Adult Ed in Technical Subjects in 1930s Vancouver

CVA 99-5427: Women typing, ca1937. Stuart Thomson photo.

This post focusses on a series of photographs made in about 1937 by the great pro photographer, Stuart Thomson, of what appears to be adult education going on in a variety of technical subjects.

The photo above, it may be argued from our 21st century perspective, doesn’t appear to be of a particularly technical subject. After all, the young women seem to be doing what I’m doing now and what nearly all computer-literate people on the planet do on a daily basis. Aren’t they? No, these ladies are doing something quite a bit more complex than typing on a Mac that familiar ode to the fast fox who leapt over the lazy canine!

Let’s begin with a ‘key’ difference between typing on the ’30s-era Underwood Typewriters shown above and a computer keyboard. As any of you who have tried to type on one of these manual machines knows, it is altogether a different experience. Without getting into details, I can testify from early experience learning to type on a 70’s version of these manual typewriters that it is a decidedly wrist-strengthening exercise!

But more is going on in the photo above than merely a physical workout. These women are performing a mentally challenging skill. If you go to the original CVA link of the photo and examine closely the source material they are working from on their desks, you will see what appears to be undecipherable squiggly code. That’s shorthand, a form of stenography. A subject which, if you went to school in Canada when I did (the 1970s), or later, you probably didn’t encounter. I was able to identify the text they were typing from as shorthand because my Dad was a business ed instructor and taught women (and some men) how to write and read in this code.

So the women in the photo are not simply typing “longhand” words, but are doing the more complex task of reading shorthand, translating that in their brains into longhand and then typing those words with their Underwoods. It seems to me likely that the class wasn’t merely a typing class, but a shorthand and typing course! I have new respect for those women and the many others who did these things on a daily basis for many years…skills that are largely lost today (unless you trained as a court reporter to use a steno-type machine).

CVA 99-5439: Men in headphones learning technical skills, ca.1937. Stuart Thomson photo.

For the next photo and the other two shown in this post, I have leaned heavily on the knowledge of my old friend, Wes, who seems to me to have wide-ranging knowledge on all sorts of subjects!

So what were the ‘technical skills’ which the men in headphones were learning? It looks as though they are transcribing another form of code — probably Morse code. Given the period at which this series of photos was made (pre-second-world-war), this would be a useful skill to have learned.

CVA 99-5436: Group of men soldering (actually, this shows just one man welding – not soldering; he is being observed by someone who appears to be an instructor (standing behind him) and a couple of other students), ca1937. Stuart Thomson photo.

This is a great photo. It really demonstrates Mr. Thomson’s skill at managing available light to great advantage. It looks to me as though he used just a single light source for this image in addition to the light thrown off the welder’s tool. Wes noted that the blackboard drawing shows how to bevel the edges of two pieces of steel where they are to be welded so that you achieve a strong joint.

CVA 99-5437: Men looking at electric machinery, ca1937. Stuart Thomson photo.

The curious machine shown above is identified on the metal plate attached to it as a “spark tester”. But what exactly these gents are testing with it, I cannot say (could it be testing the spark on a motor’s ignition?)


So, do we have any idea where these images were made? It seems to me doubtful that these would have been made at any of the private business colleges in town at that time – although that wouldn’t have been a bad guess if the steno typists had been a stand-alone image. But it seems to have been made as part of the series with the very specialized equipment (and photographed entirely with males in those images). Given the presence of this, presumably expensive, and not-widely-available machinery, my best guess is that these photos were made at the Vancouver Technical Secondary School at night (or perhaps on weekends) as part of the Vancouver School Board‘s adult education program.

The only problem with my guess that this series was made at VanTech, however, is the presence in the first photo of women. According to the VanTech link, females weren’t admitted to VanTech until 1940. The series of photos was made, according to the City of Vancouver Archives, ca1937. So it could be that they were made a little bit later (1940 isn’t far off the ca1937 mark, after all), or, more likely I think, the no-women-prior-to-1940 rule did not apply to the adult education extension program.

(Crop of) CVA – Sch N70.2: Exterior view of Vancouver Technical School, 1938. W J Moore photo.

To see others in the series of fascinating adult ed tech school images by Thomson, go here.

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1 Response to Adult Ed in Technical Subjects in 1930s Vancouver

  1. Bobby says:

    Some secretaries could type 100 wpm attested to by someone who did. It was a special gift. Still use shorthand for grocery lists and notes. Keeps the mind active!

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