December 7, 2013

A brief history of Edmonton's printing pioneers

I recently had an article published in SNAP's quarterly newsletter. I spent most of last summer engaging the public about Edmonton's print history at Fort Edmonton Park so the article pretty much wrote itself.

A century before SNAP (Society of Northern Alberta Print-Artists) was founded, Edmonton’s printing community consisted of a telegraph operator and a couple of ambitious entrepreneurs.* Together they helped make Edmonton the first community in Alberta to print its own newspaper. Newspapers first began appearing in seventeenth century Europe and quickly assumed an important function in their communities, encouraging debate, disseminating gossip, and, at times, inciting political activity. In Victorian Edmonton, The Bulletin was not only a vehicle for sharing news, gossip, and political views; it also gave Edmonton a sense of legitimacy as a struggling Northwestern settlement.

Edmonton’s print history began through the collaboration of Alex Taylor, who had operated the Dominion Telegraph at Hay Lakes in the late 1870s, and Frank Oliver, a recent Edmonton settler with a freight line from Winnipeg and several years of newspaper experience at the Manitoba Free Press. After Taylor’s telegraph line was extended to Edmonton in 1879, he approached Oliver, who had recently acquired a second-hand toy platen printing press and several cases of 6 pt. Nonpareil type.The toy press cost Oliver $20 and weighed around 200 lbs. Together, he and Taylor published The Bulletin’s first issue as a 6” x 8” four page paper on December 6, 1880. Along with its narrow range of reportage, The Bulletin’s first issues showcase the material limitations of an isolated printing outfit. Without any access to display type, Taylor was forced to carve the paper’s title from birch wood; and, while a 6 pt. type size was fairly standard for newspapers elsewhere, The Bulletin’s small format was the obvious outcome of the “toy” size of Oliver’s printing press and the narrow scope of information that he and Taylor could collect and assemble each week.

In the years that followed, Edmonton’s sole newspaper would go through many transformations in format and appearance, which more often than not followed from Oliver’s rotation of assistants and from Edmonton’s slow growth. Perhaps the best example is the brief tenure of Alex Dunlop, Oliver’s brother-in-law, who arrived in Edmonton in 1882 with a half medium Gordon press and job plant. This meant that The Bulletin’s size could again increase to that of a standard tabloid, allowing for four columns of text per page. When it was announced that the Canadian Pacific Railway would not be arriving in Edmonton, as was originally anticipated, Dunlop, along with other recent settlers to the area, returned to Manitoba, leaving Oliver as the sole proprietor of The Bulletin.

Although its editorials frequently showcased Oliver’s political biases, often to the detriment of First Nations groups and non-European immigrants,** the Bulletin played an instrumental role in the development of a community identity for the people of Edmonton: Oliver collaborated with everyone from telegraph operators to small businesses, and, in turn, gave them a promotional vehicle. For decades, The Bulletin was Edmonton’s only source for news and local advertising. In such isolated circumstances, the ability to produce many copies of the same reading material lent its creators a good deal of authority, and indeed, Oliver’s later political career would not have looked the same without it.
When The Bulletin finally folded in the 1950s, its assets were purchased by its former rival, The Edmonton Journal. Today, the original Bulletin building sits on 1885 Street in Fort Edmonton Park. Inside, you’ll find a toy platen press, a Gordon press, and a basic cylinder press for proofing. If you’re lucky enough you might just run into Mr Oliver as well.

*Historical information presented in this article has been gathered from Roger J. Carver, The Bulletin Building: A Furnishings Report, FEP Research Library, October, 1974.

**Oliver frequently used The Bulletin as a mouthpiece for his political views, which routinely opposed the rights and interests of First Nations peoples and sought to promote the ideal of the industrious European settler, who, he believed, should be allowed unfettered access to land, resources, and commercial opportunities. For a discussion of Oliver’s influential opinions of Edmonton’s aboriginal population, see Dwayne Trevor Donald, “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of the Papaschase Cree,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (Spring 2004): 2.1, 21-54.

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