Detail from one of the 100-year-old quilt pieces discovered by Karen Elliott. BOB LOBLAW

Fonthill resident discovers that similar Niagara pandemic-related economic conditions existed in 1920

Karen Elliott, of Milburn Drive in Fonthill, has lived almost her entire life in Pelham, as has her husband, Doug. In fact, several generations of her family have resided in west Niagara.

She was in the mood to downsize some of the clutter in her closets last week —“At my stage of life, I need to start getting rid of stuff”— and in her reorganizing, came across a plastic bag bulging with dozens of quilt pieces that had belonged to her husband’s mother, Maude Rose.

Karen Elliott. DON RICKERS

The bits of cloth had newsprint as a backing to add stability and flatness as they were hand-sewn, as was apparently the norm in old days. Elliott said that Maude died before she was born, but that she knew she had rheumatoid arthritis. She imagined how difficult it would have been for her to sew quilts with arthritic hands.

Elliott’s eye was drawn to the printed articles which were still legible on the faded newsprint. She discovered that the clippings were from an August 1920 issue of the Smithville Review.

As she sat on the bed and reviewed the clippings, she was struck by the advertisements from a century earlier. They were extolling the virtues of buying local, lest the local retailers collapse. Elliott saw the parallel to today.

Remember that in 1920, the Great War had been over for two years. Canadian soldiers had returned from Europe in 1918, carrying with them more than their rifles and rucksacks. The so-called Spanish Flu, a deadly H1N1 influenza A virus, came with them. The pandemic affected 500 million worldwide in four successive waves (representing a third of the planet’s population at the time). The disease killed between 20 and 100 million people globally, including some 50,000 Canadians.

Social and economic disruptions were prevalent then, just as in 2020. Businesses failed because customers couldn’t afford their products, or because businesses were unable to meet demand, due to a reduced work force. In an attempt to halt the spread of the disease, governments closed all except essential services. Provinces enacted quarantines and enforced the wearing of masks in public.

“With the emphasis today on ‘shop local’ to keep our small businesses alive during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Elliot, “and realizing that the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 would have just taken its toll, I found the comments in the ads from the businesses in Smithville in 1920 very interesting.”

Detail from the back of one of the quilt pieces’ newspaper backings. Note the photo of a very young Bing Crosby at top. BOB LOBLAW

One read: “Smithville is far from dead, but if we send our money out of town, we will soon have a dead town. Buying your supplies from local merchants will help to better conditions here. A full line of general merchandise can be bought from J. R. Goring Company Limited.”

Another said: “’Trade at home’ is the motto for all people who have the interests of their home town at heart. This is our town, and the people of the village and district should take pride in building it up to be a greater town than it has been. J. B. McMillen, General Merchant.”

Still another pledged: “Buying furniture in Smithville, you will find our prices right, and we stand back of every piece of furniture we sell. Our undertaking parlours are well equipped for service, night or day. Call us up. Hicks & Irvine, Furniture and Undertaking.”

And finally: “Things of quality necessarily demand high prices, but you will find in the line of groceries and general merchandise that we carry, a quality brand of goods that cannot be surpassed and at prices that are reasonable. Buy the best, always. L. R. Killins, General Merchant.”

The Elliotts are trying to support local businesses.

“We get take-outs from restaurants in town, and Doug frequents Beamer’s Hardware for various household items,” said Karen. “We’re trying to do our part.”

Renowned American sociologist Charles Murray, in a recent blog post, suggested that the pandemic experience can be weighed in two ways: as a disease (with its costs measured in sickness, hospitalizations, and deaths) and as government policy (with its costs measured in economic and social/psychological lockdowns). A great many Pelhamites have not been personally touched by the pandemic as a disease, but their lives have been disrupted by the lockdowns and restrictions. Livelihoods are at stake.

So what’s the take-away? In times of crisis, networks of support are critical. Some in our community were vulnerable even before the pandemic hit. Pelham Cares can always use more donations, and it doesn’t hurt to remember that we’re all in this together.