In Conversation IV: Preserving and Passing-On the Legacies of Canada’s First World War

By Sarah Glassford and Jonathan Vance

This post is the product of a Q&A email exchange between Dr. Jonathan Vance, a professor in the Department of History at The University of Western Ontario, and Dr. Sarah Glassford, an archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. We met at Western as student and professor in the autumn of 1997; our paths crossed again two decades later when Sarah returned to Western and volunteered to help organize the diverse ephemera Jonathan had acquired for his collection of world war-related material.

This post draws no broad conclusions, but instead attempts to shed light on the roles of scholars and collectors in preserving and passing on the legacy of Canada’s First World War, as seen through the work of one academic historian.

Our Conversation (More or Less)

Now that we’ve reached the centenary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, I find myself mulling over losses and legacies – all the things left behind, and those that are passed on. In the context of this series of blog posts for, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of material culture that have survived (or not) from the First World War, but also about the role played by historians and collectors in conveying and safeguarding aspects of the war years for current and future generations.

I want to start by asking about your efforts to preserve and pass-on some of the tangible legacies of the war, through your Ley and Lois Smith War, Memory and Popular Culture Research Collection. For those who aren’t familiar with it, a good description might be “a whole lot of mostly-Canadian war stuff.” It’s an eclectic and ever-growing collection that includes published memoirs and histories, newspapers, sheet music, postcards, pamphlets, maps, photographs, and ephemera, from both the First and Second World Wars – and it keeps a steady rotation of co-op and graduate students busy, helping to maintain it.

Historians often become a little obsessed with their research topics, and many of us accumulate substantial numbers of books and articles on our pet subjects. But very few amass the volume of primary documents and artifacts that you’ve collected. How did that happen?


I suppose all historians are packrats. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been picking up strange wartime memorabilia at garage and rummage sales, from the garbage, at auctions, library sales. After I had accumulated a certain amount, it occurred to me that I should either make something useful of it or stop filling my house with random artifacts.


That combination of “I have no room to keep it myself” and “maybe it could be useful to others” is responsible for a lot of unsolicited donations to archives and museums. Have you been able to make use of the material as you hoped?


I started using it when I was teaching and it went over really well – there’s something about being able to touch things from the past – relics? So when I was lucky enough to be awarded a Canada Research Chair, I used some of that funding to start the larger collection – and then the Smiths came along with a very generous donation that allowed us to take it to another level.

Inside one of three offices housing the Ley & Lois Smith War, Memory and Popular Culture Collection at Western University. Photo: J. Vance, 2019.  

Do you still rely on rummage sales and the like to find the items that become part of the collection? And is there a guiding mandate for what you do or don’t collect?


We still get a lot of material from junk shops, flea markets, church sales – eBay is also an excellent source, although the prices there are climbing! Because the collection is becoming more well known, we’re also starting to get more donations. We’re fairly easy to find on-line, so if people come across things that they don’t want to keep but can’t bear to throw out, they can find us and see that we offer a safe home where the material will be used and appreciated.

We try to keep our acquisitions to wartime paper and printed matter, rather than artifacts, simply because of the storage problems involved. If we get artifacts in, typically we will hang on to them until we can place them with a museum or another institution where they can be properly displayed and stored.


And the flip side of that is your special interest in collecting the trivial little odds and ends that normally do not fit the mandates of traditional archives or museums – things like envelopes featuring patriotic postmarks, pork producer advertisements featuring pigs dancing their way to the battlefields (presumably to be converted to bacon rations at some point!), or previous incarnations of Remembrance Day poppies.

Why the interest in these bits and pieces? What do you see in them that makes them worth preserving and why do you think they’ve survived this long?


Historians spend lots of time trying to come up with rational explanations for things. But things don’t always happen for rational reasons, or maybe it’s better to say that they rarely happen for rational reasons. So, I’m always looking for documents that capture the irrational side of the human experience – the odder the better!


Do people other than you make use of all these odds and ends?


We get a lot of requests from media outlets for certain items. Most recently, the CBC show “Back in Time for Dinner” used one of our Second World War recipe books for an early episode and some of our knitting patterns have been used on the new cable channel Makeful. We often have items out for loan to other institutions – like the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy.

I tend to use it as a great source of illustrative material for talks I give to community groups, and as teaching aids. The collection works really well that way because I can take into the classroom 15 different children’s books from the First World War, or news photos or illustrated magazines, whatever – and the students can work with primary documents in discussion.

Another view of one of the three offices housing the Ley & Lois Smith War, Memory and Popular Culture Collection at Western University. Photo: J. Vance, 2019.

As Rose Morton mentioned in my conversation with her about elementary school students visiting archives to research Great War soldiers, there is an added significance to hands-on contact with the past in our digital age because our lives are increasingly filled with things that are not “real” in that way.

However, there are definite advantages to digital collections when it comes to access. What’s the relationship between the Ley and Lois Smith collection physically located in the History Department at Western, and the material on your Wartime Canada website?


We have literally thousands of items in the physical collection, and Wartime Canada allows us to showcase just a fraction of it. It takes time to scan and upload each document to the website, but we try to keep it balanced so that it gives a good impression of the breadth of the collection, rather than the depth. That way, if people know what kind of material we have, they can make special requests for things – and in most cases, we have what they’re looking for.


Both the physical and online collections include material from both world wars. What are some of your favourite Great War items in the collection?


I’m a sucker for the sheet music – a couple of years ago, we hired a wonderful local singer named Kelsea Meredith to record some of the music and she did a beautiful job of capturing the sound of the era. When she first started to sing, I got a real lump in my throat! I love the Christmas cards too – we do a display in Western’s library every year of new Christmas cards that we’ve acquired. But I love some of the stuff that’s absolutely unique – like the records of an Ottawa-area Military Service Act tribunal that I got on eBay.


Are there any items you wish you could add to the collection, but haven’t (yet) found?


I’d love to get more stuff from children – we have postcards written by children to their relatives at the front and some school exercise books, and it would be great to find more of that. It’s wonderful to be able to see the war as kids saw it, not as adults thought that they did (or should) see it.


As historians of childhood know only too well, so many artifacts of childhood are inherently ephemeral that they are more likely to be lost than passed on, over time. When they turn up they are always exciting finds.

Now I want to switch gears a little, from Jonathan Vance-the-collector, to Jonathan Vance-the-historian. A lot has changed over the two decades since we first met at Western, but you still teach a (much-revised) version of the First World War course I took with you many years ago. You’ve also devoted a great deal of your scholarly output as a researcher and writer to the First World War. What’s behind your enduring personal interest in that conflict?


My grandfather died just as I was starting to focus on history – it was a year or so after I had done a bicycle tour of parts of the Western Front. I always regret not having talked to him more about his experiences during four years with the Canadian Field Artillery, and once I got into it, I realized that I had missed golden opportunities to talk to other people who populated my childhood. The pharmacist who filled my prescriptions when I was a kid had been in Siberia with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. The woman down the street had lost her husband in 1918 and never remarried. My great uncle had won the MC
[Military Cross] at Vimy Ridge. My grandmother’s brother had died of wounds in 1915. So my fascination with the First World War is a kind of penance – making up for all the opportunities I missed to hear about the war from their perspective.


That also helps explain your interest in memory – especially the collective expressions of remembrance or commemoration referred to as “public memory,” which outlast (and sometimes evolve to the point of contradicting) the personal memories of participants in events like the Great War. I remember a conference you helmed back in November 2011 (“The Great War: From Memory to History,”) that revolved around this question of what it meant for the researching, writing, and commemoration of the First World War that the last people to have firsthand memories of it were nearly all deceased.


The death of the last person with a living memory of the First World War puts even more focus on the residue of history that survives – and we as historians need to be more open to different kinds of sources, sources that might previously have been seen as frivolous or irrelevant.


The hours I spent cataloguing your wartime ephemera in 2017-2018 certainly left me with a richer sense of how the two world wars infiltrated daily life on the home front. I already knew it intellectually, but being immersed in those “frivolous or irrelevant” physical remnants of wartime society and culture hammered home just how pervasive the influence was.

And, returning to your interest in public memory, your Sir John A. Macdonald Prize[1]-winning book Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (UBC Press, 1997), is all about the ways that shocking and devastating wartime experiences were framed by or translated into forms that made more sense to Canadians at the time, and how those have influenced memory and commemoration in this country since 1919. I wonder what the neighbours and family members from your childhood who lived through the Great War would have made of your arguments in that book? [*Readers can get a quick introduction via this December 2012 keynote address about Canadian commemorations of the Great War at the History Forum hosted by Canada’s History magazine.]

For that matter, what do you now make of your arguments in that book? If you were to do a 25th anniversary reissue, would you add or change anything, based on subsequent reflection and research?


Of course there are the things that I got wrong that it would be nice to correct – as I read the work of other historians, I keep track of the corrections I would do based on their research. I wouldn’t change anything in a larger, interpretive sense – I haven’t read anything since 1997 that has convinced me to alter any of the larger arguments I made in the book. I’m not sure whether that’s the mark of a good book, or simply arrogance. And I wouldn’t change anything in the writing – of everything I’ve written, it’s one of the few things that I can still bear to read!


A book that has aged gracefully and arguments that still hold up in their author’s eyes? That sounds like a pretty good legacy for a historian to leave.


– – – – – – – –  

Dr. Jonathan Vance is a Distinguished University Professor and J.B. Smallman Chair in the Department of History at The University of Western Ontario, where he has taught since 1997. He formerly held the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture, and his latest book is A Township at War (WLU Press, 2018), which examines the Great War’s impact on rural Canadians as seen through southern Ontario’s East Flamborough township.

Dr. Sarah Glassford has a PhD in Canadian History and is the author of Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017) and co-editor of A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC Press, 2012). In 2018 she completed her Masters of Library and Information Science, which she currently puts to use as a Government Records Archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

This post is part of’s ongoing project on the First World War: “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”. Launched in 2014, the series is concluding in 2019. All the posts in the series continue to be accessible here.


[1] As of the 2018 Canadian Historical Association (CHA) Annual Meeting, this prize has been renamed the CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize.


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One thought on “In Conversation IV: Preserving and Passing-On the Legacies of Canada’s First World War

  1. Liz Tobin

    I’ll be continuing my personal quest for archival sources at least until November 2020. I started my research re WWI legacy in Canadian archives around the time the Imperial War Museum launched Lives of the First World War. All I had was a small amount of evidence that one of my grandmothers was a munitions worker in London UK. I thought it would be quite simple to find a treasure chest of the experience of Canadian women in similar roles through anecdotes, photos identifying women workers, ephemera, reminiscences etc. in Canadian archives. I’ve had to focus on Hamilton and Toronto archive and public libraries resources, and certainly not in a rigorous academic fashion but it has been disappointing. Over the past two years I’ve begun to realise that even if I do find more tangible evidence of the mainstream experience the “voices” and images of many other women may not emerge.
    I believe that the experiences of First Nations women, women of colour and the women who were interned or affected by internment of family members were likely to have been even more traumatic.

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