Vintage photo negatives—like I wrote about in April—are far from the only “pictures” of the past that Dumpster divers find in the garbage.
A batch of musty old bills and other business ephemera, recently found in a Fairview garbage, likewise offers an intriguing (if incomplete) glimpse of a small retail business operating in Vancouver 60 years ago.
In this post I intend to mine these few bits of Vancouver’s vanished past for all that they’re worth.
A 1950s beauty parlour in the eye of the modern beholder
Today, there is no 1812 West Broadway Avenue in Vancouver but in 1959, this was the address of a beauty parlour by the name of Wesley’s Colonial House, according to the evidence of the trashed business papers, all dated between 1957 and 1959.
The name of the business owner is also clearly indicated but, beyond the fact that his first name was “Wesley”, he shall remain unidentified.
The discarded documents indicate that by 1957 Wesley was operating a beautician supply store called Beauticians Ltd. at the address. He then switched over to the above-named beauty parlour, no later than December 1958.
In June and September of 1957, lien agreements to pay by installment were entered into with Woodward Stores Limited to make two purchases for the address, of furnishings—including drapery—amounting to $36.03 and $27.37 respectively.
A “Subscriber’s Receipt” for November of 1957 shows that a three-year, $12, subscription to Vogue magazine was taken for the address through the Kendel Agency. (“Please allow Eight Weeks for Service to Start—NO REFUNDS”.)
The Kendel receipt bore the tagline: “trade, technical and professional publications”.
Along with the East Van company’s business card (“Telephone: FRaser 0238), a slip of paper was stapled to the receipt, which bore a blue ballpoint-scrawled list of 16 magazine titles, each paired with a corresponding value:
Modern Screen, Screen Stories, Motion Picture and Photoplay (each $5.50); Look ($8.00), News Week ($12.00), Ladies Home Journal ($8.50), Vogue ($12.00), Glamour ($5.25), Mademoiselle, Charm (both $7.50), Harper’s Bazaar ($10.00), Modern Bride ($6.00), Coronet ($7.00), Wife and Home ($5.25), and Living for Young Homemakers ($7.50).
It’s worth noting that there is not one Canadian periodical in the lot. All but the second-from-the-last title (from the U.K.) were from the U.S.
On a side note, I vividly remember the voluminous quantity of exactly such magazines that I had to pick through when—aged five or six, in the late 1960s—I would sullenly accompany my grandmother (on my Caucasian father’s side) to her beauty parlour appointments.
If I was lucky. I just had to sit quietly and wait. Sometimes, though, I had to suffer having my hair cut and styled.
Dial RE for Really Confusing
Among the ephemera is a proof copy of a telephone directory advertisement dated only “Dec 5”. This promotes Wesley’s as a new beauty parlour catering to both men and women. It lists personalized hair styling, cutting, tinting, and permanent waving, not to mention free parking.
The phone number shown in the ad is “BA yview-0621”.
Two British Columbia Telephone Company bills—for March and December of 1959—addressed to “Wesley’s Colonial House of Hairstyles”, “1812 W. Broadway, Z 9”, list the number as “RE6 0621”.
According to Neil Whaley, Vancouver’s West Side BAyview telephone exchange was in operation from November 18th, 1911, until March 5th, 1959, when it was replaced by the REgent exchange.
Rotary phone dials of the day (like feature phone key pads to this day) associated three letters of the alphabet to the numbers “2” through “9”. So “RE” was dialed as “73” and “BA” was a quick “22”.
(Whaley says that the entire Vancouver phone system was switched over to 7-digits by late 1960.)
This means that the December 5th phone book ad proof had to be for December 1958 at the latest.
Both telephone bills seem fairly steep for 1959. March is for $21.35 and December totals $22.83.
Basic monthly exchange service is charged as $11.18 and $10.65 respectively and directory advertising is $3 for each month. It’s long distance tolls that make up the difference: $7.10 in March and $6.80 in December.
The only other utility bill is hydro, or as it was then known: “B.C. Electric”. This bill—for November-December 1959—was a princely $40.72 for 1,421 kwh.
Today, using B.C. Hydro’s general service business rates, I think the cost would be at least $189.35.
That, by the way, is only a 365 percent increase in 60 years—half the the estimated inflation rate of 743.87 percent for the period.
On the other hand, there is a City of Vancouver license department bill dated December 23rd, 1959, for “BEAUTY PARLOUR”, at “$15.00″—the annual business license fee.
As of 2019 the annual business licence for a beauty parlour is $276, which is a 1,740 percent increase since 1959—more than double the estimated inflation rate.
In much the same style as the 1958 telephone directory ad is a one-colour, one-sided, postcard-sized handbill from sometime after March 1959 (judging by the “RE 6-0621” telephone number).
The handbill features the following “announcement” about “Wesley’s Hairstyles”, located at 1812 West Broadway:
“Mr. Wesley has just returned from an extensive tour. In the past months he has won several international trophys [sic] for hair styling. His last trophy was won in Southern California in hair cutting competition.”
Under a head-and-shoulders photo of the same well-coiffed man from the telephone directory ad is the cutline: “Mr. Wesley, Miss Edith, Miss Florence. We specialize in all phases of Beauty Culture.”
Finally there are two 1959 bills from CKWX Radio (“1130 kcs”, “50,000 watts”, “MUtual 4-5131”).
These are for November and December and amount to $81 and $82 respectively. The service rendered was apparently live advertising announcements (“anns”) by the on-air announcers (a.k.a, disk jockeys, or DJs), at $1 a pop: 7 announcements carried over from October, 75 in November and another 82 in December.
The choice of CKWX is notable. With its 50,000-watt transmitter, it enjoyed a bigger reach than any radio station in the Vancouver market besides the CBC. And in 1959 it was riding high with a youth-oriented, Top 40 rock 'n roll format. So it was one of the places to advertise if you wanted to reach a younger audience.
Things like beauty parlours aren’t necessarily a joy forever
A lot of specific things mentioned in this post are vanished and forgotten history.
There is nothing online to indicate that Wesley’s Colonial House ever existed. I would have to resort to physical documentation, such as old telephone directories, to bracket its longevity as a business.
All I can say at present is that neither the beauty parlour nor its street address appear to exist today.
And the huge Woodward’s department store chain, which was a Western Canadian institution for a full century, went bankrupt in 1993.
Even the Kendel Agency is gone, though a few of the magazines it flogged have survived.
Both the telephone exchange system and telephone directories are as dead as the dodo (as used to be said).
But the telephone itself has survived and evolved into a massively handy mobile platform for cameras and computer applications.
In 1999 the British Columbia Telephone Company (a.ka., BC Tel) was absorbed by Telus, the privatized Alberta telecom system. And in 1961 the privately-owned B.C. Electric Company was purchased by the B.C. government of W.A.C. Bennett and turned into the crown corporation B.C. Hydro.
The City of Vancouver has certainly survived up to the present, albeit at great cost to its residents.
And the now unfamiliar CKWX of 1959—a radio station with a storied history going back to 1924—also survives. But not under the same name and not with the rock 'n roll format that it pioneered in the Vancouver market.
Today the station broadcasts news, traffic, and weather under the name News 1130.
Scraps from the ash heap of history
By themselves, the small scraps I have detailed above are only interesting in a trivial way. But they hint at the kind of picture that could be assembled if such commercial ephemera was collected and meaningfully curated.
With the addition of not that many more scraps—such as leasing and property tax details and operating overhead and revenues—one could piece together a snapshot of day-to-day retail activity 60 years ago that could be meaningfully set beside its contemporary equivalent. This could show at-a-glance similarities and differences—like before and after photos of a street corner 60 years apart.
However, as interesting and useful as systematically collecting such business ephemera might be, I fear that doing so could become virtually impossible, thanks to our age’s growing reliance on digital-over-physical documentation and our parallel aspiration to recycle every discarded physical scrap that remains.
History is not a renewable resource
Without belabouring the point, archaeology, as I understand it, is generally based on the study of discarded things.
And it’s a fact that a lot of what we have learned about the everyday lives of ordinary people (who have left few durable monuments, buildings, or inscription)—from Pharaonic Egypt through the Industrial Revolution—has specifically come from the careful study of their garbage, or middens as archaeologists refer to the stuff.
Of course the peoples of antiquity never thought that their food waste, broken pottery, worn-out tools, and threadbare clothes were something that they were bequeathing to the future but that’s how things worked out.
Today, if we North Americans even think of such things, we probably expect to leave the future our libraries full of books. And this is good—so far as the books, already 200 years and older that are printed on stable linen rag paper, are concerned.
Sadly most of the books printed in our time on cheap wood pulp paper will probably be dust in a century. And equally unfortunate—few of the new library buildings that contain our perishable books are, themselves, built to last anywhere near a hundred years.
And aside from the fact that we have shown ourselves woefully incapable of preserving the electronic data just going back to the beginning of the public Internet, we have no digital storage medium proven to be able to last centuries.
There is actually no reason to expect more than a fraction of today’s digital files to exist in 20 years—let alone 10!
Paradoxically, if there are any records that we want to leave to the future, they actually have the best chance of surviving as garbage.
That’s because being buried deep in landfills tends to deprive otherwise biodegradable paper waste of the oxygen necessary for decomposition to take place.
But, as I say, our society aspires to be—and is actively working to become—the very first one in history to leave no garbage behind. And I do not believe that anyone is seriously thinking about the unintended consequence here.
Historically speaking, we could recycle ourselves out of existence if we’re not careful.