The Steno Sisters

CVA 1376-653 – Catherine Pedden. 191-. J. W. Hughes photo.

In the early years of the twentieth century, it wasn’t often that a young woman started her own small business, much less made a ‘go’ of it for nearly 30 years! But that’s exactly what Catherine Pedden did. With help from her sister, Ellen, Catherine’s stenography business endured from 1913 to 1942.

Catherine and Ellen Pedden were two of the daughters of Joseph Pedden and Mary McArthur. Joseph emigrated to Canada from Scotland ca1843 with his family when he was quite young (about 7). He married Mary in 1871 and settled in Middlesex County, Ontario where they farmed. Four kids preceded Catherine and two came in between Catherine and Ellen. Catherine was born in 1885 and Ellen, the youngest child, came along in 1891.

Joseph died in 1910 at age 73 in Strathroy, ON. His passing seemed to prompt the move of Mary, Catherine, Ellen, and one of the brothers to the west coast. It isn’t clear to me exactly why they pulled up stakes in Strathroy to make such a major move, but chances are that it was related to money and the good prospects for making more of it in the relatively new urban centre of Vancouver.

Museum of Vancouver. H2004.94.8 1910s period photo of Catherine Pedden’s office (Catherine, it is claimed, is seated at the typewriter at left).

I haven’t been able to find any evidence of what education the two girls received, but I suspect they went to a secretarial college in Ontario after finishing secondary school.

CVA 1376-652 – Ellen Pedden. 190-.

Ellen seems to have been the first Pedden to make the trans-continental journey in 1912. She was employed by the Canadian Credit Men’s Trust Association and was living at the time at 607 East Cordova. The year following, however, Catherine was in town and was working for herself — also as a stenographer — in an office in the Northwest Securities Corp. building (on the site today known as The Lumbermen’s Building). Catherine and Ellen shared accommodation at 120 Cassiar. By 1914, one of their brothers and their mother Mary arrived in town. While Ellen was still working for the Credit Association, Catherine set up shop for herself as a freelance “public stenographer” [1] in a suite in the Birk’s Building. The following year, another sister, Margaret, was working in Vancouver, too; as a nurse. All of the Peddens were residing at 120 Cassiar.

By 1919, Ellen had left the Credit Association and joined forces with Catherine in working at her small business, which by this time had moved to the Pacific Buidling on West Hastings. The women made it known that they were “public stenographers” operating under the business name of “Vancouver Steno-Typists”. Catherine always appeared to be the “face” of the business.

The Pedden business must have been doing okay, as in 1918 (presumably following the end of Great War hostilities, thus making international steamship travel relatively safe), Catherine left Vancouver for a trip to Asia (HongKong, Shanghai, and Japan). She was there for about two years (Province, 19 August 1920). Much later (after WW2), Ellen took an “extended trip” to New Zealand and Australia, returning via Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands (Sun, 20 August 1952).

Both sisters were actively involved with the Crescent Rebekah Lodge (initially a women’s branch of the Masonic International Order of Odd Fellows; both women and men are now permitted to join).

By the 1930s, the business name had changed slightly to emphasize the stenography element of their services: henceforth it would be simply “Vancouver Stenographers” [2]. The name change seemed to happen about the same time as their final business move to the Stock Exchange building.

Catherine Pedden ad for Vancouver Stenographers in Vancouver Sun. 1 June 1929.

Catherine (age 55) and Ellen (49) Pedden retired in 1942.

In her retiring years, Catherine was involved with the leadership of the Vancouver branch of the Business Women’s and Professional Club (she was a past president) and of the Vancouver Women’s Curling Club. She was also a member of the Vancouver Heights Presbyterian Church (this church merged with the local Methodist congregation to become a United Church in 1925 as part of the church union movement; Vancouver Heights United disbanded in 1973).

Catherine died in 1965 at age 79 and Ellen passed in 1976 at age 84.


  1. I tried in vain to determine what exactly was meant/implied by the title “Public Stenographer”. How was a Public Stenographer different from a garden-variety stenographer? Perhaps there wasn’t a difference. I even had a look at what American pop culture in the ’30s had to say about this. There was a movie titled Public Stenographer (starring Lola Lane and Buster Collier, Jr. and a small part played by Jason Robards, Sr., father of later Oscar-winner, Jason Jr.) about two young women on the make in the big city who work as stenographers. These two seem to me not at all like my impressions of Catherine and Ellen; the two starlets seem primarily concerned about maintaining their “girlish figures”. I didn’t get very far in the film before I turned it off, but from the way the job of “public stenographer” was portrayed in the early part of the film, my impression is that there may not have been any real difference between the tasks taken on by “stenographers” and “public stenographers”.
  2. I should point out that, with the exception of the court stenographer (which is a very specialized job), the position of stenographer has today pretty much disappeared. My Dad used to teach stenography (or shorthand) at a Canadian college. He points out that, by the ’70s, with the growing popularity of dictaphone machines, the demand for steno and shorthand skills began to fade and that, by the ’90s, many colleges had scaled back or cancelled their steno programs. By the way, for the benefit of any millennial readers out there, I should note that the steno pad is a creature of the shorthand era.

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1 Response to The Steno Sisters

  1. So interesting – thanks for digging all of that up and putting it together so well. I have a couple of sister’s in Vancouver a few years earlier in a story I’m working on

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