This site documents the middle class Nicholson family during their struggle through a period of financial difficulty in Richmond, Quebec, in the first decades of the 20th century. It presents a collection of 300 letters and does a superb job of contextualizing the ways that the period’s broader economic and social forces shaped this family’s experiences. Educators interested in providing students with a graphic sense of daily life during the turbulent early 20th century or in challenging them to discover how prosaic sources can be used for broad historical analysis will find much to engage them here.
The letters cover the years from 1908 to 1915, a period during which Margaret and Norman Nicholson and their three daughters strove to save their family home, Tighsolas (gaelic for house of light or house of peace), from their son, Herb’s, creditors. The majority of the letters were those Margaret wrote to other members of the family, all of whom were working in various locations.
Norman’s job as a transcontinental railroad inspector took him to far flung destinations across the country; Herb drifted from banking to sales jobs as far west as Saskatchewan; and all three daughters, Marion, Edith, and Flora, eventually worked as teachers in rural and urban Quebec. The collection also contains family members’ reports on their experiences, letters from relatives and friends, and occasional notes pertaining to the family’s business or political dealings.
“The Nicholson Family Letters” is an illustration of the excellent ways in which genealogical sources have relevance to a wide public. Site creator and freelance writer Dorothy Nixon situates the letters within the fabric of Canadian history by interweaving them in a web of contemporary textual, visual, and audible sources. She also discovered the two topics that high school students, to whom she aims this site, most often choose to research—transportation and fashion—and focused the site on these subjects. Her background section on Canada in 1910 includes material on two other salient themes covered in the correspondence: relationships and education. Additional material on religion, medicine, and city, country, town, and pioneer life, are still in the works.
For each of these topics, as well as with her introductory material on Henry Ford, D.W. Griffith, Coco Chanel, and the militant suffragettes, Nixon writes succinct introductions and includes captivating primary source material—popular film and song clips (like “Glow Worm”), magazine spreads, and editorials—that allow viewers to recreate the contemporary experiences of her historical subjects.
Visually and organizationally, the site has some minor problems. Aesthetically, it is unappealing, and although the contextual topics flow logically from issues discussed in the letters, the site has some organizational clunkiness. It lacks a site map, and the chronological organization of the correspondence is not very user-friendly. (It would have been more helpful to organize them by author and a keyword or main theme index would be tremendously useful.) Although there is a section containing explanations of Historical Terms dealing with such entities as “the woman suffrage movement” and “normal school,” a family tree, or introductory cast of characters providing background to the various parties whose writings are found on the site, would also have been beneficial.
Teachers might simplify site navigation by suggesting that students select one or two figures upon whose correspondence they would focus. (Addressee and author are indicated at the top of each letter.) The site does not contain a search function but suggestions for themes that could be drawn out of each year’s letters are highlighted in Nixon’s introductions to each year.
Since the source material is contemporaneous to the rise of the suffragette movement, students could use the letters to study how the political changes afoot affected Margaret, Marion, Edith, and Flora’s social and cultural lives. Did the rise of a militant feminist movement in this period coincide with an era of broadened or curtailed (or both?) opportunities for women? How was this manifest in terms of the career and educational choices available to them, their social lives, and their living arrangements?
Another possibility would be to use the young women’s correspondence to reconstruct the network of social contacts in which single women who migrated to cities operated. To what degree did they rely on existing contacts rooted in their rural origins and to what degree were they able to form independent new ties?
Finally, although dating from a very different context, educators might find Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale a helpful model of how significant analysis can be extracted from quotidian records.