In this tour we will walk through the pivotal years after World War II--when Nanaimo underwent an explosive economic boom that profoundly shaped the city we know today. The late 1940s and 1950s were an exciting time, marked by new industries, buildings, and communities that contributed to reshaping Nanaimo from a hardscrabble mining town to a major Vancouver Island hub of industry, shopping and culture. The era was defined by strongly held civic mindedness and active government engagement, attitudes that were formed in the trials of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
This project is possible with the generous support of Tourism Nanaimo and the Nanaimo Hospitality Association.
We would also like to thank the Nanaimo Archives and Nanaimo Museum for use of their historic photo collections and providing research assistance.
This is the view of a town poised at the edge of an economic boom. The 1946 New Year's editorial in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press referred to the 'sun of a bright future' on the horizon. It went on to claim that: "Geographically and in resources, Nanaimo's destiny is bound to assert itself, and growth and activity are bound to come here."1 The newspaper's prediction was right on the mark.
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With an expanding population, a growing economy, and the dawn of consumer culture, post-war Nanaimo was set for real and substantial growth for the first time in half a century. This was the time of department stores and appliances, advertising, motoring, and optimism. The late 40s produced new technologies, new ways to communicate, and new systems of transport, all of which contributed to modernization. Cars and televisions became the norm rather than the exception. In 1953 only 10% Canadian households owned a television. By 1965 the figure had skyrocketed to 93%.2 Even flying became accessible: in 1947 Canadian Pacific Airlines established flights in and out of Nanaimo, and by 1953, passengers could travel by plane to Vancouver for $3.45.3
In Nanaimo the post-war period was the one in which a mining town became a major regional hub. Manufacturing and forestry boomed, creating thousands of jobs. By 1948 there were 15 logging companies with offices in Nanaimo, and in 1950 the mill at Harmac opened, initially hiring 200 workers and quickly expanding so that by 1970 it employed over 1,000.4 The new business attracted new people to Nanaimo. Combined with the post-war baby boom, the population soared from 19,000 in 1951 to 23,000 in 1956 - a rate that outstripped the rest of the province.5 All these new high-paying jobs meant people had more money to spend and retail sales increased by 36% - almost double the provincial rate, hinting at Nanaimo's future as a retail hub.6
The economic boom was a huge relief for the people of Nanaimo, who had suffered through 15 years of economic depression and war. These shops are typical of the 30s and 40s 'high street' in which many businesses floundered, and many failed to survive.
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The interwar years were hard on Nanaimo which, like most British Columbian towns, fell under a "kind of economic siege."1 Its population stagnated, increasing by only 1,000 people between 1920 and 1950. The impact was most keenly felt in the coal industry, which had been the biggest employer in Nanaimo but shrank into insignificance during the 30s and 40s. At its peak the town produced 1.3 million tonnes of coal and employed 3,400 miners of a population of fewer than 10,000. In 1930 the figures had shrunk dramatically to 755,000 tonnes of coal and 2,158 employed. The steady decline continued and by 1945, the numbers were 270,000 tonnes of coal and 432 employees.2
As industry constricted and the real population inflated, there was rampant unemployment. By the end of the 1920s the first bread lines appeared. Province-wide, the situation escalated quickly. By 1930 more than 7,000 men were on relief, by 1932 there were more than 67,000 unemployed. By 1933 the figure had reached 100,000, or one in eight of the population.3 No wonder the town looked and felt demoralized around this time.
The Federal Government, initially slow to respond to the Depression, was instrumental in providing funds for major building projects that would put the unemployed back to work. These included the lumber wharf, the Bastion Bridge, and the Civic Arena. Before the Depression few people saw much role for government in the economy ,but these Depression era projects were critical for stimulating the economy in those dark times. They established the model for government to take a more active role in the economy after the Second World War, which would prove critical for fuelling the post-war economic boom.
This photograph shows a first aid practice drill taking place in the centre of Nanaimo. A real turning point for the city came when the ARP sirens rang out around Nanaimo at 7:10 am on May 8, 1945. They were not warning of a bombing raid, but the end of the war in Europe, VE Day.
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During the 40s Nanaimo, like most towns, focused its attention on the war effort. Camp Nanaimo was established as a military training in May 1940, and over 10,500 soldiers went on to be there trained during the war. An aerodrome was also built in 1943, around the mouth of the Nanaimo River, and a shipping company, Newcastle Shipbuilding Co., began to manufacture minesweepers for the war effort. When the first – HMCS St. Joseph – was launched, on May 24th 1944, it revived a ship-building tradition that had lain dormant since the end of the nineteenth century.
The war might have been over, but its shadow lingered. Sixty residents of Nanaimo had been killed, war ships still roamed the coast, and memories of rationing were raw and recent. Gas and sugar had been rationed since 1942, when consumption of sugar was limited to half pound a week per person. In 1943 this was followed by meat, with "meatless Tuesdays" introduced at restaurants. Life was tough, with wages capped, prices controlled, and income taxes increased ten fold to help fund the astronomical expense of the war.
The end of the war was therefore a time for celebration. After the sirens sounded the city declared a civic holiday. The Nanaimo Daily Free Press described VE Day: "It was a sunshine-swimming morning with all hearts gladdened.' The city didn't look back.
The Nash Hardware Store was originally built in 1909, but its 1945 Art Deco facelift (pictured here) was just one symptom of growing optimism in Nanaimo.
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The facade that was chosen for Nash Hardware is a very good example of the modern design aesthetic that revamped Nanaimo's high street. The facade was simple yet elegant: classic enough to blend in with the pre-war buildings, yet offering a fresh, clean aesthetic, that made it extremely popular in postwar Nanaimo and – in this case – particularly appropriate to a building supply business.1
One of the major factors fuelling Nanaimo's great 50s economic boom was the Credit Union, seen on the left side of this photograph. Started by a small group of 17 in 1945, it grew rapidly and, from 1955, occupied the prestigious building, designed by Francis Rattenbury – architect of the Victoria Parliament buildings and the Empress Hotel.
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A few days after VE day, 17 members of the Nanaimo public resolved to form a credit union, in order to encourage saving, offer competitive returns, and service member loans at low rates. In other words, a union would enable people otherwise unable to secure a loan, to make investments in the city's businesses, homes, and future. Working out of temporary offices, before moving into one half of a bicycle shop, the union managed to attract almost 200 members by the close of 1949.By 1951 the union had 600 members and assets that amounted to $100,000.
A sense of the new dynamism taking hold in Nanaimo can be gleaned from Credit Union's records: 30% of loans went towards construction materials, for building homes. A further 20% were for vehicle purchases or repairs. 16% went towards household furnishings and appliances, with 10% being requested for boats or farm machinery. The remainder went towards living expenses: tax, insurance, medical bills, dental fees, and the costs of getting married.1
Like the Nash Hardwood store, the original Jean Burns Ladies and Children's Shop that stood on this site was emblematic of forward-looking, 50s Nanaimo.
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Jean Burns, who had some experience as a seamstress, opened a small dressmaking business on this spot in 1934. In the post-war boom the business grew rapidly and in 1955 the Burnses (Jean and her husband Robert) decided to capitalize on the growing market for fashion by building a large retail store. They employed local architect Thomas McAvarravy to design a classic yet modern looking building in the International Style. From here they opened branches across Vancouver Island and became renowned for stocking high-quality, classic, and elegant women and children's clothing.
This view up Commercial Street gives a good sense of the Nanaimo's busy shopping district. The presence of women and children is notable, and is indicative of the social changes that helped to drive growth and prosperity.
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It's hard to imagine shopping as a driving force for radical social change, but as Penny Tinkler and Cheryl Krasnick Warsh have pointed out, shopping "disrupted notions of public life as separate from the domestic and private, with consequences for the homemaker's experience of modernity."1
Nanaimo was quick to understand the importance of retail to the post-war economy. A 1951 report by the Bureau of Economics and Statistics recommended that 'Future planning in Nanaimo should recognize the importance of retail and wholesale trade to the area's economy and should include provision for smooth vehicular movement and adequate parking."2 The city listened: by the mid 50s Nanaimo had "more retail space per capita than any other city in North America."3 The openness to consumption encouraged the process of modernization, and helped to engage women in public life and space. Apart from shops, women were encouraged to engage through libraries, cinemas and restaurants, some of which can be seen in this original photograph.
Taken at the bottom of Commercial Street, this brightly lit scene shows a familiar 50s sight: the local tobacconist, in this case selling famous Player's Please cigarettes.
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Players Cigarettes were a British product, manufactured in Nottingham from 1877. Their presence in Nanaimo – visible here not only in the lettered signs above the shop awning, but also in the highly recognizable, pipe-smoking sailor – is visual evidence of the link with the U.K. Players, which was one of the first companies to sell rolled cigarettes as opposed to loose tobacco, dominated the market from the 1920s. The company was also quick to adopt the new trend towards branded advertising, establishing their trademark sailor logo as early as 1891. It's interesting to note how large the tobacco shop is – how thoroughly integrated smoking was in the lives of 1950s Nanaimoites.
Dakins – something of a male answer to Jean Burns – is seen here with its large sign and partially renovated facade, open for business in the 1950s.
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Charles Dakin was born in Asherton, Derby, England, and moved to Nanaimo where he opened and operated his men's wear store. Dakin bought this building in 1922 but did not move the clothes business here until 1925. As can be seen from the sign, like Jean Burns, the shop offered both made to measure and read-made clothes, as well as boots and shoes. Like many other businesses, the Dakins' storefront was partially renovated in the 50s: the lower half is considerably less elaborate (more modern) that the upper part of the facade.
Besides this shop Dakin, a dynamic business man, became one of the organisers for the community fund-raising efforts that eventually led to the construction and opening of the Hotel Malaspina in 1927. 93-99 Commercial St., built 1911, is now named the Dakin Block after him.
The Modern Cafe's loud and familiar neon sign has is the latest iteration of a sign that's stood on this building since the mid-1940s: like the cafe itself it is a testament to the Nanaimo institution.
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The Modern Café Building was erected in 1910 and was initially used as a base for an insurance, finance, and real estate business by Nanaimo grandee A.E.Planta (after whom Planta Park is named.) The columns, balustrade, and simple frieze are all executed in the Classical Revival style. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the building was streamlined, gaining the simple, clean lines of the more modern architecture being built in the 50s, and signalling a more progressive outlook that was in keeping with the times. The modern iteration of the building, with its plate glass windows and steel frame, is another metamorphosis that demonstrates Nanaimo's constant evolvement.
Next to the Modern Cafe stands Nanaimo's Daily Free Press: an integral part of Nanaimo life, which went a long way to shaping the town's character and ushering it into post-war modernity.
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The Free Press was well-established by the 1940s. Nanaimo's second oldest paper, it was founded in 1874 and, by 1938, had come Nanaimo's only daily paper. The newspaper managed to weather the depression, despite the fact that much of its property was destroyed by fire (along with much of the business district that stood between Front, Chapel, Church, Commerical and Skinner streets, on July 19th, 1930. During the war, this building played a key role as the location of the city's air raid siren and, of course, source for news from the war.
At the end of the war, the paper evolved, but maintained its stated aim of informing readers, holding officials to account, and (once those two were accomplished) entertaining.1 It finally closed its doors in 2016, to much local regret. Philip Wolf, managing editor at the time said, accurately: "We chronicled the mine disasters and world wars, presidential assassinations and everything in between... "This paper has had an impact on the lives of pretty much every single person in Nanaimo."2
Back in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, as many as 1,000 people crammed onto the dance floor for a little jump, jive, and wail.... I remember soldiers coming in for Saturday night dances.... We would go until 2:00 am." – Al Campbell, big band musician.
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The Pygmy Pavilion was one of several dance halls that opened in Nanaimo during the early years of the twentieth century. The Pygmy, at 99 Chapel Street, was built by Shelby Saunders, a local sawmill owner, in 1931. Local legend recounts that he built the dance hall in homage to the Grant Palace Ballroom in New York. It was fitted with a spring-loaded dance floor and attracted large audiences as well as jazz musicians from all over Vancouver Island. This was where Louis Armstrong played, with his 18-musician orchestra, in 1943.
By the late 50s, big band music had been supplanted by rock n roll, and an explosion of youth culture that came in the wake of security and prosperity. The Pygmy band moved out of the Ballroom into the nearby Legion Hall, and the Ballroom itself was converted into the bowling alley seen in this original photograph.
This original photograph is a microcosm of 1940s Nanaimo on the cusp of change. In the background stands the Malaspina Hotel, surrounded by the cars of the visitors it was intended to attract. In the foreground looms the post office – one of Nanaimo's earliest buildings, destined to be demolished in 1954.
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With the rise of the car and the subsequent ease of travel, Nanaimo began to orient itself towards the tourist market. The Malaspina was iconic of Nanaimo's optimism and open-mindedness. Built by a group of businessmen, the hotel embodied civic pride, raising money with adverts calling on citizens to "Invest in Nanaimo" and calling this investment a "Civic Duty".1 The hotel, originally named the Nanaimo Community Hotel, opened in 1927. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the hotel's embrace of modernity was confirmed by the opening of local radio show CHUB, which operated out of the Malaspina banquet room until 1968.
In the foreground of this photograph stands the Nanaimo post office, designed by Thomas Fuller and completed in 1884. In the 50s the city was advised that a new federal building would replace the old building. Some Nanaimoites defended the post office, and the Daily Free Press quoted city engineer W.A. Owen's plea to preserve the old building: "Is there no last minute persuasion that can be directed to avert the destruction of this splendid building...? The Post Office building is a building that has been very intimately tied to Nanaimo's history for 65 years. It is a landmark that can never be repeated."2
Despite resistance, the post office was pulled down in 1954, and replaced by the new Post Office and Federal Building, which opened in 1956. The building, designed by Chief Architect E.A. Gardner, is another beautiful manifestation of the International Modern architectural style that produced so many of Nanaimo's 50s facades.
How appropriate to finish this tour with a gas station – the quintessential symbol of the post war boom.
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The advance of the automobile was extremely rapid in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1907 there was only 175 cars registered in all of BC. By 1920 this had leapt to 18,000 and continued to grow exponentially. By 1930 there were 100,000 cars in the province and by 1950, over 270,000. The gas station in this photograph is typical of the type of building that serviced the automotive sales and services industry in Nanaimo from the 1920s to the 1960s.1
The building in the original photograph is still visible today beneath its contemporary cladding. When it was built it was cutting edge – its industrial take on the International Modern style reflecting the industry's mechanical roots. Although in the twenty-first century we are used to buildings being setback to allow for parking space, this design choice was also fairly new when the gas station was built.
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1. The Post-War Boom
1. Patrick A Dunae, Excelsior! History of a Credit Union 1946-1996 (Oolichan Books, 1996), 10.
2. Penny Tinkler and Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, "Feminine Modernity in Interwar Britain and North America: Corsets, Cars and Cigarettes" (Journal of Women's History, Vol 20, No 3, Fall 2008).
3. Jan Peterson, Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition 1920-1967 (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing Company, 2006), 140.
4. Dunae, Excelsior, 10.
5. Peterson, Harbour City, 29.
6. Dunae, Excelsior, 10.
2. The Depression's Effects
1. George Woodcock, Picture History of British Columbia, 88.
2. Woodcock, Picture History of British Columbia, various.
3. Jan Peterson, Harbour City, 102.
4. The Modern Aesthetic
1. City of Nanaimo, "Nash Hardware" (Online).
5. The Nanaimo Credit Union
1. Dunae, Excelsior!, 11.
7. The Power of Shopping
1. Tinkler and Warsh, "Feminine Modernity in Interwar Britain and North America".
2. Dunae, Excelsior!, 25.
3. Peterson, Harbour City, 198.
11. The Daily Free Press
1. Spencer Anderson, "Daily newspaper has long, storied history in Nanaimo," Nanaimo Daily News, Jan. 26, 2016 (online).