By Jennifer Anderson and Dalton Campbell
Archives can reveal the details of Canadians’ everyday work lives, suggest to contemporary researchers what earlier generations experienced in the workplace, and show how the Canadian economy has changed over time. A case in point: the extensive photographs in the collections of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) related to the production and marketing of Canadian-made textiles. Many of these photographs have been digitized and are available through the LAC collection search.
For generations, the Dominion Textile Company was synonymous with Canadian-made cotton textiles. Established in 1905 through a merger of four independent textile firms, Dominion Textile originally operated 11 mills, producing primarily griege cotton and finished cotton cloth for Canadian markets. As the company consolidated its position, it began to expand its reach in the textile industry and across the country. The firm’s headquarters were in Montréal, Quebec.
When the first textile companies were founded, the majority of Canadians were making their own clothing. According to Serge Gaudreau, the textile industry, like the railroad, was a visible symbol of Canada’s modernity at the beginning of the 20th century, a complex industry that combined human labour with machinery. Facing competition from the United States and the United Kingdom, Canadian companies were given tax breaks under Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s National Policy, allowing the Canadian textile mills to make headway in the competitive 1870s market.
In the textile industry, race/ethnicity, gender and class had relevance. As was commonplace in the Quebec manufacturing sector in those days, the workforce that carried the industry into the new era was largely Francophone and Irish, with English-speaking managers. The cotton itself would likely have been produced in the American South. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but the sharecropping system that replaced it continued to exploit racialized and poor labourers.
Textile mills in Canada relied on a very high percentage of female workers, as Gail Cuthbert Brandt has shown in Through the Mill: Girls and Women in the Quebec Cotton Textile Industry, 1881–1951 and Joy Parr in The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880–1950.
Dominion Textile maintained its own archives before transferring the documents to LAC. The archival fonds includes a rich collection of photographs, textual records and audiovisual recordings documenting the work life and community of employees, the architecture of mills in diverse locations, the process of textile fabrication, and the finished products. Like many company towns, the cotton mills organized sports teams, whose legacy lives on in the archives.
The collection contains the administrative and operational records of the parent company as well as minute books and financial records of 62 other firms associated with Dominion Textile. These firms include the original four predecessor companies that merged in 1905, subsidiary companies and the independent textile companies acquired by Dominion Textile as it expanded to become Canada’s largest textile firm.
For some fabric companies, the Dominion Textile merger was a necessity. Montmorency Cotton Mills, established in 1898, produced a variety of products (grey cloth, hosiery yarns, towelling, sheeting and flannels) for domestic and international markets. The company was forced into the merger in part because of the effects on international trade caused by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Montmorency mills remained operational well into the 1980s. The archival photographs at LAC illustrate the mill’s longevity and the powerful waterfall that produced energy for its operations.
In 1929, as part of a larger acquisition, Dominion Textile also acquired what would be called the Sherbrooke Cotton Company. The acquisition included the stock of the Sherbrooke Housing Company, which sought to build a model city for the mill’s employees. The plant, retooled to manufacture synthetic fibres in 1935, continued to operate until the 1990s.
Penman Manufacturing Company, first incorporated in 1882, dates back to 1868, when its first knitted goods factory opened. Under John Penman, the company became the largest knitting firm in Canada when it assumed control of six smaller knitting mills in Port Dover, Paris and other towns in Ontario and Quebec.
In 1906, the company was acquired by Dominion Textile and reorganized under the name Penmans Limited. The company continued to expand, producing hosiery, underwear and other knitted goods.
The Dominion Textile photographs depict mills in towns and cities across central and eastern Canada, representing the close proximity between factory buildings and the local community and workforce. They are complemented by archival material in other collections at LAC.
The material also shows changes to technology as well as health and safety protections in the workplace, and it reflects the industry’s evolution.
The archival collection also includes textual records related to the negotiation of the 1987 free trade agreement with the United States, and the expected impact on the textile industry.
The collection shows that the marketing of Canadian-made fashion was also about cultural diplomacy and international trade. Over the years, economic pressures, market competition and difficult work conditions often led to restructuring and downsizing, which met resistance from the workforce. The collection includes images related to strikes and labour unrest at the textile mills.The fonds also includes vibrant promotional imagery and moving images featuring the finished products, which made Dominion Textile quite literally a household name in Canada.
We look forward to seeing how researchers will incorporate the recently digitized photographs into new projects on the importance of the textile industry in Canada and further explore the breadth of the resources preserved at LAC. If Reference Services can be of assistance, please reach out to us.
To see more images related to the Dominion Textile Company and textile manufacturing, visit our Flickr album.
Here are some other sources at LAC:
Mercury-Chipman Knit Ltd. fonds
Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union: Textile Division fonds
Madeleine Parent and Kent Rowley fonds
Royal Commission on the Textile Industry
Department of Industry records
Jennifer Anderson was an archivist in the Reference Services Division, and Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section, at Library and Archives Canada. The authors wish to thank Kerry O’Neill for her contributions to this blog.