Halifax 125 years ago

The corner of Market and George streets in the 1800s. Photo: N.S. Archives

In the late 1800s, Halifax was one of the wealthiest cities in Canada. By 1898, more than 130 rich Haligonians owned property worth over $12,000,000. At least four of these wealthy men had fortunes of $350,000 to $400,000. Even yearly income of $7,000–$8,000 and a lifestyle that included a beautiful home and frequent voyages to England, which was then a popular holiday destination.

Around this time Halifax had a construction boom. In 1895 and 1896, developers were spending over $1,000,000 on some 150 new buildings. This increased workers’ wages. A Halifax blacksmith earned $1.66 per day, carpenters $1.68, plumbers $1.72 and bricklayers $2.50. By way of context, beef cost about 12 cents per pound and coal would run you $5/ton.

Doukhobor immigrants. Photo: Pier 21

In this era, thousands of immigrants arrived. There were still few European settlers in Western Canada and the government wooed white immigrants. The Doukhobors, who arrived in January 1899 on the ship Lake Huron attracted lots of attention. According to the Morning Chronicle newspaper, the ship carried 2,000 people “Singing psalms of thanksgiving from Russian tyranny and oppression, and best of all, now being under the folds of the British flag.”

Curious Haligonians flocked to the pier to see them, remarking on their “healthy bodies” and unfamiliar attire. The men and boys wore goat skin coats and caps while, the women had on bright red or blue heavy jackets and colourful headscarves. The pacifist Doukhobors received a warm welcome and a local politician praised them for their refusal to serve in the Russian army, which led to their Canadian exile. (This peaceful conviction proved more controversial after the First World War broke out.)

Footwear triggered another dramatic, if less exciting, change. Until Confederation, most Nova Scotians’ boots and shoes came from the U.K. and U.S. But in 1868, a man named Robert Taylor began making boots and shoes in his Granville Street shop, hiring 40 shoemakers. It was the first shoe factory in the province and workers did most of the labour by hand.

In 1871, the operation moved to a four-storey factory on Brunswick Street, employing about 150 people. With new machinery, workers made 3,000 pairs of shoes a week in 132 different styles. Taylor sold them in the Maritimes, Newfoundland, and St. Pierre and Miquelon.

In March 1880, the company established a benefit association to care for sick members. The fund had 86 members who contributed three or five cents weekly. When a member became ill, they would get $1.50 or $3.00 weekly for eight weeks and half that for five more weeks.

By 1890, Robert Taylor and Company had moved to another location that cost $16,000. It was a brick building five storeys high, with 180 workers (including 50 women). They churned out 4,500 pairs per week. Observers heralded Taylor as a Halifax success story, proving how far a good idea and hard work could go in the booming city.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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