"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, March 23, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Miss Eleanor Spencer, the Milliner

It is not surprising, considering all the concerts, lectures and meetings, the parties, musicales and balls, the teas, suppers and church services held in Great Village, that the ladies and gentlemen, young and not so young, are concerned with the latest fashions. At any one of these gatherings, when the village turns out in force, the sight is impressive: men in their dark vested or elegant pin-stripe suits, the laddies in their Highland regalia, the ladies in their long skirts and full-sleeved embroidered blouses, the young girls in their starched shirt waists, and the wee tots in their sailor suits. But what is most impressive about a congregation of Villagers ─ or just a view of them strolling along the street ─ is their hats. The folks in Great Village love hats, and the person who keeps them well supplied is Miss Eleanor Spencer, milliner extraordinaire.

No one quite remembers which came first, Miss Spencer’s talent, which converted the village to bonnets, turbans, fedoras, panamas or straws; or the villager’s passion for chapeaux, which convinced Miss Spencer to set up shop and fill the great demand. Miss Spencer does a booming business.(1)

Miss Eleanor, known to her close friends as Ellie, lives on Scrabble Hill Road just a few doors up from Hill’s store, on the other side of the street. She and her sister Cassie keep a trim and inviting little house the front window of which always displays some of Eleanor’s latest creations. But Miss Eleanor principally works out of Layton’s store. Mr. Layton, with his acumen for business, realized a few years ago the benefit of adding a millinery shop to the premises. Miss Eleanor herself is not only an artist of high standards, but she is also a good business woman. Every spring and fall she attends the various millenary openings in Halifax, Truro, and even as far as Moncton. One of the reasons the ladies of the village patronize her so thoroughly (after all, Truro is not so far away) is because she offers the latest styles of hats and trimmings with her own imaginative adaptations.

Scrabble Hill Road, Great Village, N.S.

Misses Eleanor and Cassie’s household is a busy one, not only with friends and customers, but also with their nieces. Their sister, Mrs. Henry MacLean, of Amherst, often sends her daughters to the village. Next week Miss Pearl MacLean, who teaches in Amherst, will be coming to spend a few weeks of her summer vacation with her aunts. Frequently, Miss Ollie MacLean makes flying visits from Truro. Both young ladies enjoy helping out with the shop and they are well-known around town as a result.

Today Miss Eleanor is taking a much deserved break from her busy days ─ the past few weeks have been a steady steam of ladies ordering and picking up new hats for the upcoming Dominion Day festivities. Miss Eleanor is motoring to Five Islands with Mrs. Truena Batchelder and Mrs. Beletta Urquhart for afternoon tea at Broderick’s Hotel. They are back in plenty of time for the lecture at the Presbyterian church.

The MacLachlan family wearing their Sunday-best hats

Miss Eleanor is up early because she must go over to Layton’s store as soon as it opens to put out several hats due to be picked up today. Since she will be away only for the day she has not asked any of the many young ladies in the village to tend the shop, a cosy room tucked in the corner of the store. Most of the young ladies in the village are eager to help her out, to spend time in the shop filled with ribbons, veils, bows, beads and feathers ─ and every style of hat imaginable. When she’s away at the openings she usually hires one of the Peppard or Johnson girls to tend. Cassie is always too busy just looking after the house and tending to the customers who stop by there.

As Miss Eleanor walks past the Presbyterian church towards Layton’s store, she glances at the Bulmer house. Everything is quiet there right now, but she knows that Mr. Bulmer and his daughters must be on their way to Londonderry Station ─ the train to Halifax at the Station arrives around 10:00 a.m. Mr. Layton is busy opening up the store and getting things sorted out after the hubbub of election day. Miss Eleanor thinks that the effort by suffragists in Canada to get women the vote is a good thing. The war has diverted everyone’s attention from this issue, but she sees all the war work women in the village are doing, knows it is replicated across Nova Scotia and the Dominion. She thinks it is about time women were allowed to vote. She says nothing of these thoughts to Mr. Layton, who greets her warmly, though he seems slightly sad. She knows how sorry he is about Gertrude Bishop’s illness.

After arranging the new hats and giving Mr. Layton the list and bills, Miss Eleanor walks back home. She waves to Ruth Hill bustling around inside Hill’s store. As she dresses for her outing she glances out the window and sees Gertrude’s little daughter Elizabeth run by trying to keep up with her cow, Nelly.(2) She thinks it is a good thing that the Bulmers are keeping the child’s routine intact. Usually that annoying creature ─ the cow ─ makes a shambles of the big lilacs at the front of the house, rubbing herself against them to swish off flies. But this morning the cow ambles by without even noticing the bushes. Elizabeth runs after her with the switch. As she comes into the kitchen, Cassie, who has seen them too, pours tea. They sit down to their late breakfast and discuss hats, elections and the sadness at the Bulmers. Miss Eleanor says that she thinks she’ll make a hat for the child, since she often sees her staring intently at the display in the window ─ a little sailor’s hat with a flowing bow at the back.(3) Truena and Beletta arrive just after 11:00 a.m. and the trio drives off in the big Chevrolet Truena tours around in everywhere, their faces veiled, their hats tied down securely with bright ribbons.


1. Not everyone in Great Village got a made-to-order hat from Miss Spencer. Elizabeth Bishop remembers one Great Village lady who created her own hats and created a sensation with them: “Mrs. F.’s hats were a joy to all church goers. I had heard the women in my family discuss them for many Sundays ─ usually in a hard hearted sort of way. The Francises lived about five miles out of the village up towards Peek-A-Boo and except for the marketing done once a week by Mr. Francis, [it] was usually their only trip to town. As if to make up for their scarcity by really impressing these visits upon the villagers, Mrs. F. had devised the wonderful idea of wearing a new hat every time ─ or at least as new as she could arrange it. Instead of wearing her heart on her sleeve Mrs. Francis twists hers on her head at different angles.” (“Reminiscences of Great Village”)

2. Elizabeth Bishop remembered Miss Spencer in “In the Village”: “We are approaching Miss Spencer’s house. Miss Spencer is the milliner the way Miss Gurley is the dressmaker. She has a very small white house with the doorstep right off the sidewalk. One front window has lace curtains with a pale-yellow window shade pulled all the way down, inside them; the other one has a shelf across it on which are displayed four summer hats. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that there is a yellow chip straw with little wads of flamingo-colored feathers around the crown, but again there is no time to examine anything.” (Collected Prose, 262)

3. Coincidentally, Eleanor Spencer died in October 1934, the same year that Gertrude Bulmer Bishop died. Her obituary read: “Miss Eleanor Lynds Spencer died at Victoria General Hospital, Halifax, on Tues. October 23rd at the age of 72 years. She had been ill since spring and entered the hospital about a month ago. She was a life long resident of Great Village, where for many years she had conducted a small millinery business. Miss Spencer was active in all church activities and had a gift for friendship which endeared her to a wide circle. She leaves in her immediate family one sister, Mrs. Henry MacLean, now of Halifax, but formerly of Glenholme. J.S. MacLean, the popular accountant at the Halifax Chronicle is a niece of the departed. The funeral service was held in St. James United Church Thursday afternoon and was attended by a large number including folk from Bass River, Shubenacadie, Truro, Halifax and Dartmouth. Rev. E.A. Kirker gave a brief but touching tribute to the departed and the choir sang “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Peace, Perfect Peace.” Many floral tributes were further evidence of the place which Miss Spencer held in the hearts of her friends. Interment was in Great Village Cemetery.”

No comments:

Post a Comment