One of the most beloved fictional characters of all time is the Canadian orphan Anne Shirley. L. M. Montgomery’s first book, Anne of Green Gables, was published in 1908, the same year the Royal Canadian Mint began operation in Ottawa. Prior to this, Canadian coins had been struck by Heaton’s Mint in Birmingham, England.
Before the confederation of the various provinces into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, individual provinces issued their own decimal coinage, with Queen Victoria on the obverse. Early Canadian coinage was based on the American dollar, which had in turn largely been based on the Spanish silver peso. The one-cent coin was so light and unpopular that it had to be heavily discounted to be put into circulation. Prince Edward Island, the setting for most of the Anne books, issued its coinage in 1871. This one-cent coin from the initial minting year is an excellent example. The obverse of the coin is a fairly standard bust of Victoria, nearly identical to the one used on Jamaican currency. According to CoinsAndCanada.com, “The reverse was adapted from the official seal for the island. The central design shows a large oak tree (representing the United Kingdom) sheltering three smaller ones (the three countries of the island) with the Latin phrase PARVA SUB INGENTI (‘The small beneath the great’) below.”
The first national coinage for the new Dominion of Canada began to circulate in 1870; as each province joined the newly formed country, they discontinued their own coinage and began to use the official Canadian currency. Prince Edward Island, despite having been a strong proponent for the formation of the Dominion, was one of the last to join, finding the initial terms disagreeable. While the small island remained part of Great Britain, it also looked into becoming a dominion unto itself, and even joining the United States. However, in 1873, PEI joined the rest of the provinces in the Dominion of Canada and adopted standard Canadian money.
In the book, Anne lives in the remote town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island; while the exact time period isn’t stated, it’s generally assumed to be around the turn of the century. It’s possible that some of the older PEI coinage would still have been circulating locally, but it’s more likely she would have known the standard Canadian coinage of her time. The first coins of Edward VII were issued in 1902; the first five-cent coin of this type is especially of interest to collectors: the design used the St. Edward’s crown instead of the Imperial State Crown, which the public mistakenly believed was an error. Collectors hoarded the coins upon release, and they are often difficult to find. To prevent future hoarding, the design was changed to incorporate the more familiar Imperial crown in subsequent mintings.
A study printed in Historical Studies in Education shows that teachers’ salaries in Canada rose from 1900 until 1913, when the onset of war and inflation reduced them dramatically. Recovery began around 1918, and salaries continued to rise from that point until the 1930’s. “Canada’s best-paid teachers were in British Columbia: on average and in current dollars, they earned $866 in 1910 and $1,466 in 1929; for Nova Scotia the figures were $291 and $721 respectively (New Brunswick’s figures were slightly higher than Nova Scotia’s, Prince Edward Island’s considerably worse).” Of all employed women of the time period, teachers tended to be in the higher end of payment, making more on average than women employed in manufacturing or trade and transportation. It’s no wonder that a poor orphan girl as intelligent as Anne would go for a career in teaching! Staying in Avonlea (and Prince Edward Island in general) would have limited her earning potential, but it was still her best option for being able to contribute to the upkeep of her beloved Green Gables.
According to the previously mentioned study, “CTF figures for 1910 compare all teachers’ earnings to the average ‘personal income per person in employed labour force’ (INLF) in Canada. In that year, Canada-wide, teachers made 69% of INLF, but there were vast differences among provinces. In British Columbia the figure was 134%, in Ontario, 81%, in Nova Scotia, 45%. Only in Ontario are these percentages given by gender for elementary teachers alone: male elementary school teachers earned 102% of INLF, and female, 70%.16 In another study, David Stager compares elementary teachers’ salaries, for Ontario only, to the ‘general wage index’ (the ‘average wage rate for selected main industries in Canada’). In 1901, both male and female teachers fell somewhat below it; by 1913, women were slightly above it, and men somewhat more so. In his 1913 book on Rural Schools in Canada, James C. Miller compared teachers’ salaries province by province to the average daily wage of a selected group of skilled and unskilled wage-earners. ‘The teacher, on average, and especially in the case of rural school teachers, finds a place in the wage scale just above that of unskilled labor and below that of the skilled trades,’ he concluded.” (For further reading about the buying power of the Canadian dollar during Anne’s life, please see this article from the Bank of Canada. Urban teaching positions almost always paid better, and were highly sought after, but almost uniformly required two to three years of experience of teaching. Anne achieves this in the book Anne of Windy Poplars (seen in adapted form in the movie Anne of Avonlea.)
Canadian coins didn’t change a great deal during Anne’s girlhood and teaching years. In 1911, the phrase “DEI GRATIA” was left off the coinage of George V, leading to a public uproar. The phrase was added back in as quickly as possible, and the old design soon became known as “godless coins.” It’s not mentioned in the books, but it’s easy to see Avonlea’s resident gossip, Rachel Lynde claiming the coins were a sign that the devil was afoot in the world!
While coins are not specifically mentioned in the Anne books, it’s easy to picture Marilla and Matthew counting out coins at the local store, or Anne carefully putting away a few silver dollars after paying for her room and board. Coins were an integral part of daily life at the turn of the 20th century, and thinking about them makes Anne of Green Gables feel even more real.
[Featured image credit TourismPEI on Flickr, used under CC by SA 2.0]