Small keepsakes from generations long gone

Paul Sparkes
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The stuffed doll with the bisque head — a figure in a pale khaki uniform from early Second World War years — looked for all the world like an item purchased a couple of years ago.

It was a child’s toy, typical of many produced at the time, its face was innocent but its attire said “combat.” How long had it been packed away in its owner’s home? Something like 73 years. It was in 1941 that the owner was given the doll as a way of helping her forget she had just had her tonsils removed and she was lying there on a hospital bed.

I suspect that Newfoundland homes, particularly those whose families have some sense of history behind them — homes long out of mortgage; homes now embracing their third or fourth family — I suspect many of them have items tucked away that, once brought into the light of day, have stories to tell.

A reader in St. John’s called a while ago to suggest that the next time I was in central Newfoundland, I should visit Gord and Margaret Howse of Grand Falls. She knew her relatives would have some things that would be of interest to me and perhaps even of interest to this column. After all, over the six years that I have been writing it, it has jumped from survival after a plane crash, to wallpaper for a St. John’s house in the late 19th century, to shipwrecks, pirate’s treasure and breakfast cereal.

I was glad to have met the Howses there two weeks ago. The first thing Margaret brought out was this wartime doll.

“I had my tonsils out when I was seven … that was in 1941 … at the old General Hospital in St. John’s. I was given this doll,” she laughed. “I guess it was to keep my mind off my sore throat.”

There were thousands of toy dolls in uniforms during the Second World War, and from all sides of the conflict. They have varying values today, as we can see on sites such as eBay. However, as with any toys actually given to children, most suffered rough usage.

This one of Margaret’s, with the price of $1.98 pencilled on the back of the neck, is pristine. But there is no manufacturer’s identifying stamp. It looks American to my eye. Perhaps a reader who knows something more about such things can provide more information. Margaret has thought on occasion about donating the doll to a museum, or some appropriate display where it would be of interest and, of course, be protected.

We really got down to putting the time machine in reverse when we shuffled through the stack of old postcards which the Howses have kept over long years. And they had been kept and valued by long-deceased members of their families before them. There were scenes of Newfoundland, pictures of Westminster Abby, significant buildings in Stockholm, landmark buildings in Boston and scattered pictures from Ontario.  

There were postcards from people who had left Bonavista Bay in the earliest years of the 20th century and gone seeking work in Massachusetts. Some of the postcards — from long-forgotten people, I’m afraid — bore pen-scratched messages that would break your heart: “Will send sum money win I can git sum I pays 4.00 a mo. bord.”

We remarked on the writing and spelling; messages encroaching in the address space; virtually no knowledge of spelling with words constructed phonetically; H’s put on where they did not belong and removed where they should have been left. On one card, the message went all up, across and down over the prescribed writing space as the sender struggled for room.

Here is a message sent from St. John’s to a young boy on Sailor’s Island, Salvage, Bonavista Bay in 1909: “Say, Maxie, how is all home suppose you are tired of looking for a postal from me But you wasn’t forgot write soon to your B.M.”

You can imagine this postcard being received, read and read again, treasured, shown to people who dropped in and then … put away in a drawer, never to be thrown out. And it is produced for interested eyes 105 years later!

From an oak china cabinet perhaps from the first decade of the 20th century, Margaret gingerly removed and placed on a coffee table two china mugs heavily slathered with gold decoration. The taller one with a golden palm tree had a whistle fashioned into its handle. You blew a shrill note if you required a refill. This mug is said to have belonged to Margaret’s great-grandmother.

The other mug is more decorative, heavy with gold and obviously not meant to convey hot liquids to a human mouth.  This one came down through the family from Gord’s grandmother.

Small signs and symbols from generations long gone from the face of Newfoundland. They are mute and they are enticing often for what they do not tell us. And they are still accorded a measure of esteem.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:

Organizations: General Hospital, EBay

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Grand Falls, Bonavista Bay Stockholm Boston Ontario Massachusetts

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