illustrate how hard clothing was to come by 125 years ago. Grenfell wanted the clothing to encourage self-sufficiency, noted Side. He obtained the clothing he distributed — both new and second-hand — from charitable organizations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and the New England States.
“Grenfell tracked what was sent each year, enticing chapters of the Canadian and New England Grenfell Association to be competitive with one another and thus ensuring a steady stream of donations,” said Side.
“The clothing donated connected the people in Newfoundland and Labrador to the donors,” said Lang, co-curator with Side and the designer of a bilingual museum exhibit called “Tangled Threads/fils entremêlés” which is touring St. Anthony, Daniel’s Harbour, Conche, Corner Brook and St. John’s this summer and fall.
“Tam O’shanter hats with pompoms were the height of fashion for little girls in big cities like Boston, Toronto and London and in our exhibit we have photographs of little girls wearing hats that they received through the mission stores.”
The exhibition coincides with the 125th anniversary of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s arrival in this province. Lang says she’s excited the exhibition will visit communities that felt the impact of Grenfell’s work.
“Our goal is to come up with money to send the exhibit to Labrador next summer and hopefully keep it traveling each summer.”
Visitors to the exhibit will see how Grenfell’s system of exchange also helped stimulate the economy.
“Grenfell also created a need for clothing,” said Side. “He encouraged people to go to church on Sundays, to hold piano recitals and sewing classes. By doing this he enhanced their needs for particular types of clothing.”
“The clothing exchange continued to thrive into the 1930s,” added Lang. “Our story ends in 1929, before the Depression and the end of Responsible Government led to changes in how the mission did its work.
“It’s worth noting, however, that the connection between medical care and clothing continues,” said Lang. “Most hospitals have spare clothing available for people who come in for medical reasons and are in need of something to wear after treatment. Grenfell’s mission lives on.”