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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 18: Fur Trade Subscription Libraries

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The men living at fur trading posts, like the one at Fort Chipewyan, were often thoughtful, well-educated men. They liked to keep abreast of current events, so reading was an important pastime during the long, cold winters. Many posts accumulated literally hundreds of books and magazines.

As Michael Payne, of Alberta Historic Sites Services, explains, by the mid-1800s, some posts had organized these into subscription libraries.

They're a very interesting phenomenon. These subscription, or lending, libraries were set up where company employees donated a portion of their salaries every year to the purchase of books and magazines - popular magazines of the time like Punch and Chambers Journal, also newspapers as well, largely from England.

The officer in charge of the library would collect the subscription funds and place the orders. Then, agents of the Hudson's Bay Company would purchase the books from dealers in London and ship them to the posts the following year.

They would be sent out on a yearly basis, on the annual supply ship that went to York Factory, and then were carried by canoe or York Boat all the way into the interior to go to these posts where people could read them over the winter.

By the 20th century, the Hudson's Bay Company ordered the posts to clear out the collections. As historian Michael Payne indicates, the remains of 200 years of dog-eared reading material were bundled off to Winnipeg and London.

Many of these books are now owned by the Hudson's Bay Company archives, which has a library of books as well. Many of which are inscribed with the names of fur traders written in the flyleaf, and also sometimes stamped with names like Fort Chipewyan or York Factory library or Fort Vancouver library.

Going through this archival material and the men's journals gives a very different idea of what the fur traders' lives were like.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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