As a Canadian writer, I find it appropriate that my mother’s name was Margaret, as in Atwood, Avison, and Laurence. Though she had some talent in drawing and became a school-teacher, she made a last contribution to the cultural world: the preservation of what librarians call ‘women’s ephemerae.’
When I was a girl in the 1980s, my mother would sometimes show me women’s magazines from the 1950s or 60s. As a 14-year-old, I was familiar enough with the more modern ones and I poured over the older pages of the old-fashioned or frankly crazy fashions, and the familiar sections: crafts, recipes, Dear Lois, and Can this Marriage be Saved? I often had scissors in my hands then, and I used these images again after art school, when I no longer had to earn marks from my abstract expressionist professors, and could make art that had more personal meaning for me.
These magazines showed me what women – my mother, and eventually, me — were supposed to be. Often my silent response was “you’ve got to be kidding,” but I have no way of knowing how much this constant barrage of information lodged in my subconscious. My mother seemed to accept it uncritically, but then, she was born in 1925, and had been formed before the feminism of the later 20th century.
She bought new magazines all the time, looked them over and filed them away in boxes in the basement, boxes that mounted over the years, that filled the space until there were only passageways to the furnace, and the washer and the dryer, the deep freezes, and the potato bin. It seemed she couldn’t let anything go – any words that might explain her life or her world, or allow her to get along in it better.
After she died, my father slowly emptied the basement box by box, to the recycler and to the charity shop. It took him two years. After he was finished he found more magazines, this time on the high shelf in the bedroom closet.
These were very old — from 1909 to 1941, messages from my grandmothers’ world. They were magazines that were no longer in print: The Modern Priscilla, and Home Arts. My father said he would take them to the recycler unless I wanted them.
Some of them were in the boxes they’d been mailed in, postmarked about the time my brother and I were born. It seemed to be some kind of trading system among women. Many of the magazines had holes where they had been bound and held as back issues in libraries. My mother had never shown me any of these.
Inside the covers I found scholarly articles about traditional women’s arts in far off countries, embroidery and crochet patterns, June Bride issues from the 1920s, and an interview with Amelia Earhart on aircraft – and needlecraft. There were ads for Campbell’s Soup, Pepsodent, weight-loss, and creams for bleaching away freckles.
Some things never change, but some things do; I found a recipe for “halibut palmettes” that involved cutting the fillets into hearts, squashing all the juice out, frying them stiff as a board, and then covering them with a kind of fish mousse icing. Modern foodies would run screaming, and I don’t think the fish cookies would fool the kids.
I brought the magazines home and sorted them. There were over five hundred: about 350 different copies, plus duplicates and a few triplicates.
My family and I donated most of them to Special Collections at the University of Saskatchewan Library. The librarian we worked with told us it was the biggest collection of its kind in Canada, and would benefit the Art Department and Women’s Studies. And then the library threw us a party.
We set up a display of photos of my mother, her own needlework, and her high school graduation gown, and of course, we named the collection after her.
My mother was shy and didn’t want people to know much about her, so she wouldn’t be comfortable with the name of the collection. I do know she would be glad that what she saved and valued is now be saved and valued by many in perpetuity.
You can see the covers of the Margaret Friesen-Labach Collection of Early 20th Century Women’s Magazines on line at http://library2.usask.ca/earlywomensmags/
The library plans to scan every page to make the collection available to researchers around the world.
I kept the third copies — the rattiest ones – about ten of them bound up in a large envelope I made out of acid-free rag paper.
I look at them with my children, both the boy and the girl, and we talk about how things have changed, and how these sorts of magazines still tell women what the culture wants them to be, a much narrower definition of who they really are.