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The Technical Book on the Prairies to 1950

Paper Presented at the Prairie Print Culture Colloquium
by Diana Patterson
Mount Royal College

Why technical books?

Canada was settled mainly during the 19th -century when the everyman’s technical book became popular with an increasing number of readers. Many of Canada’s settlers had not been farmers before their emigration. The population, particularly in the Prairies, came to own large plots of land. Hence they were at a considerable distance from someone else with the skills to grind grain or build wagons. How was a newcomer, coming from a place where there were skilled trades and infrastructure, to learn all the techniques of farming and building and repairing to make a life in a strange land? How was someone to set up a business to supply the farmer with goods and services? Much of this information was available in books, mainly from the UK, the US and the Canadian government, local agencies or the CPR.

Besides the fact that the existence of self-help books was vital to some settlers in Canada, the technical book has become an almost unnoticed but tremendous force in publishing in the late 20th century. People are becoming interested in its past. By the end of the 20th century, the largest publisher in the world was (and still is) the US Government Printing Office, publisher of standards and pamphlets on doing practical things such as spraying for insects and filling out tax forms. The Canadian and provincial Governments, under the vague guise of the Queen’s Printer, produce thousands of small-run books and large-run pamphlets. Microsoft is another large, international publisher, both in print and in electronic forms. The history of how the car repair manual changed and grew, the computer manual changed its shape, and how the cookbook developed describes not only the history of technology, but the development of ideas and the changes in social patterns (you can’t get servants to do the job, so you do it yourself) and, of course, it describes the patterns of literacy. As the history of the book matures as a disciples, the history of the technical book is likely to become an important subgenre.

What is a “technical book”?

A technical book, for the purposed of this paper, is one that describes “technology” – where science or theory becomes practical. The most satisfying examples are the books of instructions for using sewing machines, butchering pigs, or building curved staircases. Textbooks on calculus, collections of laws, or scientific discussions of microbes causing flue do not fall within the scope of the technical book as described here, but some books are difficult to classify, such as laws on traffic around parking facilities for businesses planning to add a parade. The technical books discussed here will mainly be chosen as examples typical of what has survived and what seems to have existed but not survived.

TV ManualIt might be said that survival is a particular problem with technical documents.1 Once a piece of equipment is well understood, its use or repair manual is rubbish to most people. Who would keep a 1950 TV repair manual? Who has manuals for the IBM 360, which passed out of use in the 1970s? Thus for every technical document we find, hundreds or thousands may have perished. Another particular problem of technical documents is that some were created with very low print runs. The repair manual for a nuclear reactor is hardly printed in large numbers. Thus we may be able to infer the existence of several books from the existence of a sales catalogue for complex equipment.

Having said that much is missing, I must point out that much exists. I have divided the material I have located into what seem like sensible and chronological categories from the settler’s point of view.

Useful things to know on the prairies.

Two publishers were interested in promoting settlement in the prairies and the rest of Canada: the governments of Canada and, later, the provinces, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. These books gave the general description of the prairie landscape and general settlement information, such as how to apply for property and the size of the usual farm. For instance a 16-page pamphlet by the Calgary District Agricultural Society calls itself District of Alberta : Information for Intending Settlers / compiled by J.G. Fitzgerald. What survives is a second printing that was done in Ottawa: [s.n.] in 1884.2 The library entry claims that there was an earlier printing done in Calgary. Some of these settlement pamphlets were more advertisement than practical handbook, as might be gleaned from such titles as: Get your Canadian Home from the Canadian Pacific: a Handbook of Information Regarding Sunny Alberta and the Opportunities Offered you by the Canadian Pacific Railway in that Province. [Canadian ed.] : Calgary , 1912.3 Canadian Pacific Railway. Dept. of Natural Resources. Get your Canadian home from the Canadian Pacific: a handbook of information regarding sunny Alberta and the opportunities offered you by the Canadian Pacific Railway in that province. [Canadian ed.]: Calgary , 1912. [2], 2_63 numb. columns on 32 p. : ill., double map; 19 x 20 cm. folded to 19 x 10 cm. For “sunny” read “drought-prone” and you have a true handbook, as even the CPR admits. What might have been an version of this book, done only a year earlier is described as by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Colonization Dept.: Settlers' guide : a handbook of information for settlers in the Canadian Pacific Railway irrigation block. Calgary: [s.n.] , 1911.4 Canadian Pacific Railway. Colonization Dept. Settlers' guide : a handbook of information for settlers in the Canadian Pacific Railway irrigation block. Calgary: [s.n.], 1911. 80 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. And just to make clear that all of these were not in English, the CPR published a French invitation for settlement in 1889: La laiterie, la culture, l'elevage du betail et les mines dans le Grand Ouest du Canada. [Winnipeg?: s.n., 1889?].5 Le Grand Ouest in 1889, however, is mainly Alberta, since half of this work’s 60 pages is devoted to that province, and the rest is general information. Such settlement guides can be found for as late as 1939.


There are many pamphlets on general agriculture. I have chosen just a few, all from the federal department of Agriculture in Ottawa. The Prairie Farmer’s Vegetable Garden. by W.C. McKillican and J.H. Copper, 19306 Crop rotations and soil management for the prairie provinces by E.S. Hopkins and S. Barnes, 19287— a work that was probably better appreciated a few years later, when it was too late. Finally, an eternal favourite, no doubt: Snow Utilization in Prairie Agriculture by G.D. Matthews, 1940.8

What should come next in the panorama are manuals on plows and tractors. Looking in research libraries, however, does not yield good results. Such manuals are still being traded among farmers for repairs to recycled machinery. The only book that has surfaced so far is John MacGregor Smith’s Plows and Plowing. 5th rev. ed. Edmonton: university of Alberta College of Agriculture, distributed by Dept. of Extension, University of Alberta, 1935.9 Tractor manuals, which ought to be ubiquitous, are part of the missing material. While there are many histories of the tractor written within the last 50 years, bemoaning the loss of Massey-Ferguson, and the old noisy John Deere before air-conditioning and stereos. The most likely source for tractor manuals has not, yet, been explored: The Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where farm machinery is on display, is repaired, and where the manuals for such machinery are collected in their library.10 We may assume that tractors came, as they do now, with manuals on their operation and repair.

Plants, animals, and agricultural machinery.

After the basic soil and the turning of soil, comes plants and animals on the farm. One fascinatingly modern-sounding cross between report and how-to manual is this one: Prairie agriculture: containing a list of chemical experiments; a series of experiments on the growth of seeds; a description of how plants grow; a sketch of the formation of the prairie soil by water and ice action; an account of forming operations and of crops adapted to Manitoba; a description of diseases of crops, of insects, and of birds; an account with illustrations of the breeds of horses, cattle, sheep, swine and poultry adapted to Manitoba; advantages of mixed farming. Winnipeg: Consolidated Stationery Co. [1890-?]. Originally issued in a series: Manitoba course of agriculture, the second series.11 This series was an early attempt at distance education for the prairie farmer.

In a similar educational mode, but for animals, is Gleason’s veterinary hand-book and system of horse taming: in two parts. edited by Oliver W. Gleason. Chicago: Charles C. Thompson, 191412 and Walter Harvest Peters, Swine questions answered. St. Paul, Minn: Web book publishing co., 1927.13

The symbol of the prairie, the grain elevator, is surprisingly undocumented. Dozens of books written in the 1990s celebrate the beauty and mourn the loss of the prairie sentinel. But very few books discuss how to build a grain elevator. A pamphlet of a mere four pages called Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway Grain Elevators by Stuart Howard of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers was published in 1887. I have not yet looked at this piece, so I cannot say whether it is a how-to document or a report, but its date makes it an interesting piece of evidence because of the plans that follow. So far, three copies of this design manual have come to light on the prairies: Milo Smith Ketchum’s The Design of Walls, Bins and Grain Elevators. New York: McGraw-Hill. The first edition, found at the University of Alberta Library is dated 1907; two copies of the 3rd edition, 1919, were found at the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba.14 Plans of grain elevators published by the Grain Dealer’s Jounal, 4th ed. Chicago is dated 1918. One volume on grain elevators at the University of Alberta is in Ukrainian dated 1907, published in L’viv. Still, considering the ubiquitousness of elevators across the prairies, these are not many sources of plans for building them, and probably not the original plans that sparked the building of them.

The Home.

By the turn of the 20th century there were many ways to obtain the makings of the prairie farm or city house. The farm and all its buildings are described in Frederick Thomas Hodgson’s Light and heavy Timber Framing Made Easy: Balloon Framing, Mixed Framing, Heavy Timber Framing, Houses, Factories, Bridges, Barns, Rinks, Timber-roofs, and all other Kinds of Timber Buildings. Chicago: Drake, 1909.15 Meanwhile the town house with rather elegant features is described in John Wilson’s Advances and Elementary Building Construction. 11th ed. “Trade Supplied by John Heywood, Deansgate and Ridgefield, Manchester, 29 and 30, Shoe Lane, London E.C., 1905.”

PlumbingOnce the house is built, there are all the interior details, such as described by Sewage Disposal for Rural Homes in Saskatchewan. Rev. March, 1928. Regina: Dept of Public Health, 1928.16 And as technology changes, the house needs to be improved, as witnessed by Modernizing Farm Homes: water supply and sewage disposal. [Regina]: Dept of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation [1945].17 After the big job of just getting water and disposing of waste, there is a more delicate job of the plumbing – everything to do with lead, as in Paul N. Hasluck’s Practical Plumbers’ Work. London: Cassell and Company, 1905.

Now it is time to discuss some ghost manuals. Thanks to the work done by Dianne Vallee from the Museum of the Highwood in High River, Alberta, some of the documentation provided to prairie farmers and homeowners by Eaton’s Department Store has been made plain.18 Most Canadians know that the T. Eaton Company catalogue offered house kits, shipped to the closest rail siding. After WWI, Eaton’s Catalogue offered a complete farm – everything but the horses – to returning veterans taking up land offered in the prairie provinces. No assembly instructions for these houses, barns, and milk-sheds or pig pens has yet been dug up. But the Museum of the Highwood does have a binder offered by Eaton’s to hold a complete set pamphlets to aid in gardening, home repairs, and other chores. Neither the binder nor any assembly instructions are in the Eaton’s Archives in Ontario, but clearly, at one time, these were important to settlers on the Prairies.

Sewing machines, and sewing pattern books. To most people, the defining technological advance was the railway. Certainly the prairies were settled along the tracks of the rails. But in terms of technology that touches the average person, possibly the invention of the sewing machine was even more important, in terms of number of readers, particularly. Certainly more people needed sewing machine manuals than needed train operation manuals. And although we can be absolutely certain that prairie people owned and operated sewing machine manuals, the books themselves that survive all show them coming from the U.S. or Montreal. Still, many of these sewing machine manuals have survived, which is unlike most other machinery manuals. The Glenbow has an impressive selection for Singer and other models. One wonders if this manual saving has something to do with the importance of the sewing machine, and the usual owners of those manuals, women. Many pattern books, showing how to make coats, dresses and household items have survived. The Glenbow has an impressive collection of these too.

Book of HobbiesIn addition to sewing, there are many house-based construction and repairs that have been put in books. One easy collection of all this kind of material, from gardening to knitting, is Sid G. Hedges, ed., The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts. London: Odhams Press Limited. [1936].19 The useful repairs and bizarre hobbies, such as making experimental television images, make this book a delight as well as of considerable use. I shall return to this later as well.


Most of the material on roads and bridges are reports rather than how-to manuals. But the examples here are usual not only in being design books, but also in being American. The safety tests on traffic were mainly from the Crowthorne, Berkshire Road Research Laboratory, fascinating though they were, they did not fit within the bounds of this paper. Thus for transportation we can offer: Edmund R. Ricer’s The traffic design of parking garages. Prepared under a grant of the Eno Foundation. Saugatuck, Conn.: Eno Foundation for Highway Traffic Control, 1948.20 General Motors Corporation. Planning automobile dealer properties. Detroit: services Section, General Motors Corp, [1948].21 American Automobile Association. Traffic Engineering and Safety Dept. Parking manual. Washington, D.C.: Traffic engineering & safety department, American Automobile Association [1946].22

There is much more to cover, such as building towns, various mills, oil-petroleum-gas, tools, accounting, hunting, communications (telegraphs and telephones), public health, crockery, and food preparation. But space is running out. The issue left to be dealt with is provenance.

The books mentioned here are all now on the Prairies. Yet exactly when they became Prairie books if they were not printed in the Prairies is the question. For example, the University of Saskatchewan libraries have a large collection of practical and technical books, and have contributed much to the English Short Title Catalogue. The contributions, however, most likely have come into the province long after they were printed, simply because Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories as it was previously, was largely empty when the books were first issued. The Glenbow Library has a particular love for practical books illustrating life on the Prairies such as cookbooks and oil-drilling reports. But the manner of establishing the Glenbow’s collections usually means that we have no idea whether articles or books were in Canada before the Eric Harvey’s foundation began acquiring them in the 1950s and 60s. Thus the existence of a book in a Prairie Library does not necessarily mean it was a book used in the Prairies.

Why would this be important? It is my contention that a good deal of what sets the Canadian reader apart from the British, French or American reader is his or her cosmopolitan attitude toward information. A book about living in the prairies of Illinois is as acceptable as a starting place as one specially tailored to Manitoba. The existence of the book in Canada now does not ensure that during its time of prime use, it was in Canada. And its existence in the National Library does not mean a copy was in use in the Prairies. Too few institutions seem to be able to retrieve the history of their books so that we can know when useful books were used first in Canada.

Despite this uncertainly about the origin of this collection of Eastern Canadian, American and English books, technical manuals, catalogues, instruction pamphlets and settler’s guides form an important part of making the Prairies home for so many. A good many Prairie people read this kind of material who never read a cowboy poem or a novel or short story, but these books have a lyrical quality, probably best shown to in the illustrations.

In the Canadian Prairies we may have a particular problem in defining our history in terms of the books we read because of our permeable membranes surrounding our culture and interest. Nevertheless, the technical book forms an important, if somewhat neglected, part of the history of the book here in the Prairies.


1. At the time of editing this document, the bequest of a large number of law books, including some handbooks, the legal equivalent of a technical user’ guide, has been announced by Harvard Law Library (9 may 2001, on CBC radio). The Law librarian commented on the low survival rate of such books because they were usually used to death, or disposed of once a new edition, including new statutes, had appeared.

2. Glenbow 971.23 C151d.

3. Glenbow 971.23/ C2122g/ Pam.

4. Glenbow 630.971 C212s/ 1911/ Pam.

5. Glenbow 971.23/ C21221/ Pam.

6. National Library of Canada.

7. National Library of Canada.

8. National Library of Canada.

9. Glenbow 631.51/ S651p/ Pam. 45p., [5] leaves of plates. ill. 24 cm. Univ. of Alberta Colege of Agriculture Bulletin; no.6.

10. Reynolds-Alberta Museum, P.O. Box 6360, Wetaskiwin, Alberta T9A 2G1, Fax: 403-361-1239; Phone:1-800-661-4726.

11. U of Manitoba. microform Dafoe Library FC 16 C 105 no. 30611./

12. U of Manitoba. vi, 520 p. ill.; 21 cm. SF 751.G54 1914.

13. U of Manitoba 141p. incl front, illus. 19 cm. “Ask libraries staff.”

14. U of Manitoba. xix, 556 p. illus. diags. (part fold) 23 cm. Sci technology 5th fl. TH 4498 K4 1919. Another volume 3rd ed. rev. and enl. at U of Alberta TH 4498 K43 1919.

15. Olds College TH 2301 H63 1909. 395 p. ill.

16. National Library of Canada.

17. National Library of Canada.

18. Dianne Vallee, Museum of Highwood, 129 - 3rd Avenue, SW, High River, Alberta T1V 1R9. Fax: 403-652-7660. Phone: 403-652-7156.

19. In private hands. Compare, however, BL copy 7941.r.25.

20. U of Manitoba. 182 p. illus. 23 cm. UML Arch/Fine Arts Downstairs 725.38 R 422 Tr.

21. 142 p. illus (part col) 27 x 35 cm. UML Arch/Fine Arts Downstairs 725.213 G 28 PL.

22. University of Manitoba, vii, 181 p. illus., diag. 23 cm. “Ask Librarian.”

Diana Patterson