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VANESSA CHILDS ROLLS: A chip off the old block

Charlotte Street in downtown Sydney looking north, ca. 1922. Contributed • 78-1137-2887, Beaton Institute, CBU
Charlotte Street in downtown Sydney looking north, ca. 1922. Contributed • 78-1137-2887, Beaton Institute, CBU

Last year, I purchased my most prize possession from the antique store in Baddeck — a 1923 McAlpine Directory of Nova Scotia.

The McAlpine Company published directories of Nova Scotia communities from the early 1860s up until the First World War. As this was the time before everyone had a telephone in their home, this is not a telephone directory. Instead, The McAlpine Directory is a list of buildings and people who lived and worked in Nova Scotia.

The McAlpine Directory is a fascinating tool to help understand the past.

In 1923, Charlotte Street in Sydney was the centre of business. It was booming and almost every square inch of every building was full, with more than 50 listings in the block on the east side of the street that stretched between Dorchester and Pitt streets.

This block started with the Bank of Montreal on the corner and included the Young and Norway Real Estate, Insurance and Steamship Office, the Swedish and Italian consular agents, John Hashem the tobacconist, Nelson Kennedy’s billiard hall and the Union Quick Lunch Cafe.

McAlpine Directory 1923. This is not a telephone directory but it is a list of buildings and people who lived and worked in Nova Scotia. Contributed
McAlpine Directory 1923. This is not a telephone directory but it is a list of buildings and people who lived and worked in Nova Scotia. Contributed

 

All along Charlotte Street were large buildings that were referred to as blocks. Each block contained multiple tenants on multiple floors. This differs from buildings like Crowell’s, where one business used the entire building.

In this context, Charlotte Street from Desbarres to Pitt had the Pistone Block at 195 Charlotte and the Commercial Block from 203-208 Charlotte. The Pistone Block lists a music studio and what appears to be apartments for Alexander McDougall, Mrs. Alphonse Conpere, George Dingwall, Miss Katherine Pitt, Emilio Pierce and Miss Mary Kendall.

By flipping to the directory that lists residents in alphabetical order by name we can see a more detailed view of the Pistone Block. For example, Mrs. Alphonse Conpere is listed on page 65 as “Conpere, Alphonse Mrs. rms 195 Charlotte.” This indicates that the upper floors of the Pistone Block were likely used as a boarding house and the people listed rented rooms. This theory is further bolstered by the fact that a Miss Mary McDonald is listed as the building’s “Janitress.”

The other tenants included Alexander McDougall, a salesman for the White Sewing Machine Company, George Dingwall, a salesman employed at the Ingraham Supply Company, Miss Katherine Pitt, a cook at Archies Lunch Room, Emilio Pierce, who is listed as the proprietor of the music studio, and Miss Mary Kendall, a waitress.

All these tenants seem to be working-class people who likely could not afford to own their own home until they amassed a significant amount of savings.

Interestingly, the only Pistone listed in Sydney is Tony Pistone, a steamship agent and real estate specialist whose offices were just down the street at 211 Charlotte. As a real estate agent, it makes sense that Mr. Pistone would be a landlord.

The McAlpine Directory can also be used to interpret historic photographs. The photo included with this column of the woman in the fabulous fur coat is one of my favourites. This photo looks north towards Dorchester. On the left, you can see the Royal Bank of Canada building and the iconic Lion Statue that now stands on the Esplanade. In the middle, it seems that Charlotte Street ends in a large building. In fact, this is where the street turns as it follows the shape of the harbour. This is the Customs and Post Office Building.

Charlotte Street in downtown Sydney following a snowfall, ca. 1907. Contributed • Beaton Institute, CBU
Charlotte Street in downtown Sydney following a snowfall, ca. 1907. Contributed • Beaton Institute, CBU

 

Upon closer inspection of the photo, we can see several legible signs. Below the Drugs sign is a smaller sign that reads Shoe Shine. The directory lists 199 Charlotte as Charlie Hadda’s Shoe Shine Parlor. The Drugs sign is quite large, but the details are difficult to read. If compared to the directory, we know that this is a sign for J.J. Turnbull, a druggist and proprietor of the Rexall Drug Store.

The sign above the woman’s head is also difficult to read but based on the directory it is a sign for Earl S Auld, Druggist. The next store listed is Carter’s Confectionary Store, which must be the storefront on the very right of the photo. The store’s window display features treats such as Coca-Cola, hot chocolate and Welch’s grape juice. Everyday things that were special treats in 1923.

There is also a sign for a public telephone station, which was mainly established to allow the public to call the fire station in the event of a fire.

Finally, the directory gives insight into one of this part of Charlotte Street’s greatest mysteries — why some of the buildings are not perpendicular to the street.

Lashing your horse to the electrical poles on the street was outlawed, as spooked horses often dislodged the poles causing power outages, so there were large stables and liveries located in the rear of these buildings, which is now parking. For example, 199r Charlotte is listed as the Tobin and Walker Livery. Since horses and wagons were not known for their ability to make 90-degree turns, the buildings were constructed to facilitate access to the livery while still maximizing the amount of space on the street for stores.

Vanessa Childs Rolls is a local historian who lives in Sydney. Her column appears monthly in the Cape Breton Post.

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