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Berries for buttons

Celebrating Grenfell's 125th with travelling clothing exhibit


By Susan Flanagan

Could you outfit your children in winter coats if all you had were six partridges and two gallons of blueberries?

Many people have heard of British doctor, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who came to Newfoundland in 1892 with the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishers to assist the poor of the Great Northern Peninsula and Labrador.

This summer Dr. Katherine Side, associate professor in the Department of Gender Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial, and Emma Lang, a PhD student in the Department of Folklore, want people to learn more about him.

“When Grenfell set up his mission here, he didn’t just provide medical services, he also encouraged industriousness so that people could meet their own needs,” said Dr. Side.

Wild game for clothing

“Grenfell asked that local recipients provide the mission with goods, like wild game and berries, as well as services like laundry and housekeeping, in exchange for donations of clothing,” Dr. Side continued.

“That system of exchange ensured the Newfoundlanders and Labradorians received what they needed – clothing, food and medical services. Using historical records, we could calculate exchanges, six partridges, for example, were exchanged for two new pairs of boy’s corduroy pants, and a young ward maid worked at the hospital in Indian Harbour for one month in exchange for one new apron.”

Community members lined up with items to trade for clothing at an IGA clothing store.
Community members lined up with items to trade for clothing at an International Grenfell Association clothing store.
Photo: Provincial Archives Division

Clothing was hard to come by 125 years ago; Dr. Grenfell wanted it to encourage self-sufficiency. He obtained the clothing he distributed — both new and second-hand — from charitable organizations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and the New England States.

Dr. Side says Dr. Grenfell tracked what was sent each year, enticing chapters of the Canadian and New England Grenfell Association to be competitive with one another, thus ensuring a steady stream of donations.

“The clothing donated connected the people in Newfoundland and Labrador to the donors,” said Ms. Lang, co-curator with Dr. Side and the designer of a bilingual museum exhibit titled, Tangled Threads/Fils entremêlés.

These matching, knitted Tam O’Shanter hats were likely made specifically for the International Grenfell Association. The tams connect the girls wearing them in St. Anthony, to girls wearing tams in Toronto, Boston and London.
These matching, knitted Tam O’Shanter hats were likely made specifically for the IGA. The tams connect the girls wearing them in St. Anthony, to girls wearing them in Toronto, Boston and London.
Photo: Sophia Smith Archive

The exhibit is touring St. Anthony, Daniel’s Harbour, Conche, Corner Brook and St. John’s this summer and fall.

The exhibition coincides with the 125th anniversary of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s arrival in this province. Ms. Lang says she’s excited the exhibition will visit communities that felt the impact of Dr. Grenfell’s work.

“Our goal is to come up with money to send the exhibit to Labrador next summer and hopefully keep it travelling each summer.”

Visitors to the exhibit will see how Dr. Grenfell’s system of exchange also helped stimulate the economy.

Creating a need

Dr. Side says that Dr. Grenfell’s push for clothing “created a need.”

The movement encouraged people to go to church on Sundays, to hold piano recitals and sewing classes. Those kinds of activities demanded particular types of clothing.

“Dr. Grenfell’s mission lives on.” — Emma Lang

“The clothing exchange continued to thrive into the 1930s,” Ms. Lang said. “Our story ends in 1929, before the Depression and the end of Responsible Government led to changes in how the mission did its work.

“It’s worth noting, however, that the connection between medical care and clothing continues,” she continued. “Most hospitals have spare clothing available for people who come in for medical reasons and are in need of something to wear after treatment. Dr. Grenfell’s mission lives on.”

This story first appeared in the July 22, 2017 edition of The Telegram as part of a regular summer series on research at Memorial University.

Funders: Office of Public Engagement Office (Public Accelerator Fund) and Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (Seed Grant), Memorial University.

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