a.k.a. A Plague on Plaques

While walking through one of Vancouver’s many dodgy parts, one of HM’s correspondents recently stumbled upon a house with a plaque that claimed the building was the home of the city’s first printer, one G.A. Roedde. False! Erroneous!  

The first job printer in Vancouver was Robert Mathison, who operated a shop on Hastings St from 1886 to 1890. The story of his short tenure as Vancouver’s first printer was recounted, with reproductions of numerous samples of his work, in issue 150 of the Alcuin Society’s magazine Amphora (Fall 2008). The reproductions were selected from a large collection of Mathison’s work assembled by antiquarian bookseller Stephen Lunsford, who also wrote a brief biography and appreciation of the printer. Here follow some details from that article...

...To announce the birth of Vancouver, its first newspaper, the Vancouver Weekly Herald & North Pacific News, was printed on a hand press brought from Toronto and issued January 15, 1886. The Vancouver Daily Advertiser followed on May 8, with the Vancouver Daily News arriving on doorsteps June 1.

Among the job-seekers arriving from eastern Canada was Robert Mathison Jr., son of Belleville’s superintendent of the Ontario Institute for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, Robert Mathison...The younger Mathison, only 20 years old, left Belleville in early March 1886, travelling via the Grand Trunk and Northern Pacific railways to Portland and thence to Victoria and Vancouver by steamer. He arrived on Tuesday, March 23, and the next day secured a job with The Herald, setting type, pulling the press and selling papers on the streets.

Mathison described his arrival and early experiences in two lengthy letters sent home and published in Belleville’s The Ontario newspaper in May and June of 1886. From the tone and style of the letters, it is clear Mathison had an agreement with the The Ontario to report on Vancouver’s industries, wages and progress. And, although he doesn’t mention it, Mathison clearly has some experience of printing—presumably as a result of his father’s influence, but possibly because of some direct association with the Belleville press. He particularly describes the possibilities of newspaper publishing in Vancouver, noting that James Ross, a Belleville printer, and N. Harkness, a Picton publisher, had arrived in town with the intent to start a daily paper “within two or three weeks.” When their paper, The Daily News, appeared, Mathison was already working for them as well as for The Herald.

Exactly when Mathison decided to go into business for himself as a job printer is never mentioned in the letters and other accounts left by him of his early days in Vancouver. However, the defining event must surely have been the fire of June 13, 1886, which wiped out the heart of the fledgling city—and with it all three of its printing operations. The fire, originating with slash burning from the townsite clearing, spread in a matter of minutes through the wooden buildings and tents making up most of the city, destroying virtually the whole of Vancouver before it burned itself out at the water’s edge. Within days, however, the city was being rebuilt literally amid the ashes, and on June 17 an “emergency” edition of Ross’s Daily News, printed at New Westminster from type set by Mathison, was the first newspaper to reappear. Ross had gone to Victoria on the June 14, bought a press there, returned on June 15, and by June 16 had the plant reassembled in time to produce the single-sheet issue of The Daily News by the next day (June 17).

While Mathison was busy setting type and assisting in the printing of both The Daily News and The Herald after the fire, he appears to have ordered a press and type from back east, intending no doubt to take advantage of the reconstruction of the city by becoming its first job printer. He reports in notes made in 1939, “I built a 12 x 25 foot shack on Hastings St. where Morris’s tobacco shop is now, and opened a job printing office July 23, 1886, three days before I was 21 years old. My first job was Post Office box receipts and my second, agreements for the sale of land for the C.P.R. given me by Mr. L.A. Hamilton, who was Assistant Land Commissioner.”

Job printing—producing printed matter to order for specific needs (e.g., letterheads, circulars, business forms, schedules, announcements and the like)—had apparently been done primarily in New Westminster and even Victoria for the Vancouver market, presumably since the local Herald’s press must have largely been taken up with getting out the rather lengthy newspaper. Although no specific dated examples have been found, both the other Vancouver papers may have done some job printing before the fire as well, set perhaps by Mathison himself. Post-fire examples of job printing from all three papers are known.

Mathison, however, was the first to set up specifically as a job printer. His little shop, at 323 Hastings Street was ideally located to attract business—between the post office and the CPR office—as his first two commissions demonstrate...He cites, for example, the orders placed by the CPR, which “was a good account particularly in 1888 when the C.P.R. boats were bringing shiploads of Chinamen across and taking them to San Francisco before the U.S. Exclusion Law went into effect, as many special printed forms were needed.” In the same memo, Mathison recounts, “When the Hotel Vancouver opened I printed the dinner menu each day for a couple of months but gave it up as it was inconvenient having to have my one press available for the job each afternoon.”

Mathison, according to a list prepared by him for Major Matthews of the Vancouver City Archives in 1936, printed at least 200 to 300 different jobs for as many businesses and individuals between 1886 and 1890...One item he specifically mentions is the first calendar printed in Vancouver, which he produced with calendar sheets extending only from June to December 1886.

Mathison sold his business to Evans and Hastings in mid-1890, studied dentistry back east, and later returned to B.C. to operate as a dentist until his retirement in the 1940s...Once seen, Mathison’s work is easily identifiable by a number of stylistic features. First, he repeatedly used several distinct fancy fonts, usually two or three per item and sometimes as many as six. Second, he seems to have been fond of printing in gold ink, using it to advantage on, of course, menus and other items for the Gold House, a hotel and restaurant run by Emma Gold. Additionally, Mathison seems to have consciously combined colored inks with colored papers to achieve what he called a “tasty” appearance.

Relatively little material exists documenting early printing in British Columbia, other than newspapers and official government documents. For Victoria, a major point of entry into British North America and the hub of several worldwide gold rushes from 1858 onwards, only a meagre couple of imprints are known for 1858, with perhaps two known examples of the “fancy job-printing” advertised in the city’s first newspaper, The Gazette. In fact, no bibliography or record of early imprints exists for any locale in British Columbia. My own efforts to compile imprint checklists for B.C., a direct result of 35 years as a bookseller with a particular interest in early printing in the Pacific Northwest, have yielded numerous previously unknown and unsuspected imprints but represent more a hit-and-miss empirical approach and good luck than systematic study. The fact that Vancouver has such a quantity of extant early printed material is unusual in the extreme.”

Corresponding with Steve, who probably knows more about the history of printing in British Columbia (& other things) than anyone else living or dead, turned up some additional information on the scene during Mathison’s (& Roedde’s) time. For instance, the first printer in Vancouver was Richard Alexander. The first thing he printed in the city was The Vancouver Weekly Herald & North Pacific News, which appeared on Friday January 15, 1886. Also, the first earliest photo of the Roedde bookbinding premises dates from 1891.

Checking directories for the years around Roedde’s arrival in Vancouver, Steve provides the following timeline:
·    The 1887 B.C. Directory lists Mathison as Job Printer on Hastings St; Roedde is not listed anywhere.
·    The 1888 Williams Vancouver Directory lists Mathison but does not list Roedde anywhere.
·    The 1889 Williams Vancouver Directory lists Cotton & Gordon as the ONLY Vancouver bookbinder in the Business section, but lists Roedde in the Names section, as "bookbinder (News Advertiser), Hastings West, res 225 Harris."
·    The 1890 Williams Vancouver Directory lists Roedde as Manager, News Advertiser Binding Dept., on 225 Harris St.
·    The 1891 directory lists two bookbinders in Vancouver, The News Advertiser and G.A. Roedde (no address, but in 1891 and ’92 his personal address is given as on Harris).
·    In 1892, he is listed as Bookbinder and Manufacturing Stationer.
·    [No directory referenced for 1893.]
·    In 1894, he is listed as Bookbinder for The News Advertiser; now resident at 1415 Barclay (Roedde House), with News Advertiser business address as Horne Block - News Advertiser.

The B.C. Stationery & Printing Co., Thompson (sometimes spelled Thomson) Bros. Booksellers, Stationers, & Printers, and S.T. Tilley, Books & Stationery all of whom were listed in the 1887 directory were likely to have done bookbinding.

I wondered whether the claim made for Roedde’s primacy may be the result of an unwitting conflation of printing and binding, and the distinction between being the first binder vs the first business focused exclusively on binding. Steve accused me of being obsequious and mealy-mouthed. His correction: “I would conclude, if I were a historian, that Roedde did not arrive in 1886, but sometime after 1888, worked as a job binder for The News Advertiser, and likely did not open his own bindery until 1890-1 or thereabouts. There is no evidence thus far that I have found that Roedde arrived at about the same time as Mathison, who we know arrived in March, 1886. Hence the plaque is most likely incorrect for both ‘printer’ and ‘binder.’ I have been unable to find where Roedde House Museum gets the 1886 arrival date from. Mathison never refers to Roedde in any of his early correspondence that I have read.”


Steve concluded by noting that historical accuracy should never get in the way of a good plaque.

The Mathison issue of Amphora is worth tracking down. Lots of great samples of frontier job printing.