Post by Debbie Thompson, Diorama and Collections Technician
Dioramas are incredible works of “science meets art”. Planning the layout, construction and content often takes years, with a tremendous amount of research and collaboration with curators, diorama artists, carpenters, and electricians. Volunteers are also a vital part of the making of dioramas; they take on the mammoth task of hand painting individual leaves. But what happens after the fanfare of the grand opening? What happens as time passes by? There are just a few people to keep a close eye on them, monitoring them for insects, rodents, dust, and repairs.
As Diorama and Collections Technician, I am one of those people. One of my main tasks is the maintenance and repair of the dioramas. Many people, of all ages, want to know if what they see in a diorama is real or not. The temptation to reach in and just test a blade of grass, flower, or a leaf on a tree is enticing. Sometimes, damages occur as a result. Then it’s time for repairs.
Along the fence of the rye field diorama is a thin section of prairie. All the tall grasses and flowers are within reach of visitors, and over time, the combination of accidental and intentional handling had led to the degradation of this section of the diorama. What was once a tall grass prairie has been beaten down to a matted mass of broken, unrecognizable stems.
Knowing where to collect the plant materials, receiving permission to collect in that area, ensuring what I’m collecting isn’t endangered nor threatened, and then processing the plant materials to preserve them is only the first step in repairing the damage. Once the plant material is preserved, its original colours have faded, so the plants must be painted “back to life”. Before the plants were even picked, detailed notes on colour are taken so when the plant is painted, it resembles its living counterpart.
Once the plant materials are painted, then it’s time for the repairs.
This piece of the diorama has been removed from along the fence that is easily accessible to visitors. The foam base had been painted a dirt colour, and originally it had clumps of tall grasses and flowers. But now, the plant material lies broken.
I removed all the broken grasses and stems, revealing a few of the original stumps of grass clumps (green arrows). However, these clumps cannot be reused and so must be removed.
All the grass clumps are removed with a hammer and chisel (yellow arrows). Not only would it look unnatural to have broken grass clumps, but a level surface to work with is needed for the repairs. The exposed white ethafoam will have to be painted back to a “dirt” colour.
Here you can see that the exposed ethafoam has been painted a dirt colour and then allowed to dry (blue arrow). In the aluminum trays is a special solution that the grasses are soaking in (orange arrow). The soaked grass clumps are placed in the chiseled out areas. When the solution dries, it dries clear and hard, cementing the grass clumps in place. This will in time have to be removed the same way, with hammer and chisel, as damages build up.
Here is a newly repaired section of prairie, with Little Blue Stem (purple arrow ), Stipa (another type of prairie grass, green arrow) and Slender Goldenrod flowers (grey arrows). Extra dirt was placed between the newly installed grasses, with sun bleached grass debris sprinkled over top.
From start to finish, this one piece took just over 2 hours to repair. In all, there were 9 pieces that had to be repaired in this fashion.
Many of the dioramas are composed of real, once living plant materials that have been responsibly harvested and preserved using different chemicals and techniques. Examples of these types of plants include the aspens in the rye field and elk dioramas and mosses and spruces in the Boreal Gallery. However, the green, living looking plants are made of plastic, such as the many plant species in the wolf den diorama. And then there are combinations, like a real stem but plastic flowers, such as the Black-Eyed Susans in the rye field diorama.
I hope this blog gives you a better understanding of what goes into maintaining the dioramas at the Manitoba Museum.
Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
If you want to see the blood pressure rise in a conservator, display really big, historically significant, breakable objects at least ten feet off the ground. It’s the next phase in our Bringing Our Stories Forward capital gallery renewal project, and the conservation team has moved to treating artifacts for the Winnipeg Gallery set to open in the fall of 2019. The objects going on display are not only monumental in size, but genuine monuments from some of the city’s most iconic architectural buildings.
Remember the second old city hall? For anyone born after 1962, probably not, as this was the year the building was demolished. But that’s OK! Before the wrecking ball came crashing down to make way for the new modern city hall, the museum was given two large stained glass windows that stood above the main entryways. These beautiful stained glass objects measure approximately nine feet wide by four feet tall and weigh a little over 100 pounds. Being so large, and obviously fragile in nature, you can see why a conservator, who repairs artifacts daily, becomes hesitant when they are handed design drawings of one of these windows being displayed above the entrance to the new Winnipeg Gallery.
So what’s the big deal? No matter the size, all artifacts are prone to deterioration. The issue that was assessed for our chosen window is that over the last one hundred years the glass on the window has begun to slump and a visible concave shape has formed in the object, as well as several cracks and some areas of loss. In order to reverse this damage, we teamed up with Prairie Studio Glass who will help us with the restoration process. The first big step was moving the nine foot wide window from our basement storage, to the loading dock, onto a trailer and safely transported to Prairie Studio Glass’s workshop twelve blocks away where they can begin to dismantle each piece before putting it back together again – did I mention that this all needed to be done without causing more damage?
Moving the stained glass window out of basement storage. © Manitoba Museum
Our second big artifact preparation is what we like to call the Eaton’s lintel. This structure once resided on Portage Avenue as part of the exterior facade of the downtown Eaton’s department store (1905 – 2003), which after demolition became the home of our beloved Winnipeg Jets. Spanning seventeen feet in length, weighing approximately 5,000 pounds, composed of 17 separate limestone blocks, and three brass fixtures, it is the largest and heaviest artifact going into the new gallery. Currently located in our off-site storage facility, groundwork for this object will include construction of an engineered mount to support the weight of stones, pre-assembly of all the pieces (to make sure everything fits!) and general cleaning of the limestone and brass surfaces.
Once this is complete the lintel will be moved to the museum, carted across the galleries and installed in its new home. Again, a lot of moving around here!
No matter the size of the artifact, as a conservator we are always up for the challenge of preserving our biggest or littlest objects. Stay tuned for part two of this blog which will capture some of the treatment work performed on both of these monumental pieces.
Post by Karen Sereda, Collections Registration Associate (Natural History)
The incredible diversity of the Museum’s herbarium can only be credited to the dedicated collectors of botanical specimens, both modern and historical. Recently, while updating some herbarium specimens, I came across some plants in our collection dating from the early part of the 20th century. The importance of these specimens cannot be emphasized enough, as many of them come from locations that are no longer the same as when these collectors visited them. The stories of many of these early Manitoba collectors are fascinating.
John Macoun immigrated with his family to Canada from Ireland in 1850. Being unsatisfied with farming, John took up teaching in 1856 and developed an obsessive interest in botany. Although he had little formal education he became a Professor of Botany and Geology in Ontario in 1868, and in 1872 was recruited for railway surveys in the west. Due largely to his efforts, natural history came to be regarded as an important aspect of these surveys.
John published extensively, and his 1882 publication “Manitoba and the Great North-west” was wildly popular. It was as a botanical field naturalist, however, that Macoun’s abilities shone.
He was able to recognize new plant forms at first sight, and discovered many new species. Many of these were named after him using the specific epithet macounii.
In 1875, William Alfred Burman was persuaded to immigrate to Canada at the age of 18. He studied theology and the natural sciences at university, and in 1880 was sent by the Anglican church to Griswold, now the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, to teach and establish a mission.
While there, he became fluent in and wrote about the language of the Dakotas. As well, he helped to found the Forestry and Horticultural Association of Manitoba which still promotes horticulture on the prairies. Burman later returned to Winnipeg to lecture in botany and biblical literature, plus act as the steward and bursar for St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba. He had a high opinion of both John Macoun and Norman Criddle (to be discussed in Part 2), two amateur, yet extremely competent botanists. Burman was an avid nature lover, and was also an examiner in botany at the University of Manitoba for many years.
Reginald Buller was an eccentric man. Although he went by Reginald, his full name was actually Arthur Henry Reginald Buller.
He was hired by the University of Manitoba in 1904, and the Buller Building is named after him. One of the first six science professors, he taught botany and mycology, and was a prolific researcher.
A perpetual bachelor despite the interests of various women, he never owned a house in Winnipeg, but lived in various downtown hotels his 40 years in Manitoba. Buller was a serious billiards player, and also wrote poetry. He especially enjoyed writing limericks such as this one he based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light.
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned home the previous night.
If you are interested in more information about Buller, you can read this article by Dr. Gordon Goldsborough.
Part 2 features the next generation of Manitoba botanists; Norman Criddle, Charles W. Lowe, and Margaret G. Dudley.
Post by Angela May, Conservation Intern
The Collections and Conservation Department hosted Angela May on her 15 week curriculum-based internship between September and December 2018. This internship was the final requirement for Fleming College’s Graduate Certificate in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management.
Before artifacts go on exhibition in the galleries, they come to the conservation lab for assessment and treatment if necessary. Recently I began work on preparing artifacts for the upcoming exhibition, Strike 1919: Divided City, including a streetcar sign. The sign consists of iron, glass and painted fabric. When it came into the lab the metal was corroded and dirty, the glass was covered in dust, and the two rolls of numbers painted on fabric were coated in dirt and many of the numbers had yellow staining.
In order to address these issues the sign first had to be taken apart so that each component could be worked on separately. This was done carefully, without causing any further damage, and also documented to make sure it could be put back correctly when completed.
First, the loose dirt and dust was removed from the iron frame using a brush and vacuum. Some packing peanuts that were caught on the interior of the frame were also removed using tweezers. Next, a fibreglass bristle brush was used to gently remove corrosion from the frame. It was a slow process to remove the corrosion from all sides of both the exterior and interior of the frame, the front of the metal straps that held the glass in place, as well as each little screw that fastened the straps to the frame.
Because the back sides of the metal straps holding in the glass were unpainted, I was able to use the air abrasive machine with plastic media to more easily and quickly lift the corrosion from these pieces.
Once all of the corrosion had been loosened. I again brushed and vacuumed the artifact to lift the dust that had formed from the corrosion being removed. I then “degreased” or lifted the rest of the corrosion still left on the surface with saliva and cotton swabs. The enzymes from the saliva help to lift the corrosion without damaging the painted surface like some solvents would. Science!
This took many, many swabs!
Next I began work on the textile number rolls which were covered in dirt and stains (some of the black paint was also lifting). To lift the dirt, cosmetic and soot sponges were used until they came up clean. Water and Orvus, a near-neutral pH anionic detergent, were tested on the surface to see if the yellow stains could also be lifted, but the paint was soluble in water so no further interventions were pursued.
Finally it was time to clean the glass. To do this, a bath of room temperature water was combined with Orvus until suds were just beginning to form. The glass was placed in the bath and a soft brush was used to wipe off the dust. The glass was then rinsed and the process repeated for a second time. During the second rinse, distilled water with a few drops of acetone were used so that no residues would be left behind on the surface and so that the glass would dry a bit faster.
It was now time to reassemble the artifact. The numbers were rolled back up and fitted back into their slots and the glass with the metal straps screwed back into place.
And there you have it, one clean and rust free (for the most part) streetcar sign. You can see this artifact in the upcoming Strike 1919: Divided City exhibition, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike opening in March 2019.
Post by Nancy Anderson, Collections Management Associate (Human History)
Visitors to the Manitoba Museum are currently enjoying two hockey themed exhibitions – Hockey: The Stories Behind our Passion from the Canadian Museum of History and Manitoba Heart of Hockey developed and produced by the Manitoba Museum. Both exhibitions examine the meaning of hockey in the lives of Canadians as players and their families, coaches, officials, broadcasters, and fans.
One person who literally helps to keep the game running smoothly is the skate sharpener. A trained operator can optimize a player’s performance by skillfully honing the pitch and contour of the blade to match their stride and style. Recently, the Manitoba Museum received a donation of an early skate sharpening machine along with the sign for “Vimy Skate Sharpening” run by Allan Merko.
Allan Merko was a Canadian lad with a passion for hockey. Times were tight growing up in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, so Allan collected bottles to cash in for the deposit in order to pay for his basic equipment – skates, gloves and a stick. After a move to Ethelbert, he played centre for the Ethelbert Eagles and later the Sabres wearing jersey No. 9. His skill and speed on the ice earned him the nickname “Squirrel”. Later, he would take up coaching the younger Ethelbert Oilers team and teach power skating. His daughter fondly remembers growing up as a ‘rink rat’ and hanging out with her dad.
Allan was more than just a player and coach. He also operated the Zamboni and created and maintained the ice at the Ethelbert Arena. Sometimes he flooded the ice between periods in full hockey gear while his team rested in the dressing room! Being mechanically inclined, Allan taught himself how to sharpen skates on an unused machine in the arena thus saving local skaters a 125 km round trip to Dauphin.
Following a move to Winnipeg in the late 1990s, he set himself up in the skate sharpening business at the Vimy Arena in St. James. His love of the game shone through in the service he provided to his customers. Al, as he was known, always remembered their names and preferences. One young customer sent him a note at the end of the season – “Thank you for sharpening my skates all year and thanks for taking an interest in my ringette. I had a great time at Nationals”. Al took the time to listen to parents tell stories of their children’s accomplishments. One mom recalled he would offer “the warmest of hugs especially when …I was run ragged during hockey season.” Sadly, Al passed away in 2012 which coincided with the last year of operation for the Vimy Arena.
The contact between blade and ice sets hockey and ringette apart from other team sports. In arenas and sporting shops across the county, it is the skill of the operator at the skate sharpening machines that keeps the players skating their best.
Post by Janis Klapecki, Collections Management Specialist (Natural History)
The Manitoba Museum receives calls daily inquiring if we are interested in receiving artifacts or specimens for our collections. They may have collected some clam shells while on a family outing to the beach, or have found some “treasure” in Great Aunt Muriel’s attic. We never know what to expect until we actually see the item.
In the spring of 1993, we received a call from a woman near Arborg (Manitoba) asking if we would be interested in receiving a butterfly collection. That may sound unusual to some, but for museum staff that work with insects, it’s a common conversation and potentially a good acquisition. What WAS unusual was where the butterflies were currently being stored…… the caller described that they were in a derelict van on the property they had recently purchased! After hearing this, we imagined the worst and didn’t expect to bring much back to the museum. Dried insect collections are highly susceptible to mould and live insect activity. A collection that is exposed to either of these factors can be completely destroyed within days.
Within days, we were on our way out to an acreage near Arborg. The donor escorted us to the derelict vehicle, and there they were……several old wooden cigar boxes stacked in the back of the van. We carefully opened each box and found most of the insects already pinned, while others were still flat in their collection envelopes. There were some signs of mould, but we accepted all of the collection and drove back to the museum.
Once back at the Museum, the entire collection was placed in our large freezer for pest treatment. This is done to ensure that we aren’t inadvertently bringing in any live insect pests that could damage the Museum’s galleries and collections. When the 2 week freezer treatment period was complete, we started the massive task of inventorying the collection. The collection consisted exclusively of butterfly and moth specimens. There were upwards of 400 expertly pinned specimens with data labels, and approximately another 200 specimens still in their original glassine collection envelopes. As our work progressed further into documenting and cataloguing each individual specimen, we realized that it included some very special and rare specimens.
Among the many specimens of this collection, one species stood out. There were 26 specimens of an extinct butterfly, the Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus xerces; Family Lycaenidae). They were collected in the 1920s by R.F. Sternitzky from the dunes of what is now the Sunset District of San Francisco, CA. This butterfly was endemic to the almost uninhabited coastal sand dunes of this area at that time. The species was first documented in that area in 1852, and is believed to have become extinct by the mid 1940s, when the dunes were scraped clear and houses completely replaced the dunes. Its extinction was directly attributed to urban development and habitat loss that included dune plants that the species relied upon for food and egg laying.
The majority of the butterflies and moths were collected by R.F. Sternitzky in the coastal regions of California in the years ranging from the 1920s to the 1940s. There isn’t a lot of personal information on the web about R.F. Sternitzky, other than he was born in California (1891-1980) and spent a life time collecting mostly butterflies and moths (also some bees, flies, and ants) in parts of California, including the San Francisco Bay area, and in his later years, Arizona. He contributed significantly to Lepidopteran (moth and butterflies) collections and subsequent research as is evidenced by the numerous ecological and taxonomic publications online that refer to his specimens. His specimens are deposited in several large American museum collections including the the Essig Museum of Entomology (University Of California, Berkeley, CA), Bohart Museum of Entomology (University of California, Davis, CA), Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (New Haven, CT), the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC), the Harvard Museum of Natural History (Cambridge, MA), the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY), as well as in Canadian museums such as the Canadian National Collection (Ottawa), and now the Manitoba Museum (Winnipeg).
These specimens, and in fact all specimens of permanent scientific collections all over the world, represent invaluable time capsules of the flora and fauna of that time, and of that space. We cannot go back and reproduce those dune habitats prior to human encroachment and development.
Thankfully the donor of this butterfly collection recognized that these specimens should be inspected by the Museum experts – otherwise they may have ended up in the local dump.
The mystery still remains….
How and why did these specimens arrive in Manitoba? Did the previous owner of the property correspond with R.F. Sternitzky through his ad?
Post by Loren Rudisuela, Conservation Technician
This home chemistry set came into the conservation lab for treatment after being selected for display in the soon to be constructed Winnipeg Gallery which is part of the Museum’s Bringing Our Stories Forward Capital Gallery Renewal Project. The set was acquired by the museum in 1979 and was manufactured by Lotts Bricks Ltd., a toy company based in Waterford, England.
It was noticed during an initial condition report that the cardboard insert was weak, ripped, and warped in several locations and needed to be stabilized before display. Since the cardboard had warped over time, the loose and broken parts would no longer fit together and therefore the cardboard would need to be reshaped before repair could be completed.
The chemistry set consists of a red cardboard box which has a grey blue box adhered to it. There is also a moss green cardboard insert which holds the pieces of the set in place. There are twelve cardboard canisters with pop-off metal lids, and four glass bottles with metal screw-on lids. All of these containers still have their labelled chemicals inside. There is a small glass tube with a cork stopper which containing purple coloured litmus paper. Hidden under the cardboard insert is a small envelope labelled ‘Litmus Paper’ which has two pink papers inside. Lastly, there is an orange rubber tube with a glass end covered in a black coating.
In the conservation lab, the set was disassembled and the individual parts were examined. In general all surfaces of the set were dusty and covered in grime. The red outer box was very stable but the moss green cardboard insert was ripped in several areas and the structure was warped. The canisters and glass bottles have small areas of corrosion on the metal lids.
The first step was to clean every surface of the set. This involved brushing all the components with a soft natural hair brush which loosened dust off the surface and allowed the dust to be carefully vacuumed away . The cardboard and canisters were further cleaned by gently rubbing eraser bits over the surfaces to pick up grime and loosen ingrained dirt.
The most complicated step of the treatment was reshaping the cardboard insert. The insert was reshaped by misting the surface with distilled water, causing the paper structure to relax, which allowed for the manual repositioning of the cardboard to the original position. The insert was placed onto custom cut wood blocks which were covered in absorbent paper (blotter paper). The wood form was clamped and weighed down which prevented the cardboard from deforming during the drying process.
After a week, the cardboard insert was dry and removed from the wood form. The cardboard was then repaired by reattaching the loose sections and reinforcing ripped areas with light-weight mending paper and conservation grade cellulose based adhesive. The ripped cardboard was further repaired on the front of the insert by adhering tinted light-weight mending paper to breaks in the structure.
Once everything was stable and dry the insert was set back into the red box and finally all the components were set back into place.
You will be able to see this home chemistry set in the new Winnipeg Gallery when it opens in the fall of 2019.
Matthew Gowdar, Collections and Conservation Assistant
This summer, I was given the amazing opportunity to work at the Manitoba Museum through the Young Canada Woks program. From the end of May until mid-August, I held the full-time position of Collections and Conservation Assistant.
While this was not my first experience working at a museum or archive, the Manitoba Museum was certainly a step up for me, in terms of scale. As a History major at the University of Manitoba, this opportunity was especially exciting, as it fell directly within my field of study.
Each day started with a gallery walk through the whole museum. I would check for garbage and damage to exhibits, clean the glass cases and monitor humidity levels each morning. I was also given two large projects to undertake at the outset of my term. The first was to sort, organize and create a digital database for over three thousand research photos, which had been collected in cardboard boxes throughout the past decades. Despite their fascinating nature and relevance to the ongoing Bringing Our Stories Forward Capital Gallery Renewal Project, searching through these photos in their original state was impossible. Therefore, my goal was to make the collection easy to browse, as well as searchable for specific subjects via the digital database.
Using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, I created a series of binders, each assigned to a different subject. Each individual photograph corresponded to a different record in the database, which contained information such as date, photographer and a brief description. Although not quite complete, this system perfectly meets the project’s original goals.
My second major task was a total revamp of the Manitoba Museum’s Institutional archives. These boxes of documents were stored on dangerously unstable shelving which did not use the space efficiently, and contained a wealth of irrelevant material. The first step was to clean out the room as much as possible, followed by the disposal of the old shelving. New shelving was ordered and assembled. Each box was culled for material which could be discarded, and then placed on the new shelving. While this sounds simple enough, when one has over two hundred boxes to evaluate it becomes more complicated. The project was a great success, and resulted in a substantial increase in free space within the archive room.
I was lucky enough to work alongside a group of intelligent and hardworking colleagues, who’s passion for museum work was evident from day one. The support and direction I received from both Cindy Colford, Manager of Collections and Conservation, and Roland Sawatsky, Curator of History, was invaluable. I also would like to thank Loren Rudisuela, Carolyn Sirett, Nancy Anderson, Cortney Pachet, and Amelia Fay and numerous other staff members for all the help they provided me over the last few months. The Manitoba Museum truly employs a special group of people.
Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)
Fifteen year old Eleanor Geib and eighteen year old James “Jimmy” Brady met at a dance hall on Strood Avenue in North Kildonan.
They began courting and after Jimmy enlisted with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, exchanged love letters while he was stationed on garrison duty in Bermuda and Jamaica at the beginning of WWII. His parting words in nearly every letter were “With all my love for you and you only” and he signed many of them “Diamond Jim”, a reference to a popular comic strip of the era, according to his younger sister, Dorothy.
When Jimmy returned to Winnipeg on furlough in October 1941, the couple married at her parents’ home on Bonner Avenue, with her sister Marguerite and his friend Harry Robinson, a fellow Grenadier, serving as witnesses. Within days of marrying, Jimmy and the rest of the Winnipeg Grenadiers were shipped out to Hong Kong.
Jimmy wrote to Eleanor about his journey through western Canada and the uneventful voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he sent his new bride a beautiful green silk pyjama set and slippers, along with letters about life abroad.
Expecting a quiet assignment at the former British colony, the Canadian military was surprised when the Japanese army descended on the island of Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. After a 17 day fight, dubbed the Battle of Hong Kong, the Canadians capitulated on Christmas Day and Canadian, British and Indian survivors were taken as prisoners of war of the Japanese for the next 44 months. Private James Brady did not survive the battle, dying in combat on December 19, 1941. In the ensuing chaos, his wife, mother and sisters did not receive word of his passing until January of 1943.
Following the war, widows and mothers of the war dead were given the Memorial Cross medal. Eleanor, widowed at age 17, fastened her engagement ring to the purple silk ribbon of the medal she received and stored it away with the letters, pyjamas, photographs and other objects she had saved from her brief marriage.
Eleanor went on to marry again and had four children with her second husband. She spoke little of her first love, but even after her passing in 2005, her daughters kept the trove of mementos safe in her stead. Last summer, after learning of the Manitoba Museum’s Hong Kong Veterans collection on the local CTV morning show, her daughters made the decision to donate Eleanor’s treasures to the museum. These objects complement the collection in a unique, albeit tragic, way: we have very few materials from Winnipeg Grenadiers who did not survive the Battle of Hong Kong and subsequent internment. The family also connected us with Jimmy’s surviving sister, Dorothy, who came to the museum to view the new acquisitions –she commented that Jimmy always had excellent handwriting and was a prolific letter writer. Dorothy imparted more information about Jimmy’s short life for our records and donated the Memorial Cross medal her mother had received 70 years earlier, after the loss of her only son.
These new acquisitions have been carefully catalogued and photographed, detailing the story of Jimmy and Eleanor, his death and the events that followed. His story continues through the preservation of his written word and the objects he lovingly chose for his young bride. All his love for her and her only.
Post by Nancy Anderson, Collections Management Associate (Human History)
You may have heard the old adage, attributed to either Napoleon or Frederick the Great, an army travels on its stomach. The saying attests to the importance of military forces being well-provisioned. A healthy food supply is especially critical for those recovering from illness or injury. Military histories rarely document the key role young women, such as dietitian Nora Mary Attree, played during World War II. Recently, Mary Attree’s niece, Janice Attree-Smith, donated a collection of materials documenting Mary’s war-time service.
Mary was born in 1912 in Sapton, Manitoba, to a family with deeps roots in Manitoba. Her great-great grandfather, “Orkney” John Inkster, came to Red River in 1821 in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Mary’s family describes her as a friendly, unassuming woman with a great sense of humour. She was a good listener and someone they could always count on.
Mary attended the University of Manitoba and seems to have made the most of university life. An article in the Winnipeg Free Press mentions that she assisted as the home economics students entertained in the practice house at the tea hour and played interclass basketball that evening. Mary graduated with a BSc in 1931 and won the gold medal in Home Economics in 1931. She went on to post graduate training in Dietetics at Victoria General Hospital and was working in Regina at the opening of WWII.
In the fall of 1940, Mary Attree applied to enlist. In a letter to her parents she said “the experiences in a hospital of that kind, would be invaluable. As you know I do not mind hard work – and heaven knows there will be plenty of that! If I were to accept, it would merely be changing from one position to another, and actually has little or no danger attached to it. Anyway, who wants to touch an irate cook!” She was appointed an officer in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps with whom she would serve in Nova Scotia, then England, France, Belgium, and Holland before returning home to Canada to receive her discharge on August 21, 1945.
Lt. Attree served as a dietitian at No. 8 Canadian General hospital where she “supervised the cooking and distribution of food to approximately 25,000 patients, along with the unit personnel” in one ten-month period. In a letter written by Capt. A. H. Ernswell, he described how she took “care of the feeding problems of a 600 bed hospital, personnel and patients under some very trying conditions”. Today, a 600 bed hospital would be the second largest in Manitoba. During her military career Mary Attree received the oak leaf insignia for mention in dispatches and she was awarded the Royal Red Cross Class 2 (ARRC) medal. A generous and loyal friend, Mary forged strong bonds with her fellow nursing staff members – friendships she would retain throughout her life.
In 1947 Mary began 26 year career as with the RCMP as a Senior Messing Officer heading up a staff of six dietitians across the country. You could say that her career mirrored her military service as she continued to support the work of the force by keeping them well provisioned. Mary was quoted as saying that the Mounties are “healthy men, and we try to keep them that way.” Initially she would have been considered a civil servant; the civilian member category of the force was not created until 1960. In 1966 she was one of only 100 women working within the male dominated organization. Her family described her as a feminist ahead of her time.
Sources: Winnipeg Free Press, October 26, 1929, p. 48; Brandon Sun, September 22, 1966, pg. 8; Documents and biographical notes provided by Janice Attree-Smith.