A SIMPLISTIC, black and white view of the world: Black and white photos of stiff-backed, Victorian women wearing white ribbons attached to their blouses.
These are the images typically associated with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union movement – if it is remembered at all.
These dour images are receiving an injection of colour, thanks to an exhibition currently on display at the Museum for Textiles in Toronto. The exhibition, titled Gather Beneath the Banner, contains 21 satin, velvet and taffeta banners used by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union during the turn of the century period when it was most influential.
The banners played both an external and internal role in the life of the organization. Held up for display by women parading through the streets, the banners were a means to communicate the organization’s message of Christ-centred living and abstinence from addictive substances. Internally, the banners were used as a motivational tool, reminding union members of their mission and goading them on to work harder for their goal. Banners were also used as prizes to reward membership increases.
The exhibit contains banners originating from Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Although 15 of the 21 banners on display are inscribed with a year, it is difficult to determine the age of the banners. In many cases, the date included on the banner is meant to be commemorative, indicating the year of a society’s inception.
The creators of the banners are not known. The anonymous designers kept wording short for maximum impact, generally featuring the name and location of a WCTU branch and its founding date. The union slogan, For God and Home and Native Land, appears frequently, as do slogans taken from Bible verses, such as, Our God Shall Fight For Us (Nehemiah 4:20), and, In the Name of Our God We Lift Up Our Banner (Psalm 20:5).
The starkness of these words is softened through elaborate needlework of flowers and curlicues interwoven with the letters. Another common decorative element in the banners is the white ribbon, a symbol of purity worn by union members.
Visual design elements add another level of meaning to the banners. White and yellow colours predominate, symbolizing purity and the suffragette movement respectively. Blank space on the outer edges or along the perimeter of the banners is frequently filled with daisies (another symbol of purity), tree branches and birds. Although the imagery on the banners was usually kept quite innocuous – indicative, perhaps, of the genteel manner of the women creating them – a banner from Hamilton, Ont. stands out. In a vivid, melodramatic style, it depicts a woman wielding a sword to protect a child from a serpent emerging from the grass.
Restorative work was required in order to bring the banners back to their original colourful state. The banners had for many years been stored in a living-room cabinet in the organization’s archives. When they were brought to the attention of the Museum for Textiles, paint and gilding was flaking off many of them and the silk used in one had dried and split.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Toronto district of the WCTU. Organization president Frances Mino was delighted to share with the public these significant symbols of a time when the union’s influence was felt across the country. “Many people feel the WCTU is part of the ancient past,” she explained. “We’re taking any opportunity we can to make ourselves more visible and make people realize we’re still around.”
The exhibition is on display until June 13. The museum is located at 55 Centre Ave. in Toronto. Call 416-599-5321, or dial the information line at 416-599-5515. Museum hours are: Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Elaine deVries is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.