26 September 2023
Verse and Reverse: Uncovering the work of the Toronto Women’s Press Club
Occasionally, you come across an item in the British Library that can open up a new pathway through our wider collection. One such item is Verse and Reverse, the title of two collections of poetry, printed in 1921 and 1922, written and published by the members of the Toronto Women’s Press Club.
In April 1921, the Toronto Women’s Press Club, a regional branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, held a poetry night. Members anonymously submitted poems, which they read aloud to each other. Pleased with the experiment, the membership decided to gather the poems together and publish a booklet, repeating the endeavour the following year. The British Library holds both collections, bound together, at shelfmark 1168.c.57.
Since I first read about the Canadian Women’s Press Club, its members and history have intrigued me. Founded in 1904, the Club emerged out of the relationships forged when sixteen women working in the Canadian press achieved sponsorship to report on the World’s Fair in St. Louis, USA. It was during their ten-day railway journey they formed the idea of a professional network to support, promote and advocate for its members. With writers working in both French and English, it was the first nationally recognised club of its kind, founded long before women achieved suffrage in Canada.
At the start of the twentieth century, the nature of the literary marketplace for women drew almost all writers into the orbit of newspapers and periodicals. As such, the Canadian Women’s Press Club was a broad church. As one might expect, members included pioneering journalists, like founder Kit Coleman, the first Canadian woman accredited as a war correspondent, and suffragists Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy. Yet, novelist Lucy M. Montgomery, author of the bestselling Anne of Green Gables (1908), also served as a regional vice president of the club. Another active member was E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), the daughter of a Mohawk chief and English mother, who performed poems and stories about Indigenous experience. Historians have documented the compelling story of the club’s founding, most recently Linda Kay. Yet, there is much more to uncover about its regional branches and evolutions across the twentieth century. I was keen to see what the Toronto Branch’s Verse and Reverse might illuminate.
In the 1922 ‘Prefatory Note’ to Verse and Reverse, Isabel Eccleston MacKay observes there ‘are few things more delightful than to turn to the fresh-cut pages of a new miscellany’. I certainly agree. There are familiar figures among the contributors to Verse and Reverse, (Montgomery has poems in each booklet), but it is the less familiar names that intrigue. While the poetry collected is interesting, what I find exciting about something like Verse and Reverse is that it gathers the names of many forgotten writers working in Toronto in the 1920s together. This makes it a great starting point for further research, which the British Library’s wider collection is able to support.
Our Canadian holdings are remarkably rich. Much of this owes to the process of colonial copyright deposit to the British Museum Library. This undiscriminating process meant, for a time, the accrual of items published in Canada was not as subject to the ideologies of taste and the financial constraints that can shape acquisition. As such, I found it was easy to order up a sample of other titles from the lesser-known Verse and Reverse contributors. Gathering together works of ephemeral popularity, what starts to emerge is a snapshot of women’s cultural production at the start of the twentieth century in Toronto; not the luminaries preserved across time, but the disparate and largely forgotten output of everyday, professionally organised women who earnt their living through their pens.
Although all their contributions to Verse and Reverse were poems, the Toronto members of the Canadian Women’s Press Club worked across literary genres. Some of the books I ordered cohered to my expectations: non-fiction writing on conduct, etiquette and instruction. For example, member Emily P. Weaver’s A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) is a chronological survey of Canada complete with black and white illustrations by her sister. Gertrude Pringle’s Etiquette in Canada, first published in 1932, was new to me, offering advice for a gamut of social situations from picnics to the opening of Parliament. Another lovely discovery was the beautiful cover of Louise Mason’s After the Honeymoon: One Hundred Hints on Husbandry, which offers a selection of comedic snippets of marriage advice.
However, other titles I ordered were more unusual and unexpected. I am intrigued now, for instance, to delve more into The House of Windows (1912), MacKay’s own novel about the fates of an overworked department store shop girl. Member Katherine Hale’s Grey Knitting, and Other Poems (1914) is a collection about women’s experiences on the Home Front during World War I. It reminded me of a more recent Canadian acquisition, the textile work I Sit and Sew (2019) by artist Lise Melhorn-Boe. The Library holds member Florence Randal Livesay’s novel Savour of Salt (1927), which chronicles the experiences of Irish immigrants to Ontario. Mother of the award-winning poet Dorothy Livesay, Florence was clearly interested in the Canadian immigrant experience, collecting and translating a number of Ukrainian folk takes in her lifetime. The British Library holds her posthumously published collection, Down Singing Centuries: Folk Literature of Ukraine (1981), with striking illustrations by Stefan Czernecki. In summary, Verse and Reverse provided me with an avenue to open up a whole range of intriguing work I did not know we held and would otherwise have been hard to discover.
There are no grand conclusions to reach with a short project like this. However, it is indicative of the work one can achieve with ease thanks to the strength of the British Library’s Canadian collection. Much more work could be done with our microfilm, newspaper, and e-resources, where, armed with their names, one could pull together more of the work of Press Club members. Indeed, within our e-resources collection we hold digital copies of publications from branches of the Canadian Women’s Press Club in Alberta and Calgary. Each provides their own starting point to enrich our understanding of localised literary marketplaces, the ways in which women constructed their careers, and female authorship in Canada. The founders created the Canadian Women’s Press Club to foster professional solidarity and promote its members’ work. It is fitting, then, that Verse and Reverse, long past the point of the Club’s existence and the Toronto Branch’s poetry night, can continue to serve as a means through which we can draw their cultural production together and begin to bring the members their due attention.
- Hale, Grey Knitting, and other poems (1914) held at 11686.ee.46.
- Kay, The Sweet Sixteen: the journey that inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club (2012) held at YD.2013.a.83.
- Livesay, Savour of Salt (1927) held at NN.13499.
- Livesay, Down Singing Centuries: folk literature of Ukraine (1981) held at L.45/3357.
- MacKay, The House of Windows (1912) held at 012621.cc.34.
- Mason, After the Honeymoon: One hundred hints on husbandry (1922) held 08416.bb.82.
- Melhorn-Boe, I Sit and Sew: with poem by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (2019) held at RF.2022.a.75.
- Pringle, Etiquette in Canada: The Blue Book of Canadian social usage (1949) held at YA.1987.b.1605.
- Toronto Women’s Press Club, Verse and Reverse (1921, 1922) held at 1168.c.57.
- Weaver, A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) held at 09555.aa.3.
By Hannah Graves
Curator, North American Published Collections (post-1850)