Research highlights (and lowlights)

My favourite part of being an historian is doing research. In addition to the excitement of finding something that might be key to my project, there’s always a chance that conducting research in the archives and libraries will turn up some gems that, while completely unrelated to my work, are nonetheless fascinating (and sometimes hilarious). In all of the years that I’ve been going through old records and publications (I do post-WWII history, so not that old), I’ve come across some pretty interesting research finds, some of which I thought were worth sharing. Here are four of the highlights (or lowlights) that I found in the course of conducting research (citations included wherever possible):

Sunday Dancing…the Horror!

Sunday Dancing

In March 1950, a group of Oshawa teens were cited with violating the Lord’s Day Act by not only operating on Sunday, but by committing the unforgiveable sin of hosting a dance on the day of rest! Although this article struck me as a hilarious example of outdated prudish behaviour, the recent and ongoing controversy in Toronto overelectronic dance concerts might suggest otherwise. (Toronto Star, March 31, 1950)

Snow Balls Against Police Brutality!


I wasn’t sure what to make of this ad for government annuities that I found in an issue of the PIPSC (Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada) newsletter from the 1950s. A grown man who joined a group of kids in a snow ball fight, only to miss his mark and instead hit what appears to be a police officer (or, as a friend suggested, the Maytag repairman). Was there a subversive anti-police message behind the ad, or was it meant to imply that buying government annuities would improve one’s aim? I’d like to think it was the former, but given the political conservatism of the labour movement in this period, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Spanking as Workplace Discipline


I had the pleasure of looking through old issues of Justice Weekly, a Toronto-based tabloid that ran from 1946 until 1973. Some of the headlines were funny, some were depressing, and a lot of them were racist. Out of the countless ridiculous stories and headlines, this one stood out more than any other. In the early 1950s, the newspaper ran a series of articles, editorials, and letters about the value of spanking children. I skimmed through them all, but this headline caught my attention. It was a letter from a woman who recounted her experience as a clerical worker in an office during the Depression. The woman admitted that she had stolen a small number of office supplies from her employer. When her employer caught her, she pleaded for her job. As Katrina Srigley demonstrated in her book Breadwinning Daughters, during the Depression, daughter often became the sole breadwinners for families whose parents could not find work. Given this reality, it isn’t surprising that the woman here would plead so adamantly for her job.

According to the author of the letter, her employer took pity on her, and rather than dismiss her or alert the police to the theft, he decided that the best way to discipline his employee was to bring her into a back room and spank her. Yes, you read that right. Today, any employer that used this type of discipline would be buying themselves a one-way ticket to sexual harassment and assault charges. However, as the headline suggests, this wasn’t the case on this occasion. Rather than accusing her employer of assault, the woman in question expressed gratitude that he let her off so lightly. The entire episode was strange and I was tempted to write it off as just another example of how attitudes change over time, but given the fact that so many young women acted as the sole or main breadwinners in this period, I couldn’t help but wonder if her relief at being subjected to this demeaning form of discipline was caused by the thought of what might have happened to her or her family had she been fired. It also raises the possibility that her employer exploited her vulnerability for sexual purposes. (I unfortunately did not write down the citation, but memory serves me right, it was published in 1949 or 1950).

Class Conflict

guardian comics

These cartoons from The Guardian, the newspaper of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Windsor, Ontario, are two of my favourites. They’re direct and they demonstrate a kind of combativeness and class antagonism that we don’t find in many labour publications anymore. (Right: November 1975; Left: October 1978)