Miss Civil Service

12 August 1946

For many years, one of the most anticipated fixtures on Ottawa’s public service social calendar was the annual Miss Civil Service contest. It was first held in 1946, the same year that the Miss Canada pageant was founded. Like the Miss Canada pageant, the Miss Civil Service contest was explicitly sexist and objectifying. There was zero focus on contestants’ job performances—surprise! The attribute on which contestants were judged was beauty. Later other “factors” were added. These comprised grooming, posture, clothes and personality. While supremely cringeworthy today, it’s remarkable how accepted the event was during its day. There was extensive press coverage of the various departmental contests to choose departmental “queens” and “princesses” in the lead up to the big event when Miss Civil Service was selected from among the departmental beauties. This coverage was replete with juvenile double entendres, offensive sexual comments and stereotypes that would be totally unacceptable today.

Ada Redsell, Miss Civil Service Commission, is congratulated by Paul Martin, Senior, 12 August 1946, Ottawa Citizen, 13 August 1946.

The first Miss Civil Service Commission competition was held on 12 August 1946. It was the highlight of the annual Civil Service Commission picnic held at Britannia Park. The day also featured tugs of war, softball, races, a sing-a-long, a dance in one of Britannia’s pavilions and a picnic supper. More than three hundred persons attended the day’s events. There were forty-four entrants into the Miss Civil Service pageant, but only seventeen contestants showed up. The winner was Ada Redsell, a Grade 2 Clerk working at the Central Registry. While her measurements were thankfully not divulged (this often happened in later competitions), the newspapers reported that she had brown eyes and dimples, weighed 120 pounds and stood 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall. She wore a pale blue jersey dress with a string of pearls and white pumps. Redsell, who lived at 199 Boteler Street in Ottawa, said that her boss had made here enter the contest. She won an all-expense paid airplane trip to Montreal. Second prize went to Eileen Gagne who won a free airplane ride over the capital, while third prize, a pair of nylons, went to Muriel Keogh.

The prizes were presented by Paul Martin (senior), who was Secretary of State in the federal government at that time. He gave each of the winners an “unofficial gift” of a kiss on the cheek. Judges complained that they hadn’t got kisses (from the girls, not Martin). C.H. Bland, the Civil Service Commissioner, remarked that he would have liked to have chosen them all.

Four years went by until the next Miss Civil Service contest was held. This time it was an event of the Civil Service Recreation Association’s Ice Carnival held on 23 February 1950. From then on, the Miss Civil Service pageant was an annual fixture organized by the RA. It ran into the early 1970s.

In the lead-up to the RA’s first annual event in 1950, federal departments held contests to chose their respective representatives in the pageant. These contests were covered in the press. Under a photo of the Post Office’s contestants, the Ottawa Journal had a caption “How would you like to play post office with these three?” (For those unaware, “post office” was a kissing game popular at the time where a group was divided into boys and girls, with one group going into another room which became the “post office.” Then, one by one, each person in the other room entered the “post office” and was kissed by everybody in that room.) The caption under a photo of the three winners from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics read “Statistical Figures” that proved that statistics aren’t “all cold and hard.”  

The Miss Civil Service contest, which presumed to select the ideal government girl, was the highlight of a four-hour carnival program held at the RA rink located at the foot of Bronson Avenue. Other events included broomball, speed skating and figure skating and a parade of floats featuring departmental “queens” and “princesses.” The Ottawa Journal reported that there were “38 luscious beauties.” “If you are looking for the tops in sophisticated swish, the gal with person-al-i-t-y, the blonde bombshell, brunette heartbreaker, or redhot redhead, you can find the peak of perfection among the 15,000 females who adorn the halls of the public service.” Yikes!

The winner, selected by five judges appointed by the Recreation Association, was 23-year-old Teresa Nugent, a five-year veteran at the Tax Branch of the Department of National Revenue. She was described as “the all-Canadian girl” –”a blond, dimple-cheeked, blue-eyed, five-foot, seven-inch bundle of outdoor charm.” Nugent won a wrist watch, two return fares to Montreal, a dinner out with her and her escort at the Copacabana, a permanent wave, and a complete cosmetics kit. Janie Walters, from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs placed second, while third place went to 20-year-old “brownette,” Margaret Skuce from the Department of Mining and Technical Surveys. The caption under a photo of Teresa Nugent read “fellow workers (males of the opposite sex, of course) had mentally reserved her for their own when they saw her crowned queen.”

The “crowning ceremony” was performed by George McIlraith, the Liberal MP for Ottawa West and Jean Richard, the Liberal MP for Ottawa East. Also in attendance were several city aldermen.

During subsequent pageants, the prizes became increasingly lavish, with large numbers of people in attendance. In 1953, some 5,000 whistling and “whoo-whooing” spectators witnessed the crowing of Miss Kathleen Willisher as Miss Civil Service. The 20-year-old “auburn-haired” employee of Defence Construction, won $250, or an all-expense paid trip to Bermuda, or a trip for two to New York City, in addition to a sash, crown and a silver trophy. In 1956, Miss Marie MacDonald, from the National Research Council, weighing 110 pounds and standing five feet three inches with a 34-23-34 figure, had a choice between a 10-day trip to Bermuda, a 7-day trip for two to New York, or $225. She also received a complete spring wardrobe valued at $125, a sheared muskrat stole, a silver rose bowl, an all-expense paid weekend at Adanac Lodge at Lake Le Peche, and dinner for two at a local restaurant. In 1958, first prize included an impressive trip to Europe.

The 1954 Miss Civil Service contest didn’t go as expected. After being crowned, 22-year-old Betty Burton from Defence Productions revealed she was married. This must have come as quite a shock as there were very few married women in the federal public service at this time. Restrictions on married women holding federal jobs weren’t lifted until 1955. Single female employees were forced to resign when they got married. The Ottawa Citizen commented “stand back, fellahs, she’s married.” In 1960, the contest was officially opened to married women. The title was also changed to RA Queen, though the former Miss Civil Service title continued to be widely used.

Another first occurred in 1962, when Barbados-born Betty Gitters, won the coveted title. The mother of two was working at Transport Canada to support her family as her husband attended medical school at the University of Ottawa. The former 1959 Miss Barbados was the first and only woman of colour to win the Miss Civil Service/RA Queen title. The Ottawa Citizen called her the “brown-eyed dusky queen” and erroneously said that this was the first time a married woman had won the title. Gitters won $200, a wrist watch, an all-expense paid weekend in an un-named New York State tourist resort, a free hair styling and a bouquet of tulips. That year, she opened the National Tulip Festival.

By the beginning of the 1970s, the RA Queen contest was fading rapidly in popularity. While it still attracted contestants, it was increasingly out of step with the times. The prizes were also becoming less interesting. Trips to foreign locales were long gone, and a $200 first prize just didn’t go as far as it once did. In 1970, anti-pageant protesters picketed the RA Centre, the venue of the contest.

“Miss Civil Service” also came under attack from another quarter. In an article titled Maxi Hairdos, Mini Skirts Hurting CS Productivity? the Ottawa Journal wrote in 1970: “Now take those long-lacquered fingernails. They can slow down Miss Civil Service to a leisurely 30 words-a-minute as she tippie-pinkies, oh, so very, very carefully to preserve all ten gleaming mirrors of her stylist nails. And those, long, fetching artificial eyelashes—they go with the long-tinted fingernails, the miniskirts, and maxihair – can slow her down too, when they tend to shed off every time she flutters them at her boss or that toothsome bachelor assistant-deputy at the next table in the government cafeteria.”

The last RA Queen pageant was held in May 1973. Out of twenty-two contestants, 20-year-old Lorraine Leduc took home the title. Judges were Mayor Pierre Benoit, former 67s hockey player, Brian McSheffrey (who later briefly played in the NHL), and Miss Ottawa Rough Rider, Lynn Lawson. Only 200 people were in attendance at the RA Centre.

Mercifully, Miss Civil Service then disappeared into the dustbin of history.

Sources:

Gentile, Patrizia, 1996. Searching for “Miss Civil Service” and “Mr. Civil Service”: Gender Anxiety, Beauty Contests and Fruit Machines in the Canadian Civil Service, 1950-1973, MA Thesis, Carleton University.

Ottawa Citizen, 1946. “Queen Ada Gets A Crown,” 13 August.

——————, 1954. “Betty Burton Named ‘Miss Civil Service,’” 20 March.

——————, 1956. “Beauty From Saskatchewan Crowned Miss Civil Service,” 16 March.

——————, 1960. “RA Queen of Year Replaces Miss Civil Service,” 23 January.

——————, 1962. “Beauty Reigns,” 17 May.

——————, 1962. RA Queen Captured by Mother of Two,” 17 May.

——————, 1973. NRC Has a Queen,” 26 May.

Ottawa Journal, 1946. “Beauty Contest Win at Picnic by Ada Redsell, Grade 2 Clerk,” 13 August.

——————-, 1946. “Free ‘Plane Trip For Miss Civil Service Commission Of 1946,” 13 August.

——————-, 1950. “CS Beauty Queens Try On Crowns for Size,” 14 February.

——————-, 1950. “Queen Of Queens In Civil Service ‘a Dimpled Blue-Eyes Blonde,’” 24 February.

——————-, 1953. “5,000 Cheering Spectators See ‘Miss Civil Service’ Crowned,” 28 March.

——————-, 1958. “Need No Imports For This Contest,” 14 July.

——————-, 1962. “Miss Civil Service,” 17 May.

——————-, 1970. “Maxi Hairdos, Mini Skirts Hurting CS Productivity?”, 24 August.

June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus

12 August 1851

Life was hard in Bytown during the mid-nineteenth century. The small community, which was to become Ottawa, had perhaps 7,000 souls. People laboured long hours, six days of the week, for low pay. For tired workers after-work entertainment options were limited. Many simply repaired to their neighbourhood watering hole. For the well-to-do, Hough’s Dramatic Company, a troupe of five ladies and ten gentlemen, put on dramatic productions—tragedies, dramas and farces—at the Union Hall. A seat at their performances cost 1s. 3d., the equivalent of 25 cents. Those looking to improve themselves could join the Mechanics Institute and Athenaeum or l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa. Both organizations, which were established in the early 1850s, put on edifying lectures and organized reading rooms and small libraries for their subscribers. For the sportsman, pigeon shooting on Major’s Hill was another popular activity during the annual spring and fall migrations—at least it was until most of the trees were cut down sometime before 1860 destroying the birds’ roosting sites.

circus-june-co-26-7-51
Advertisement for the June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus, The Ottawa Citizen, 26 July 1851.

Given this limited range of entertainment possibilities, imagine the excitement when a circus came to town. For most people, it was their only exposure to the outside world, enabling them to see exotic animals, mysterious peoples, and astonishing acts that they could otherwise only dream about.

The June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus operated by James M. June with his partner Seth Howes came to Canada in 1851 with stops in Montreal and Toronto before coming to Bytown for a three-day visit from the 12 to 14 August, 1851. This was at least the second visit by Seth Howes. In the summer of 1840 he had brought the Equestrian Exhibition of the National Circus of New York to little Bytown which what was then little more than a remote lumbering village.

As the railway had not yet linked Bytown to the outside world, the circus must have travelled to the town by road—an onerous journey given the quality of inter-city highways of that era. The entrance fee was 1s. 3d. There was no price reduction for children; early circuses did not cater to youngsters.

The June & Company circus entered Bytown with the band car in front drawn by its eight Syrian camels “imported at vast expense expressly for this Establishment.” The circus’s advertisement also promised “a greater variety of startling and attractive entertainments than ever before been given by any single Troupe, for the effectual production of which an ‘Unparalleled Array of Talent’ has been secured.” As you can see, circus bombast started early. Most of the circus performances were equestrian in nature. Featured artists included Laverter Lee, the “great English EQUILIBRIST and DOUBLE RIDER, and his Talented Children.” The very large Lee family, which had immigrated to the United States in the 1840s, was a notable show family that provided a number of fine equestrians. The family is also reputed to have invented the “perch act,” where one performer conducts a series of acrobatic tricks on top of a pole that is being balanced by another performer. William H. Cole and his wife Mary Anne also performed. William Cole was a famed contortionist and clown. His wife was a renowned equestrienne who was billed to have come from Astley’s Amphitheatre in England. Astley’s was a famed London circus performance venue during the nineteenth century. Mary Anne Cole was the star of a show called “EXERCISES OF THE MANEGE.” Other featured equestrians were Mrs Caroline Sherwood, Mr. Lipman, “the distinguished dramatic rider” and Mr Sherwood, “the rapid rider.” The acrobats Messrs MacFarland and Sweet also performed. MacFarland was renowned for having executed eighty-seven successive somersaults. To round out the show was the clown John Gossin. Gossin, who was coming to the end of his career when he performed with the June circus, was a witty raconteur as well as a rider and tumbler. In the course of each performance, which started at 2.30 pm and 7.30 pm each day, the camels were introduced in “a new and magnificent Oriental Pageant” called the Caravan of the Desert, “representing the means of travelling in in the East and an Encampment of Wandering Arabs.”

News of the circus’s arrival in Bytown prompted controversy as well as excitement. A week prior to its appearance, a small critical article appeared in The Ottawa Citizen. It read “He of the Gazette,” in noticing the June & Company’s advertisement in the newspaper, invited readers to “a lecture on the immorality of such exhibitions.”  While unnamed, “he of the Gazette” was William F. Powell, a prominent Bytown citizen who had been the editor of the Bytown Gazette. He was to become the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton Country in 1854. (Powell Avenue in the Glebe neighbourhood is named in his honour.)

Robert Bell, the reformist and liberal-minded editor of The Ottawa Citizen, mocked Powell. He opined that June & Co. was a “most respectable company,” and that he was “at a loss to appreciate justly the various performances, and the decent and becoming manner with which it was carried on.” He added “Really the Editor of the Gazette is impayable [priceless], when forgetting who he is, he robes himself in the garb of the casuist, and decides for the spiritual benefit of his townsmen, what sort of amusement they are to have, and what are those which might prove detrimental to their morals.” Given the warm reception given to the Circus by Bytown’s residents, Bell said Powell was “preaching in the desert.”  Bell described the performance of Mrs Cole as “lady-like,” and that she had managed her spirited horse in an elegant manner. He also thought Mrs Sherwood was a good equestrian performer. As well, he praised highly the performance of the circus men especially that of John Gossin who Bell described as “a spirited and merry Clown of the troupe who kept the audience in a constant fit of laughter.” In one of the Circus’s performances, Gossin’s jokes about Powell, elicited “a roar of laughter.” Bell hoped that that would teach Powell that his position in the community “is not such as to warrant his giving advices as to what is morally becoming to the ladies of Bytown.”

After June & Company, other circuses stopped regularly in Bytown and later Ottawa through the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Once the city was accessible by rail, productions also became bigger and more elaborate owing to both supply and demand reasons. Rail service lifted the constraints on what travelling circuses could transport from town to town at reasonable cost. This allowed them to respond to competitive pressures for new and more bizarre acts from increasingly jaded audiences who had become bored with equestrians, tumblers and clowns, the mainstay of early circuses. Perhaps the greatest circuses of the late nineteenth century that came to Ottawa was the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  So fantastic was the Barnum & Bailey Circus, it warrants its own story.

Sources:

Brown, Col. T. Allston, 1994. Amphitheatres & Circuses, Emeritus Enterprise, San Bernardino, California.

Bytown Gazette (The), 1840. “National Circus–From The City Of New York,” 27 August.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1851. “June and Co.’s Splendid Oriental Circus,” 9 August.

————————-, 1851. “Theatre,” 16 August.

————————-, 1851. “The Circus,” 16 August.

Circus Historical Society, 2002, http://www.circushistory.org/index.htm.

Slout, William L, 2002. Chilly Billy, The Evolution of a Circus Millionaire, Emeritus Enterprise: San Bernardino, California.