Almost all societies have some type of class structure. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vancouver had notions of class that echoed those of more established cities in Europe and eastern North America. Wealth, education and influence were part of the class structure. However, Vancouver retained aspects of its recent frontier past, and Vancouver society remained relatively open and fluid. (see Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913, by R. A. J. McDonald; Vancouver, B.C: UBC Press, 1996, page xii.)
This organization of society was related to the historical concept of the Great Chain of Being, which set out a hierarchical structure of all life. The highest being was God, followed by humans, who had their own hierarchy, starting with an emperor, king, queen, or other equivalent, followed by other royal family members, lords, dukes, barons, counts, baronets, knights, religious officials, judges, and other distinguished members of society. (The most famous articulation of this structure is Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.)
Merely being successful in business or in the arts was not always worthy of admission into the hierarchy. Similarly, even though many local members of “society” were not wealthy, their level of genteel poverty did not seem to exclude them from the lists of important society members.
Travels of the Elites
The social columns in the local Vancouver papers listed the seemingly-endless travels of well-to-do residents and their families, often for vacation or schooling. Trips to eastern North America were worth at least a mention in the society columns. Going to the United Kingdom or Europe was even better. The highest levels of recognition went to those who were having an audience with a member of a British or European royal family.
Canadian destinations included Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes in Canada. In the eastern United States, people often travelled to New York, although some went to resorts and health spas in other areas. In the winter, many people went to California, often to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. One popular destination was the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego.
Some more-adventurous travellers sailed to Australia and New Zealand, along with Pacific island destinations such as Hawaii and Tahiti. A few people went to China, Japan and other parts of Asia.
Local Society Events
For people who took their class structure seriously, the local newspapers published daily columns of local social events. Women who could afford the expenses of regular “at home” gatherings would regularly invite other members of society to their homes. The newspapers described the activities of local socialites and the arrivals and departures of family relatives.
Men often travelled on business, or they went on hunting and fishing expeditions.
Like many other cities, Vancouver developed a series of society directories that listed the names, addresses, and club affiliations of many of its elites. Vancouver society directories appeared in 1908, 1914, and 1927. (Some people chose not to appear in these publications, so the directories are not a complete catalogue of Vancouver society.)
The compilers of the directories generally stated their organizing principles in a short foreword. The 1908 directory implied that it was possible to assemble a list of “all persons properly recognized as constituting society.”
The 1914 directory had the same general goal, although it “did not assume to pass upon the social status of the residents of Vancouver.” Instead, the object was to “publish the names of families and persons who have been active in the social life of the city.”
Similarly, the 1927 directory intended “to list persons who are taking an active part” in society affairs.
Excerpts from the Directories
The Elite Directory of Vancouver, 1908, https://bccd.vpl.ca/index.php/browse/title/1908/Elite_Directory_of_Vancouver.
The Vancouver Social Directory and Club Register, 1914, https://bccd.vpl.ca/index.php/browse/title/1914/Vancouver_Social_Register_and_Club_Directory.
The Greater Vancouver Social and Club Register, 1927, https://bccd.vpl.ca/index.php/browse/title/1927/Greater_Vancouver_Social_and_Club_Register.
Other Selected Sources
Several regional and national publications also listed prominent members of society.
Some of these books seemed to list anyone who chose to pay a subscription fee. Others boasted that they did not charge a fee, and that they included only persons “of worth.”
These books included:
Who’s Who in Western Canada, 1911, by C. W. Parker; https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/bcbooks/items/1.0348960#p0z-3r0f:
Who’s Who and Why, volume 2, 1912, by C. W. Parker; https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/bcbooks/items/1.0355313.
Who’s Who in British Columbia (vols. 1-10): 1931, 1933-34, 1937-39, 1940-41, 1942-43, 1944-46, 1947-48, 1949-50, 1953, 1969.
Northern Who’s Who; A Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women, [also called Who’s Who and Why], 1916, https://archive.org/details/northernwhoswhob01park.
Canadian Who’s Who (1910 and various years afterwards), http://www.canadianwhoswho.ca/.
Who’s Who in Canada (1911 and various years afterwards)
Social Register of Canada, first edition, 1958; second edition, 1959; third edition, 1961.
Selected references on class structure and social registries
McDonald, Robert A. J., Business leaders in early Vancouver, 1886-1914, Ph. D. thesis, University of British Columbia, Faculty of Graduate Studies (Department of History), 1977; https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0094222.
R. A. J. McDonald. Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913. Vancouver, B.C: UBC Press, 1996.
R. A. McDonald and McMaster, L. (“Vancouver’s early life [Making Vancouver: class, status, and social boundaries, 1863-1913]”, Canadian Literature, 1999, page 187.
Social Register, Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Register.
Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Richard Conniff, The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.
David Cannadine, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain. New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.
David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.