Years later, discarded ink bottles still have an eloquent tale to tell

Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our letter-writing ancestors.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

There is a certain irony in the fact that 100 years ago, two out of 10 persons in North America could not read or write. Yet if it were not for the personal diaries, journals, and letters of our pioneer folk, much of the history of that period would have been lost.

The people who wrote these accounts of day to day life were not professional people with academic education. Far from it. They were probably persons with only a few years of primary school or, at best, the equivalent of a high school education. Whether writing from a desk or a kitchen table, or while they were on the move, off to adventures in the wilds of British Columbia, the letters and other written material they created have provided all the colour and character of another age.

It was the age of pen and ink, both of which are portable objects. One of my hobbies, in years past, was digging for bottles. While living in Clinton I found a good number of old ink bottles. The variety of these little treasures was a fascination. The colours ranged from translucent blues and greens to pinks and yellows.

I found the bottles in the garbage dumps long abandoned, and I found them on hillsides around the village. Those hillsides might have been bare of trees and shrubs a hundred years before, but time had seeded ponderosa pine and wild rose bushes around the refuse of early pioneers. Given my awakening interest in journalism, it’s not surprising that the ink bottles became a treasured collection.

The locations I found these ink bottles in were something of a surprise. They were covered over with bunch grass and a little dirt, and I found more than a few under or near those pole fences on the boundaries of ranches. The irony is that in an age with illiteracy as commonplace as it was – when a man could find work in almost every trade without the benefit of being able to read or write – ink bottles, the kind used in schools and the kind carried by travellers in their knapsacks as they plodded up and down the old Cariboo Road, were so numerous. Not as numerous, one might add, as liquor bottles, but surfacing enough over time to make a collection that could be handed over to a museum, or sold to another collector.

I could picture, in my mind’s eye, the resting traveller seated on the ground, leaning against the pole fence, taking out of his sack the ink bottle, pen, and some paper, and penning a letter home to Ontario, or New Brunswick, or some foreign country thousands of miles away. Then, if the ink bottle ran dry, he would toss the bottle with a flipping gesture into the grass, and go on his way, probably leaving his letter in a rural post office.

The bottles were not equipped with the screw caps you see today. They were hand blown glass creations, with the air bubbles inside the glass. Their square-shouldered, dignified, simple forms contained one thing: the ability to communicate the thoughts and – very probably – the hopes and dreams in the minds of their users. The lowly ink bottle did all that.

But the point of this article is not strictly about bottles. It is about the manner in which our pioneers communicated. My late brother Geoffrey was a keen collector of postal memorabilia, including postcards and letters, some of them written from India, Pakistan, Europe and other foreign places to persons in England and North America. Collectors of items like this meet in cities, look at the displays set up in hotels, buy and sell and trade, and exchange ideas and thoughts about what they collect. The fascinating aspect of this activity is that they were trading and exhibiting the thoughts and opinions of persons who had long since passed on.

This leads me to the importance of literacy, or the ability to communicate in writing. I don’t think it can be stressed too much that literacy remains the most important tool a person can possess. But four out of 10 Canadians are said to be either semi-literate, or illiterate: unable to read a newspaper, a telephone book, or an instruction manual with the full complement of understanding.

I attended two literacy workshops over the course of the years. One of them, held in Williams Lake, was a real eye opener. The question raised was glaringly obvious. Why, given the years they spent in our school systems, did so many people not have the literacy skills that most of our old-timers and pioneers possessed after only a few years of primary school education?

The cause, it was stated, was the method used to teach a whole generation how to read and write. The old phonics system, I was told by a teacher way back in the late 1950s, was a “long and laborious method”, and easier methods, presumably, had been found.

Be that as it may. I recall that, while working at UBC, the departments were informed that graduates from our high schools entering the faculty of engineering did not have the literacy skills required. English 101 was added to the curriculum of these students.

My grandparents and parents had only primary school educations. But they wrote with a literate hand, were great readers, and wrote letters about their lives and their times that were interesting to read.

We can never undervalue the power of the ability to communicate, not only in reading and writing, but verbally too. Without those skills, young people and older people miss whole generations of knowledge.