Everything in life had been thrown in Lovina’s path, yet she she had survived a trip from Hungary to Canada on one of the rigged sailing ships coming to the new world. Her mother had died from cholera days before they had reached the port of Montreal, Quebec. What had kept her going was hopefully a better life and she quickly joined a “Water Gypsy” family that was going to Lanark County, then known as the District of Bathurst.
Before she had left Hungary Lovina had been taught to make exotic hats by her maternal Grandmother. who came from a strong matriarchal line of gypsies. The two had stolen more baubles than they bought to decorate their millinery, and Lovina thought she would have no problem doing the same thing in Canada.
George Street Photo from www.perthremembered.com
However, much to her chagrin, there was only one sewing needle in the small village of Lanark where she lived in a shanty town of shacks, sheds and outhouses at the crossroads. The custom of that era was the lone needle was passed from one home to the other and could be used only for 3-4 days per family. Anything else she needed was bought for pennies from the traveling peddlers. Fabric, buttons, bits of ribbon and of course she managed to steal things in the dead of night to create her offerings for the General Store. Some of the church-going ladies enjoyed her hats, and for now bartering her hats and telling fortunes for goods and money was the way to go.
Black and white photograph of millinery shop in Elgin, Ontario around 1905. Owner was Estella Halladay (Campbell).
Most days she did light manual labour on the new roads being built, and sometimes she came home with mud up to her ankles. Once a week she visited the “Houses of Entertainment” to sell one of her hats to some husband who was having a wee drop. The ladies soon began to command her hats for funerals as her mourning hats had become quite the conversation piece.
George Street after in Lanrk in the 50s www.geocaching.com
Women in mourning followed very strict rules as to which types of dress were acceptable. Generally, mourning dress was the realm of women, for the expression of emotion was considered inappropriate in the male-dominated working world.
One day she hitched a ride on a peddler’s cart along with her hats to visit the town of Carleton Place. There she met Bertha Mayhew who owned the local millinery shop on Bridge Street and read Bertha’s fortune and told her:
“You cannot hide in a hat; you will be noticed, especially by men. To men, you become a lady when you don a hat–one who they rush to open doors for. To women, you become an inspiration, reminding them that they have a closet full of hats they have not had the courage to wear. Plus a veil can bring on more shenanigans than forgetting your silk underpants.”
* Author’s Note:
The sewing needle was an extremely rare item and only one per town was allowed in rural Ontario due to the rarity of steel. If it was lost the women of the area searched until they found it and it was high-end gossip and the news went up to 40 miles away.
Bertha Schwerdtfeger — Mother of the Carleton Place Schwerdtfeger Sisters