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Steveston Scarecrow Crawl – Meet Esther Smith

Man dressed in brown corduroy overalls and denim shirt with outstretched arm to a scarecrow dressed in women's clothing from early 1900's

Steveston’s annual Scarecrow Crawl returns for the Halloween season this October. Visit the village and discover the creativity of our local merchants and heritage sites. This year, come see the Steveston Tram’s entry – Esther Smith the Scarecrow, representing a female tram passenger from the 1910s. The BC Electric Railway (BCER) Interurban trams raced between urban centres and opened up the world to women. But the trams also restricted women in some ways.

Before the BCER trams ran, the options to get around was a bumpy five-hour horse and carriage ride into Vancouver or slow steamer ships to New Westminster, Vancouver, or Victoria. Personal transportation such as horses and buggies or fishing boats were mainly owned by men. In Richmond, only the wealthiest residents owned cars.

At the same time, the trams were designed primarily with able-bodied men in mind. In those days, universal accessibility was not a priority. Those of less than average male height could not reach the hanging straps or reach the bag racks to place their luggage. The steep stairs to enter the trams made it challenging for the elderly or infirm. And it was impossible to fit baby carriages and wheelchairs aboard.

For women dressed in fashions of the time, slatted carriage floors would have made walking in heels dangerous and the steep stairs tricky to navigate in long dresses and skirts.

Men were prioritized in other ways in the tram’s design. It is easy to forget that there was a time when almost 70% of the men in Canada smoked. All BCER Interurban trams were designed with Smoking and No Smoking sections of the tram car. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Smoking section was an unofficial “men’s only” part of each tram car because at the time, women who smoked were seen as morally dubious and few dared to challenge this notion.

One tram element designed specifically with women in mind was the special weave of the rattan seats in the No Smoking section, called “transit weave”. This diagonal weave of the fibres was to help prevent snagging of women’s stockings when old rattan fibres frayed (note: This weave was not used in the current restoration of Tram Car 1220’s seats.)

Nevertheless, there are stories of women on BCER trams who tried to sit in the wooden seats of the Smoking section to avoid the fraying rattan. They were unceremoniously pushed out of the Smoking section by men wanting to preserve their domain.

From the 1920s, tobacco companies began campaigns to glamourize smoking, including linking it to weight-loss, women’s equality, and Hollywood movie stars. This changed societal attitudes in the process. By the 1930s and 1940s, it became more acceptable for women to light up a cigarette. Gradually women joined men in the Smoking section.

In the entire 53 years of BCER Interurban tram history, women were never allowed to work as Conductors or Motormen. The closest that women came were being hired as “Conductorettes” on Vancouver streetcars from 1942. This was during a time when high demand for transit and the male labour shortages of the Second World War forced the BCER Company to employ women.

Even then, clothing proved problematic for these female employees. The first uniforms issues to the Conductorettes included skirts, something that made climbing streetcars to change trolley poles difficult and embarrassing. Conductorette Peal Wattum later commented, “It’s no g-d—n place for a woman up the side of a trolley in a skirt.” Eventually, conductorettes also received uniform trousers.

Many oral histories of women in Richmond mention taking the trams to various destinations, indicating how ever-present these trams were in their lives, though none of them explicitly mention any tram design inconveniences. Ultimately BCER Interurban trams changed the lives of women living in Richmond just as the trams were changing the community itself. In a time between the horse and cart and the motorcar, these trams offered a safe, affordable, and reliable way for women to go to work, to shop, and to socialize.