The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Okay! Don't get all flustered. This is a blog about Vancouver history and heritage after all. But now that I have your attention, I just thought I would share with you some of the books I am reading these days. One of these is fresh off the press. The others I have had on my shelf for a while, but take them down every now and then to reread and refresh my memory.

First, the new kid on the block. I am really enjoying reading Ray Culos' latest book, Vancouver's Shoeshine Boys: A Shining Social History. I am only part way through, but I am loving what I have read so far. Ray, for those of you who might not know, is Vancouver's premier Italian-Canadian historian and has written a number of books relating to the history of Vancouver's pioneer Italians. I love his books for a number of reasons. First of all, they are fascinating reads on their own. Ray's years of experience working as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun and Province, combined with his deep roots in, not to mention his pride in and passionate love for, Vancouver's Italian Community, his story-telling skills, and the wealth of archival images he is able to gather for his books, all combine to make some very readable and historically valuable books.

I love Ray's books because many of the people I have gotten to know through my research of the houses in my neighbourhood, Vancouver's old East End, which for decades was home to Vancouver's Little Italy, spring to life. Whether it is the Castricano and Di Palma families who lived across the street from me in the 1920s, or the Branca, Battistoni, and Trasolini families I have researched on Prior and Union Street, or the Lastorias on East Georgia, Ray has them all covered, both in story and photographs. To me, these books are a gift.

As you can guess by the title, Ray's latest book focusses on the lives and stories of enterprising young (mostly) Italian-Canadian Vancouverites who helped support themselves and their parents by shining shoes after school and on weekends. I have only read the first few chapters, but in flipping through the pages of this photo-filled book I have noticed quite a few surnames I am familiar with through my house history work, so I am really excited to get back to reading it tonight. If you haven't read any of Ray's books, you might want to begin here. The book costs $25 and is sold at the Italian Cultural Centre, People's Co-op Books on the Drive, and a number of other places throughout the city. Here is a link to Ray's website:

Another book I have at my bedside is Betty Keller's On The Shady Side: Vancouver 1886 - 1914. This is an extremely accessible, entertaining, and at the same time very well researched little book the focusses on the stories of the seamier side of Vancouver's pioneer period. The note on the back of book tells it all:

"It's time to open the closets ant let out all your ancestors: those devoted gamblers and demoted policemen, legendary rogues and ladies of the evening who are ignored in other histories of the city."

This book is not only an entertaining read, it has also helped me see a broader and perhaps truer picture of some of the people I have researched in my East End neighbourhood. Some of the houses on the 800 block of East Georgia (originally Harris) Street, were built by Newfoundland-born  policeman Thomas Henry Butler. I mentioned him in my earlier post on 831 East Georgia. Here he is in 1903 sitting with some of his cohorts in front of the old City Hall turned Police Station on the 300 block of Powell Street (CVA Photo POL P4). Butler is seated at the left beside Police Chief Sam North. Both of these men make appearances in Ms. Keller's book. Both men ended up leaving the force as the result of certain indiscretions which I hope you will be able to read about for yourself. Theirs is only one of a number of fascinating and entertaining tales of Vancouver's rough and tumble pioneer days included in this book. 

Sadly, On The Shady Side is out of print, but it may be available online second hand through or may be available at MacLeod Books on West Pender. 

Here is another book currently on my night table. Red Light Neon, by Daniel Francis, is a fascinating history of Vancouver's sex trade; a story that stretches back to Birdie Stewart, Vancouver's first madam, who in 1873 went into business in a small house near the corner of Water and Abbott. For a number of years, she plied her business in a house situated right beside the Methodist Parsonage. 

As Vancouver expanded southwards, its first red light district came to be situated on the unit and 100-block of Dupont Street (now East Pender), the same couple of waterlogged blocks where Vancouver's Chinese community was allowed to settle.

I have always been fascinated how Vancouver has dealt with its sex trade. During Vancouver's pioneer days, when Vancouver's caucasian population was predominantly male, there was a practical live and let live attitude. This attitude gradually changed as Vancouver's population grew, but for a number of decades there was no attempt to close down Dupont Street. In Vancouver's early days the fines exacted by the city from Dupont Street madams was an important source of civic income. Vancouver's sex trade was an unholy cash cow confined to a special isolated pen that was milked from time to time for the city's benefit. Policemen, like our stalwart Constable Butler mentioned above, also profited from the situation and in the end was caught and suffered the consequences.

Red Light Neon is an illuminating read. My only complaint about the book, as someone who finds this subject fascinating, especially when it relates to specific locales, is that I was left wanting more, but maybe that is for another book...

Red Light Neon is readily available at a variety of local bookstores.

This last book, Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986, is another fascinating read. It is a collection of stories and essays by a number of contributors, compiled and edited by the Working Lives Collective, and chronicles a century of Vancouver's working class history. To quote the back of the book:

"Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986, celebrates the achievements and lives of those 'ordinary' Vancouverites whose skills and labour are the city's true foundation -- and whose vital role is usually ignored in standard history books. 

I find this book particularly fascinating as many of the stories included in the book took place in my neighbourhood, the East End. For anyone unaware as I was of this particular aspect of Vancouver's history, this book is truly an eye opener. I would say it is not only a great read but a "must read"  one that is supplemented with a treasure trove of archival photos, many of which were contributed by the various authors.

My hope is that one day, all these photos will make their way to and be preserved for posterity at the City of Vancouver Archives. This aspect of Vancouver's history is still sadly underrepresented. 


  1. Hey James, is there any mention in the shoeshine book of the black shoeshiners, particularly those at the Main Street porters' club? It is listed in the directed as a shoeshine place previous to being the porters' lounge.

  2. Wayde, I can remember anything in particular. The book focussed mostly on the Italian immigrant shoeshine boys.