Vancouver Street Fair/Carnival, 1901

CVA 396-06 – Vancouver street fair and carnival on West Hastings (looking from Granville St – behind camera, probably from the MacKinnon building at the SW corner of Granville and Hastings – to the intersection with Burrard Street, where the Edward Mahon home was; where the Marine Building is today). 1901. Nakazo Hamamura photo [1].

A street fair was held in Vancouver August 5-10, 1901 on West Hastings Street between Granville and Burrard (it also included Howe and Hornby between Pender and Hastings). Along much of this stretch, there were booths set up where the wares and services of Vancouver merchants were on offer. The booths would also include ads for various products from the wider B.C. (e.g., iron ore from the Kootenays, placer gold from the Cariboo, and coal from the Crowsnest region).

CVA 396-01 – Vancouver street fair and carnival. Presumably, on the trapeze were the Austin Sisters. I’m guessing that this photo is taken facing east on West Hastings from near Burrard Street. 1901. Nakazo Hamamura photo [1].

The Street Fair was promoted by an American, Mr. Jabour. Jabour had sold the fair to various other Western centres (before Vancouver, it would be at Butte, Montana, and immediately afterwards, at Tacoma and then Seattle) and he had the first week of August unscheduled. Jabour’s suggestion to Vancouver decision-makers that the street fair could appear in the City of Vancouver on that week was met with substantial local enthusiasm. The Vancouver bigwigs saw coins dropping into coffers of Vancouver businesses and, with cut-rate rail fares to the city for the fair’s duration, there were visions of vast touristic throngs dancing in the heads of aldermen and merchants, alike.

Belle MacKinnon, Queen of the Fair. Province 6 Aug 1901.

Aside from the booths that would, it was believed, be raking in the dough, Jabour would supply typical ‘carnie show’ elements: Japanese jugglers, Hindu snake charmers, “and other easterners by the score”; black bears, an African lion, a (boxing) kangaroo and an ostritch (Province 1 Aug 1901). And getting headline billing for the event were the Austin sisters “who have performed for some of the crowned heads of Europe” with their trapeze act (Province 24 July 1901).

Crop of CVA Sp P16 – King Charles A. Ross. ca 1896. A. Savard photo.

As seems common in the first half of the 20th century, there was a Queen and King of the event. Belle MacKinnon was the chosen Queen this time around. The identity of the King, however, was kept a secret until the final ball of the fair, held at the Theatre Royal. The King was revealed to be Charles A. Ross, captain of the Terminal City Bicycle Club. Presumably, fair organizers thought that keeping the King’s identity secret would contribute to a sense of suspense which would result in a huge turnout at the closing ball. That dream went unfulfilled; scarcely 100 attended. (World, 10 Aug 1901).

So what was the final verdict on the street fair of 1901? Well, it is difficult to be sure from a vantage of 120 years hence but, I think it would be fair to say, “guarded”.

A report pertaining to the later Tacoma street fair claimed that 15,000 people paid admission on a single day (contrast with the most up-beat Vancouver report of 4000 attending, probably on Vancouver’s best attended day) (World 21 Aug 1901; Province 7 Aug 1901).

And, according to some Vancouver merchants, the organizing committee played fast and loose with the terms of admission. According to the merchants, the agreement was that admission would be 10 cents to get in to see the booths (where the merchants were) and an additional 50 cents to get into the carnival proper – the more amusing (dare I say it, the more interesting) part. Apparently, the organizers went with the 10c/50c procedure on the first day, but during the rest of the week, charged everyone a flat 50 cents to get into anything and everything (merchants booths and amusements, both). This alleged practice led those merchants to hold back rent from the organizers for their booths. (World, 13 Aug 1901). Although the fair was history by the time this minor controversy become public, it would have left something of a sour taste, and could not be construed as positive public relations.

I think this part of an assessment by Seattle a year later, of the Jabour “Street Fair/Carnival” enterprise gets close to identifying the problem with the Vancouver affair in 1901:

“Some of the merchants of the city had exhibits that were good as far as they went, but a stranger in the city can walk up either First or Second avenues and see, free of cost, a hundred fold better displays than were generally presented at the carnival.

World, 2 Sept 1902

In short, the merchants of Vancouver were motivated principally by greed. And, furthermore, it was foolish greed — founded on a misplaced perception that the general public would pay for admission plus the cost of their wares. All that Joe public was really interested in paying for was an evening of entertainment with the Austin sisters or the goofy boxing kangaroo!

Note

  1. Nakazo Hamamura was a Japanese photographer who lived and worked in Vancouver at the time of the street fair (but not for too long after that, it seems). I very much like Hamamura’s photographic ‘eye’ for picturing things that were not often photographed by others in CVA’s collection.

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1 Response to Vancouver Street Fair/Carnival, 1901

  1. David says:

    Victoria also had a carnival week, but it wasn’t until August 4 to 9, 1913. One of the more interesting aspects of this event was the “Carnival Week March” composed by Benedict Bantly. A friend who performs in a big band dug out the sheet music from the BC Archives — and digitized by the British Columbia Sheet Music site — and his band gave a performance at Government House in 2017. The “Carnival Week March” reminded me strongly of something you’d hear during a Disneyland Main Street parade.

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