Helena Gutteridge & The Toy-Making Co-operative
Did you know that October is Women’s History Month in Canada? This year’s theme is #MakeAnImpact – we would like to highlight a woman in BC’s labour history who certainly did just that.
Helena Gutteridge, ca. 1911 – City of Vancouver Archives [371-2693]
The 1912 recession was difficult for all BC workers, but it was especially hard on women. They were often the first workers laid off and qualified for less of the already limited government relief. Suffragist and tailor Helena Gutteridge, head of the Women’s Employment League and Executive member of the Vancouver Trades & Labour Council, organized a toy making co-operative here to help women make some money.
At the same time, she pushed the government for more assistance. The toy-making co-operative opened at 1027 Robson St. in Vancouver in October 1914 – just in time for the Christmas shopping season. By December, more than 150 women were working at this site. Part of the space was used as housing for unemployed women as well. It was a 33-room building, and by Nov. 9, 60 girls and women were working for $3.50 per day, 3 days per week to spread the work around, making dolls and toys. Very quickly, they added cooking and dressmaking services so that by Christmas, 150 women were employed, occupying six more rooms in the building.
1027 Robson Street, ca. 1896 – City of Vancouver Archives (SGN #1078)
By the time the co-op closed in February 1915, it had found jobs for almost five hundred women, and helped another 700 obtain meal tickets. It had expanded to include a retail outlet at the 700 Block of Granville Street, “White Sewing Machines”.
View of the west side of the 700 Block of Granville Street – City of Vancouver Archives (371-820)
Despite its short life, it was an impressive example of early organizing for working women. Helena went on to ensure that equal pay for women and men was included in the VTLC constitution and organized the Minimum Wage League in 1917 – leading to the Minimum Wage Bill for Women, which achieved Royal Assent on April 23, 1918. In 1937, she became the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council.
Gutteridge’s advice to women: “Take an interest in public affairs. Keep yourself informed and express your opinions. Above all, be active. No matter how busy they may be with their families and homes, women are part of the larger community. They owe it to themselves to develop their abilities and to work for a better, peaceful world. There is still a lot to be done!”
Watch our vignette on Helena Gutteridge – part of the “Working People” video series: https://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/working-people/#helena-gutteridge
Produced by the BC Labour Heritage Centre, Knowledge Network & Landrock Entertainment.