MAJOR COLLECTOR: Major James Skitt Matthews

Viviane Gosselin's picture

As part of our exploration on the relationship between public and private collections in All Together Now, I conducted an interview with Heather Gordon, Vancouver City Archives.

Major James Skitt Matthews - Vancouver historian, collector, featured in All Together Now

I wanted to know more about Vancouver’s first historian and collector, Major James Matthew (1878- 1970) whose work continues to have a huge impact on Vancouver’s historiography. Local historians, filmmakers, authors and other creatives researching Vancouver’s past are bound to stumble upon Major Matthews’ extensive records.

Heather’s insights and knowledge of Major Matthew’s collection were most helpful:

Viviane: How did Matthews started collecting?

Heather: Major Matthews arrived in Vancouver in 1898, twelve years after the city’s incorporation. Shortly after his arrival, he began writing about Vancouver. To get information, he searched old maps and spoke with old-timers. In the process, Matthews became acutely aware of the imminent loss of the Vancouver’s “pioneers” and of the city’s rapid transformation. He saw himself as the champion of Vancouver’s history.

Viviane: As someone who is surrounded by his collection and is constantly interacting with it, how would you describe Major Matthews’ collecting philosophy, in three words:

Heather: Eccentric – both the items he collected and how he catalogued them. Even today, some things are almost undiscoverable unless you 'think like Major Matthews.'

Subjective – he was the quintessential collector-archivist. He collected what he wanted to collect, interpreted it and edited it. He worked exactly opposite the way professional archivists work today. We leave the interpretation to our researchers. Not so the Major.

Militaristic -- he loved anything military.

Viviane: What would you say is one of Matthews’ most important contribution to the city archives?

Heather: His collection forms the core of the Archives’ private-sector holdings, holdings that have grown substantially since his death. Those holdings complement the City government records in our care, and are crucial for telling the non-government side of the story of Vancouver’s development.

Viviane: Could you tell us a bit more about the digitization of the collections of books Early Vancouver?

Heather: Early Vancouver is one of the most used resources at the Archives and we wanted to make it more widely accessible. Written between 1931 and 1956, and over 3,300 pages, it is a collection of Matthews’ interviews with pioneers, along with annotated photographs and maps and transcriptions of letters and newspaper articles. What you see online is actually a transcription of the text, not a digitized version. The paper Matthews used was too thin and his typewriter ink too blurry to result in a scanned image we could keyword index. Funded by the Vancouver Historical Society, hundreds of hours of transcription was the answer, with digitized versions of the photos and maps added to the transcribed version.

Viviane: Could you mention a few examples of people (not just historians) using Matthews’ archives for their work (you can be as specific or generic as you want)

Heather: Academics, of course, but also bloggers and social media enthusiasts who love to feature his photographs. The photos are also popular among business owners (particularly restaurateurs) who exhibit large reproductions of his photos, complete with his handwritten annotations, on their walls. One of my favourite uses, though, is by author Lee Henderson. He consulted Early Vancouver extensively in order to evoke the Vancouver of 1886 for his novel The Man Game.

All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds features Major Matthews' collection of Vancouver history.

All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds featuring Major James Matthews’ collection closes Sunday, March 19.




Woodward's Holiday Catalogues

Woodward's department store chain operated in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada for one hundred years, before its sale to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).

In 1892, Charles Woodward established the first Woodward store at the corner of Main and Georgia Streets in Vancouver. On September 12, 1902 Woodward Department Stores Ltd. was incorporated and a new store was built on the corner of Hastings and Abbott Streets.

When The Hudson's Bay Company bought Woodward's Stores Ltd. In 1993, the Museum was permitted to salvage material remaining in the Hastings Street Store; most of the donated material was retrieved from the administration office area; the City of Vancouver Archives also retrieved a large amount of Woodward's material.

Below is the evolution of the cover design for the Woodward's Christmas catalogue. View more of the Museum of Vancouver's collection of Woodward's artefacts in OpenMOV.


1) This cover design from 1936 is graphic heavy with its two colour print and no use of photo. There's a play with typography and a constructivism influence that was popular in the late twenties early thirties.

2) This cover design from 1954 is still more graphic focus with the Santa Claus illustration and interesting candy stripped typography but here we start to see the introduction of photographic imagery.

3) By the late sixties the Woodward's logo had changed and they began using the same heading and wordmark treatment: "The Wonderful World of Woodward's Christmas Gifts." The catalogue covers also stuck to using a single photographic image that was very traditional and family orientated.

4) By the eighties the graphic standards started to shift again where the chunky and convoluted messaging is simplified and the logo is placed separately from the heading. The traditional family Christmas image remained.

5) Here the catalogue feels very eighties and is embracing the trends of that time. The imagery shifts to a young, rich couple and plays off ideas of consumerism and spending, rather than family moments and children doing Christmas activities.

6) This summarzing catalogue from 1992 utilizes early forms of computer graphics which we can see the designer having a little too much fun with since I imagine computer graphic programs were still rather novel at this time. There's masking and crop out of a tree onto another photographic background, use of a glow effect and over designed titling with the festive banner. We also see use of the iconic Woodward's "W" taking front and centre.

Mint Releases Coin with Charles Edenshaw Design from MOV Collection

This coin commemorates an important Pacific Northwest art piece. Its design is inspired by an argillite chest by Charles Edenshaw (1839–1924), who was a renowned artist and pivotal guardian of Haida culture. The chest features an intricately carved lion face with human characteristics and stacked 'U' lines - now considered key identifiers of classic Haida art.

The five-kilogram silver coin - with a mintage of only 100 -  is selling for $10,699.95 from the Canadian Mint.

The argillite chest is one of 70,000 artefacts in the MOV collection. It was orignally one of two chests purchased for $400 by Dr. Israel Powell - an Indian commissioner for British Columbia - as possible gifts for Queen Victoria's daughter.

Read more about this remarkable piece in the Museum's OpenMOV database.

Me and My Collection: Willow Yamauchi

The Bovines

In the coming months the Museum of Vancouver will be highlighting several of the fabulous collectors who are currently part of our exhibition All together Now: Vancouver Collector’s and Their Worlds. Off the cusp of Pride Week, the museum will be throwing a Happy Hour event on Thursday, August 18 featuring Willow Yamauchi and her collection of drag queen dresses that she inherited from her father. He was a member of the drag troupe - The Bovines - who performed across Vancouver and the Lower Mainland during the 1980s. “I never saw my dad perform in drag. I was too young for the clubs. I wanted to understand why he did drag and what it meant to him. Collecting has helped me answer these questions,” Yamauchi explains. Discovering this captivating past led Yamauchi to participate in the important discussion of gender and sexuality.

Don’t miss Undressing Drag where we will continue the discussion with several guest speakers and reminisce and honour the glory days of The Bovines, plus a special drag performance from Peach Cobblah and Isolde N. Barron!

Photo by Rebecca Blissett

Q&A with Willow Yamauchi

Why do you collect?
I inherited my dad’s drag queen costumes when he passed away 10 years ago. I was initially confused by this accidental collection, but eventually I realized it was something rare and special that I needed to preserve. It’s a springboard for fascinating conversations with people who knew him. You can collect things. You can also collect ideas and people. My collection contains all of these.

How does your collection relate to Vancouver?
The Bovines were an important drag group in Vancouver in the 1980s. They raised money for people living with HIV and AIDS and increased awareness at a time when there was little government support. The Bovines were “out,” loud and proud, when it could have been dangerous to identify as LGBTQ.

How does collecting connect you with people?
People who knew my dad share with me their stories, pictures, and films of him. In turn, I am sharing my collection with the city in the hope it might open a larger conversation about sexuality, gender, and artistic expression.

In conversation with collector Lyanne Smith

Viviane Gosselin's picture

Museums like to show off their collections to the public. It’s rarely the other way around. And yet, the Museum of Vancouver is now scouting for the nifty, funky, unique private collections in the region for an upcoming exhibition.

Since beginning the search I’ve had several conversations with some incredible local collectors. A few months ago, I came across Lyanne Smith’s collections on Vancouver transit history. Listening to her talking about her collection was mesmerizing. I got a crash course on urban history using the lens of public transit from the perspective of someone who knew the biz firsthand. Below is a short Q&A with Lyanne. We’re just warming up here! There will be more on Lyanne and her accomplices (a tight network of local transit historians and collectors).

Please continue to check our blog. We’ll be providing updates on the exhibition planning process, featuring more collector profiles and teasing out some of the larger themes that come up every time we ask the question: why do people collect?

Viviane Gosselin: How would you describe your collection?

Lyanne Smith: My collection is an assortment of transit memorabilia from the Vancouver/Lower Mainland areas.  The bulk of the collection consists of historical documentation from each of the operating companies, including National Electric Tramway & Lighting Company, BC Electric (BCE), BC Hydro, Metro Transit, BC Transit, SkyTrain, Translink and Coast Mountain Bus Company. Over the years, I’ve collected several thousands of items.

VG: Why did you start collecting?

LS: I started driving a bus with BC Hydro in 1975 and began collecting various pieces of literature about the transit system at that point.  The same year, my parents gave me two “Reddy Kilowatt” items used in BC Electric (BCE) promotional campaigns in the 1950s.  Since BCE was the forerunner of the company I was working for, they thought I would like these pieces. It kind of kicked off my collection.  My collecting became an addiction after I met several of the old conductors/motormen from BCE in 1990 during the centennial celebrations. Having met these transit pioneers, the collection took an even more personal look at Vancouver’s transit history. In some ways I felt responsible for preserving the memory of men and women who dedicated a big part of their lives in the service of public transportation. Collecting is an emotional thing for me: I get so excited when I pick up a piece I hadn’t seen before! I want to know the whole story behind it.

VG: What kind of collector are you, how do you go about collecting?

LS: I focus on fare/transit tickets, the Buzzer, employee magazines, and promotional material, but I also have coin changers, transfer punches, tokens, and other interesting pieces related to that industry. I was given a lot of items from men and women who had worked with the transit system.  I also had one antique dealer who looked for unusual pieces for me. I’ve always been very strategic about going to specific antique stores and shows as well.

VG: What are some of your favourite collection items?

LS: Two of my favourites are the “Reddy Kilowatt” pieces my parents gave me: my father’s tie tack (see below) and my mother’s earrings.  

Another favourite is the rarest piece in my collection:  one of the only -- if not the only -- remaining ticket from the National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company. This company opened in 1890 and was the precursor of BC Electric. (see below)

VG: Looking at your collection of transit archives, what do you think people living in this region today can learn from that history?

LS: They will quickly realize that politics have always shaped the development of transit systems; Vancouver is no exception. Lack of funding, increased user fares, and the nature of expansions have always been at the centre of debates these past 100 years.  When people start delving into the historical literature and primary sources on Vancouver transit, they can see that every decade or two, new ideas were introduced for addressing those issues, so that the system could be maintained and expanded; it’s very typical of any transit system.  The thing I would like people to remember about the history of transit in Greater Vancouver is the front line employees who made the system run.  Without them, there would be no transit system in the Greater Vancouver area.

Conserving Collections: BC History Digitization Program

In recent years, the MOV has received funding from the BC History Digitization Program, run by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC.  The aim of the program is to promote increased access to British Columbia’s historical resources.  For us, that means photographing the objects in our collection and making those images accessible to the public at  This year’s round of digitization focused on objects from the Vancouver History Collection.  Two sets of artefacts in particular caught my eye.  They both involve long-standing Vancouver institutions (though one is now defunct) awarding their employees with jewelry for extended years of service.    

The first set, comprised of a tie clip, keychain, and a ring, belonged to Eric Nicol.  Though born in Kingston, ON, Nicol’s family moved to BC when he was two and he was truly a Vancouver boy, attending high school at Lord Byng and university at UBC.  After a few years away in Europe, he returned to Vancouver and became a longtime humour columnist for The Province, winning three Stephen Leacock Memorial Medals for Humour during his tenure. 


These three pieces were awarded to him by The Province; a tie clip for 15 years of service, a keychain for 20 years, and a ring for 25 years.  It’s unclear what company was responsible for the manufacture of the tie clip and key chain, but the ring’s history reads like a provenance hat trick.  Not only was it awarded to a Vancouver resident by a Vancouver newspaper, it was produced by Birks, which has, despite its origins in Montreal, over a century’s worth of history in Vancouver.

The other service awards the MOV has in its collection are from Woodward’s.  The company awarded its employees everything from tie tacks, to watches, to cufflinks and earrings.  Most of the awards in the MOV’s collection are for 20 years of service and the Roman numerals XX feature prominently.  There are a few tie tacks and a set of cufflinks, however, which feature the iconic script W that the company first started using in 1958.


It’s strange to imagine being gifted rings and cufflinks by one’s employer, much less working for the same one for over 20 years.  Much like being able to afford a house in Vancouver or making it through March without a rainy day, it’s not something that a lot of people see as feasible.   However, should anyone currently employed at the MOV still be around in 20 years, I’d like to see them gifted with our iconic white roof immortalized as a giant pendant from Birks, thank you very much.


The digitization of the Vancouver History Collection was made possible by funding from the British Columbia History Digitization Program at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia.

Pep Pills, Young Voters & The Evolution of Accessibility

By Adrian Sinclair

Ballot Box, City of Vancouver (1902). Wooden, Cedar. openMOV. H971.259.1

In 2013, Elections BC has taken a few notable steps to make voting more accessible. They have partnered with non-partisan organizations like Vancouver Design NerdsGet Your Vote On, Rock The Vote, , and Bike To Vote to make educational resources available online and on the street for a new generation of voters. 

The evolution of who has been able to access the voting process is quite the read. In 1918, Canadian women were enfranchised to vote in federal elections (except in Quebec, where women were enfranchised in 1940). 


Suffrage Blotter, (1917). Rectangular, White Blotter. openMOV. H994.30.9 

Historically, many other groups have been excluded from accessing the right to vote. In 1993 persons with diagnosed mental disabilities were given the right to vote for the first time. In 1970 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 and ten years before that in 1960, First Nations living on reserve were given the right to vote for the first time. There remains further work to be done in order to ensure the vote be fully accessible. Of concern are Young voters (18-35) who have the lowest turn out among registered voters. 

Of course it’s not only the non-partisan institutions that have an interest in making the vote as broadly accessible as possible. A quick look through the MOV’s online collections database openMOV, yields an interesting attempt by a political candidate to get the youth vote out during the 50’s. This faux pep pill containing Teresa Galloway’s political platform on a mini-scroll of paper, was handed out to notify voters that “our city hall needs a tonic … A woman of action can supply pep and vigor.”

Theresa Galloway Election Campaign Capsule, (1955). Plastic, Paper, Ink. openMOV.

Elections BC’s efforts to ensure fair and accessible elections that represent the political will of the electorate is a work in progress. Here at the MOV, we are also constantly working on how to make our collections more accessible in order to provoke, engage, and animate Vancouverites around our shared material and cultural history. 

After exploring our online collection political artifacts, reading up on the candidates (of past and present), get out there and vote today! 

Engage with the political life of your city and province! 

Other interesting BC Electoral finds on openMOV. Ballot, SoCred, Jim Green, 1960’s Liberal, 1990’s Mayor candidate.

Behind the Scenes in the Museum's Collection: Artifact Spotlight: Admiral TV

Greetings from behind the scenes at the Museum of Vancouver. A born and bred Vancouverite, I’ve now been working my dream job as Curator of Collections for just over two years. Outside of work you’ll find me enjoying our local food scene either at the Farmer’s Market or one of Vancouver’s great locavore restaurants. When not eating, I do my best to take in our fabulous surroundings hiking, kayaking, or snowshoeing. 

At the MOV, I’m the one in charge of keeping track of all the artifacts and their respective stories. This is my first blog post so I thought I’d introduce you to one of the fun parts of my job. 

As Curator of Collections, one of my roles is to assist in the acquisition of artifacts for the collection. The best part of this job is meeting with the donors and learning about the story that goes with each object. Often, the item has been passed down within a family and so the details about the where, why, and when have become blurry or even lost. This will understandably happen. Sometimes, an individual will recognize that though his or her object may not be that old, what they’ve got is a little piece of Vancouver history that must be shared. On these occasions, we benefit by receiving the story of that object firsthand. 

One such case happened earlier this year. Long-time Vancouver resident, Bill Earle, was downsizing and came across his 1950 Admiral television set that he has been carrying with him on each household move for the last 60 years. He recognized that this piece both told a part of his own personal history of a boy growing up in Vancouver, as well as represented a period in television history by providing such a great contrast to the 36” flat screen televisions found in many Vancouverites’ homes today. MOV agreed that this was an artifact and a story worth preserving. Mr. Earle kindly wrote out the history of the television so that nothing was lost. 

Vintage adrmial TV set 

7" Admiral black and white mantel television set, 1948

The above television set was purchased second-hand in 1953 by Bill Earle. Bill was just 13 years old at the time. Living on Alma Road and attending Point Grey Junior High, Bill earned his pocket money as a bicycle delivery boy for Moran’s Drug Store on Dunbar Street at West 40th Ave. Over three years of working there for a wage of 35 cents an hour, he had saved an impressive $75 dollars to put toward a special purchase. Bill saw the TV advertised in the Vancouver Province classifieds and convinced his father to go with him to take a look. The asking price was $95 so Bill’s father generously agreed to chip in the required $20 to meet the purchase price.    

When larger TVs, 17” and 21” models became more readily available, Bill’s family purchased a 21” Chisholm and the above little gem wound up being stored (as a precious heirloom!) in the basements of three different homes until its recent move to the Museum of Vancouver.

Bill’s TV is now always accessible via MOV’s brand new on-line artifact database. Click the green openMOV button in the top left corner. To go directly to the record for the Admiral TV, follow this link.

A big thank you to Bill Earle and all our donors for the time and thought you’ve put into your donations to the Museum of Vancouver. Without you, we (and by that I mean Vancouver) wouldn’t have the strong collection that we do.

For me, I have fond memories of watching TV as a child in my brother’s upstairs bedroom as that was the only room in which we could get adequate reception. We didn’t have cable so there were just 4 channels. My first memories are of the Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress Up, and Sesame St. line up. The TV was still in my brother’s room when I was in grade six and discovered that we got Little House on the Prairie (!). The poor guy - I wonder if this is why we soon got cable and the TV was moved to the rec room. 

What about you?  What are your early memories of TV?  Do you remember when the “remote control” was connected to the TV with a wire? Or when Betamax was the hottest thing? Or what other kinds of everyday artifacts represent your piece of Vancouver history?

Stay tuned for more behind the scenes blog posts from MOV’s Curatorial Department.

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