The dapper newsie to your right is Bill Bradford. The year is 1934, and Bill is 12 or 13 years old. According to his son Bruce, who sent us this photo, the lifelong Brockville resident has just been officially proclaimed Maclean’s sales champion for eastern Ontario. If young Bill looks a little serious, even troubled, for a contest winner, it’s because his job was serious business. “As a representative of your company,” says Bruce, “he supported his impoverished parents and three younger siblings by working the streets to help them survive.”
Bill died on May 4, one summer’s span short of his 90th birthday. Maclean’s was just one of the ways he sustained his family through the worst of the Depression. With his father unable to hold down work and often altogether absent, young Bradford worked unceasingly, hauling luggage at the rail station and hustling tickets for Thousand Islands boat tours. He remembered stealing fuel from a local coal yard whose sympathetic proprietor would feign inattention. “He once asked me, ‘Bruce, do you think you’d steal to make sure your family was warm?’ ” Bruce recalls. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yes. You would.’ ”
Bill trained for the infantry during the war but never got overseas. A younger brother died fighting in France. Later, at the outset of his 40-year career as a relay adjuster in Brockville’s Phillips Cable plant, Bill lost a young wife to breast cancer; Bruce was just six at the time. Bill’s humble station didn’t stop him from winning friends across the class spectrum. An energetic raconteur and a soft touch for charities, his social circle included everyone from senators to street kids. Most men pushing 90 have outlived most of their friends, but Bill Bradford’s funeral brought in a hundred mourners.
In the photograph, young Bill is holding up our edition of Oct. 15, 1934. The Maclean’s of that era was published twice a month and featured short fiction as well as news and reviews. It had not yet switched political orientation from imperialism to nationalism; the issue is loaded with big ideas and global perspective, from Herbert Casson’s panegyric on “British efficiency” to Constance Kerr Sissons’ overview of European women in the workforce. Hitler is mentioned several times, but if a future archaeologist wanted to know the name of Canada’s prime minister in 1934, this particular edition would be of no help.
Although Maclean’s was already a formidable maker of reputations by ’34, the issue features nary a single writer of whom the reader of 2011 will have heard. Pop economist Casson, a million-selling opinion leader and one of the professed glories of Thirties Maclean’s, is unknown and unread now. The cover of the magazine advertises an excerpt from Resurrection River—a novel by the utterly forgotten master of Mountie adventure stories, William Byron Mowery (1899-1957).
Like most media in the time of the radio detective and the screwball movie comedy, 1934 Maclean’s rarely confronted readers with the Depression head-on. But the economic terror shows through in the advertising. In one ad, a stoop-shouldered, middle-aged salesman is shown slowly descending into poverty because he hasn’t heard of Listerine. (“Down hill…pillar to post…same line of work…but down hill…and he doesn’t know why.”) Elsewhere, Underwood portable typewriters are recommended to the unemployed as a training investment. Even the makers of Westclox alarm clocks descend to fear-mongering: “Jobs won’t wait for the man who’s late!”
Imagine living in a world in which such savage Darwinian appeals are made openly. Or imagine being Bill Bradford, who stood on the precipice of manhood in that world—already his family’s breadwinner at 13, carrying his earnings in his pockets every day in streets full of desperate men, facing war at more or less exactly the moment he would be old enough to fight one. Your heart, if you have a heart, reaches out across the years to that newsboy.
This is Maclean’s annual Canada Day edition. As in most years, we are observing the occasion with optimism, presenting a list of reasons it’s a wonderful time to be Canadian. For all the struggles of our time, the future is bright. And we have come so far. Bill Bradford, who survived crushing adversity to raise two successful kids and retire in comfort and dignity, could have explained it very well. He was a survivor; he lived long enough to see the wars get smaller and the hungry get fewer. May the children who are 13 on Canada Day 2011 be so fortunate.