The Coates of Prescott: a Family Portrait in Envelopes

A short while ago, I discovered on The Postal History Corner a series of letters and postcards addressed to the Coates family in Prescott, with postmarks dating from 1885 to 1935. They tell an intriguing story about a prosperous turn-of-the century family running a family business, ordering some of the latest products and inventions, and participating in some of the key debates and causes of the time.


We begin with a simply addressed envelope sent by the WCTU (Ottawa), on December 18, 1885 to Mrs. Thos. Coates. It may have contained Christmas wishes, but probably it was a note of thanks or an invitation from the Ottawa Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Not only was Prescott known, at the time, as the place of “Scott Refreshments”, being the birthplace of the Hon. Richard Scott who had drafted the Canada Temperance Act, it was also in the midst of a Methodist revival, and Mrs. Coates was a well-known Sunday School teacher.

In Canadian Methodist Women, 1766-1925: Marys, Marthas, Mothers in Israel, Marilyn Färdig Whiteley writes: “Leaders were faithful to their trust, and some showed dedication and affection toward their class members that extended far beyond the call of duty…in 1878, Mrs. Thomas Coates took charge of a new class of boys who continued to meet with her “until they were nearly grown to manhood”…”

Many members of the Ontario WCTU were Sunday School teachers, and many chapters distributed temperance materials through members who were also associated with a denominational Sunday School.

At a time when women took more of a back seat, the business affairs of the Sunday School were recorded as follows: “Moses McPherson and Thomas Coates of the Methodist Sabbath School were allowed free use of the new town hall in December 1875 for a one-night benefit concert with the proceeds to be devoted exclusively to the poor” (John Morris, Prescott Journal, May 12, 2004).


This 1902 letter is fun. Addressed to J.B. Coates, Esq. “Town”, it was mailed locally. More than likely, J.B. was John Barnett, the Coates’ eldest son, whose shipping and handling company P.T. S & H was listed in the 1901 Canada Census. Perhaps it was a bill or a notice of shipment. The “P” was probably Prescott…was the “T” Toronto?


Our next envelope – postmarked 1907 – advertises the New Williams Sewing Machine made by the Williams Manufacturing Company of Montreal. The company began in 1863, and was in direct competition with Singer. Addressed to Mr. Coates, the envelope suggests this was a line of sewing machines carried by Thomas Coates & Son.

As early as 1866, directory listings described Thomas Coates as a “manufacturer of tinware, dealer in cooking and box stoves, coal oil, coal oil lamps…cash paid for old copper, brass, rags, sheep pelts, and calf skins”. His shop was located in The Mechanic’s Block on King Street West, home today to Young’s of Prescott, A Craft Boutique, and others. In the 1886 edition of Industries of Canada, Thomas Coates & Son was listed as selling “Pianos and Organs, Sewing Machines, etc.” Having “laid the foundation of his present, prosperous business about twenty years ago”, the directory notes, Thomas Coates (& Son) “have shown themselves thoroughly alive to the business activity of the times, and contribute to the town one of its best, soundest and most reliable mercantile industries”.


Mrs. Coates was the recipient of this letter sent by The Christian Herald, New York City, in 1908. Even though the WCTU was not as successful as it had hoped, it provided a forum for women to meet together in a cause that eventually led them to support women’s suffrage. Working for a cause had been central to Mrs. Coates’ life in Prescott and a nephew, Rev. Harper Havelock Coates and his wife, Agnes, served as Methodist missionaries in Japan at the time.


We jump to 1914. This envelope may have been from an insurance agent with offices at one of Toronto’s most prestigious early 20th addresses, the Confederation Life Building. It is significant for its postmark advertising the CNE and its message of “Peace” in contrast to the War in Europe.

Our last 2 envelopes – dated 1928 and 1935 – are addressed to Mr. Coates, after the deaths of Thomas, Sr. (1832-1920) and his wife, Frances “Fanny” (1831-1926). The “Thomas” who received these letters was perhaps the youngest member of the family, Thomas H…Prescott’s Postmaster at the time, William Henry Dowsley, would have known for sure!


In The Fabulous Phonograph, Roland Gelatt states that by the end of the 1910s, many new companies entered the lucrative field of phonograph manufacturing because the basic phonograph patents held by Victor, Columbia, and Edison were expiring. The demand for phonographs and records far exceeded the supply, and Montreal’s Berlind Phonograph Co., Limited joined a group of more than 200 North American companies when they received a patent in 1916 to “manufacture, buy, sell, import, export, repair, deal and trade in the art-o-phone gramophones”.


Postmarked 1935, this Walter Woods advertising piece reminds us of the frequent use of postcards in late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hunt on the web for another example of this card revealed that the reverse side listed close to 200 products sold by this firm operating from Hamilton and Winnipeg until the 1980s.



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