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Canada Household names: Archivists take on task of identifying women who captured Newfoundland folklore

A fishing boat at anchor in the Hibbs Hole area of Newfoundland in 1966.

Canadian Government Travel Bureau/Canadian Government Travel Bureau Photo

The cures for unwanted freckles, nearsightedness, car sickness and not getting lost in the woods are catalogued in a set of groaning file cabinets in the belly of an aging campus building with signs warning of asbestos.

Helpful Newfoundlanders have noted these and many more local traditions on recipe-like index cards that are part of the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Folklore and Language Archive. Some explain how to properly call one’s hens (“Here, coop, coop, coop, coop, coop!”); how to predict when a stranger might visit (hint: don’t leave the top off your teapot while the tea steeps); and how to escape bad luck after breaking a mirror (keep reading, there’s an asterisk involved).

Taken together, the folklore cards offer insights into some of the hardships and preoccupations of domestic life in Newfoundland over the past half-century or so. But many of the cards, which date back to the mid-1960s, lack the full names of the women who authored them and signed them as their husband’s wife, nothing more. Archivists grew so irked by this that they recently launched a mission to find out the writers’ true names.

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“Bit by bit, we want to help these female informants reclaim their identity,” said Nicole Penney, an archival assistant.

She held up the card submitted by Mrs. Arthur Hamlyn (hers was the hen-calling tip, which advised, in underscore, that the “oo” in coop “is the long o sound”).

“There are countless, nameless women … who have contributed amazing stuff,” Ms. Penney said. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands of cards.”

Ms. Penney handles the archive’s social-media account and recently launched a campaign with the hashtag #MissusMonday, sharing one nameless “informant” from the archive’s index each week and a photograph of folklore information she handed in.

Mrs. John Bowman, of Tilton, Nfld., was recently featured along with her tip for avoiding trouble in the woods, which was passed down from her grandparents.

“She remembered her grandparents telling her that if she went out in the woods to pick berries to be sure and carry a cake or hard biscuit in her pocket as a safeguard,” wrote Loretta Hayes, who sent in a card with Mrs. Bowman’s tip in 1975.

(Mrs. Bowman’s other tidbits include the suggestion of burying a dead dog beneath a fruit tree to ensure a good harvest and raising on old sail on a new boat for good luck.)

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By featuring the women on Twitter, Ms. Penney is hoping she will spark someone’s recognition and, ultimately, identify the woman by her given name.

“We know that this is going to have limited success,” Ms. Penney said, referring to the Twitter account’s small number of followers (there were just more than 300 as of this week). Still, almost two months into the campaign, three women have been named and confirmed through second sources, she said.

“If we can only identify one or two, it is worth it. We are doing women justice by giving them their names,” she said. “There’s drawers and drawers of those cards.

“You never know quite what you’re going to find in there.”

In 1968, Mrs. Thomas Badcock, of Shearstown, Nfld., divulged a poultice for nearsightedness. She recalled that her mother would “take wet leaves, wrap them in some cloth and put them over her eyes saying that it was good for her eyes,” adding: “I don’t know if it helped any, but eventually her sight got a little better.”

A friend of Mrs. Badcock’s reported a “home remedy” that would cure freckles.

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“The first snowfall in May month could be a good cure for freckles i.e. if it was rubbed over the face,” the woman wrote. Her sister, she said, kept a bottle of that melted snow on hand for follow-up treatments.

A cure for warts came from Mrs. Martin Feltham of Bread Cove, Nfld. Recorded in 1967, the instruction was to “Use your fastin’ spittle” on a wart.

“This meant that in order to cure the wart,” Mrs. Feltham wrote, “you would have to spit on it before eating in the morning.”

She made no comment on its efficacy.

It was Mrs. Pitcher, a 75-year-old housewife in Winterton, Nfld., who knew how to escape bad luck from a broken mirror. “The only way to remove the curse is to throw the pieces … into a stream or other moving body of water*,” she wrote. Beneath, she clarified her asterisk: “does not exclude toilet.”

Dale Jarvis, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, said the value of the folklore survey cards is that they preserve stories told by voices that have not always been heard or recorded in textbooks. The same is true of the effort to name their originators, he said.

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“This is the unofficial, non-institutional record of our culture,” he said, adding: “We can get a pretty good general sense of what really mattered to people, the concerns they had.”

To Ms. Penney, the archivist, the records underscore the depth of folklore traditions in Newfoundland.

“There are still people here that put bread in their pockets when they go out berry picking because they don’t want fairies to take them,” Ms. Penney said.

Perhaps some owe a debt to Mrs. John Bowman. Whatever her name is.

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