Curio Dealers

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a new and wealthy middle class. Improvements in transportation, the popularity of World’s Fairs and the creation of museums all helped to establish a lively trade in Indigenous artifacts, known at the time as “curios”. This niche market began in the 1870s and flourished until the 1920s. For a short time, Victoria became a center of the curio trade, and Jews were at the heart of that business.

Artwork and crafts of Pacific Northwest First Nations were featured at large public exhibitions in England, Europe, and then in the US. Spectators were fascinated with the handiwork of the Indigenous peoples. In an effort to attract more attention, Indigenous peoples were sometimes displayed alongside the objects they created.

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In the early 1800s, museums were just getting established and curators were looking for interesting items to exhibit. This sparked a heated competition between museums in New York City, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere. Because First Nations people were perceived as “exotic“, their work was of particular interest. Heightened activity and interest meant that many of the cultural objects created by the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest were sold to museums and private collectors in England, Germany, Russia, Austria, Norway, and the US. 

Cruises of the Inside Passage were launched following the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Originating from San Francisco, Portland or Tacoma, such tours stopped in Victoria and other coastal towns along Vancouver Island. They were very popular, attracting 1,650 tourists in 1884, and more than doubling that number to 5,007 by 1890.

After the Canadian Pacific Railway completed the first transcontinental Canadian route through to Vancouver, a CP ferry service continued to Victoria. The steamship terminal was built a block away from the Empress Hotel. Built between 1904 and 1908, the Empress was first operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway and helped to establish Victoria as a hub for collectors and tourists.

Jews were heavily involved in the curio trade. Many Jewish traders learned the trading language Chinook so that they could better communicate with Indigenous traders. Unlike most other merchants, Jews were willing to barter and trade. Jewish traders thus were more likely to acquire such things as wooden masks, shamanic rattles, totem poles, canoes, baskets, bowls, carvings, blankets, clothes and jewellery. Furthermore, Indigenous people often pawned or sold their possessions at Victoria’s pawn shops, many of which were operated by Jews.

At the time that Jewish traders were accepting such handiwork, objects of this kind had little or no commercial value. However, when the curio business was ignited, these Jewish traders turned out to have a stock of valuable and much sought-after items.

Indigenous people were experienced traders, and Jews were often interested in learning about the merchandise they dealt in. Jews developed a level of expertise which allowed a few of them to become agents and to broker deals between Indigenous sellers and collectors and curators.

As the demand grew, Victoria became the main centre for the curio trade in the Pacific Northwest. From 1880-1914, Victoria had more curio dealers than any city on the Pacific Coast, and most of them were Jews. By 1880 the economy of the province was faltering, and the curio dealers had a role in stabilizing it.

However, the market for curios collapsed as the provincial economy suffered in the wake of WW1. One or two curio stores continued to operate in Victoria, but large-scale collecting was over by the late 1920s.