Record crops and searching the records: digging deep in the archives

Here we return to our case study of Annie Williams, Welsh immigrant to Canada and inventor of a skirt elevator system. This time we’re reflecting on the sources we used and some of the highs and lows of trying to piece together a narrative from assorted traces and archival fragments.

Patent documents will usually provide a name, a date and a general location for where the patentee lived at the time that they filed the patent. If we’re lucky, we might also get a full address or an occupation.

We then typically enter this information into a search on Ancestry and try to identify census and other records linked to our inventor.

A good result is being able to establish:

  • the age and social context for the patentee any other names used by them
  • the names of family members (particularly of any spouses in the case of women)
  • and whether they were applying professional expertise to their invention: for example if they were a dressmaker or milliner

A very good result is to then be able to take this information to a search of the newspaper archives and track down adverts for the garment showing it went into production. Opinion piece or review articles are great, as is anything that gives us more insight into the life story or character of the person we’re researching. All these combine to help us to infer more about the context for the invention. (We rarely have all these.)

Every so often we might be able to contact a descendant of the patentee, and this is absolute gold: revealing information and often photographs that we would never have encountered through public archives, no matter how hard we searched.

A faded photograph in sepia tones. Nine people and a doll or ventrioquist's dummy are grouped together and posing for the photograph. Some of them appear to be in fancy dress, but it's difficult to make out exactly what people are wearing.

We learned from various sources that Annie (far left, above) liked to host social events, and this appears to be some sort of fancy dress party. “Gleichen area pioneers”, ca.1910-1012, PA-616-1 by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary

Our initial census and newspaper searches for Annie were supplemented and enriched by the work of local historians and regional archives. Whilst we haven’t been in direct contact with Annie’s descendants, we were fortunate in being able to refer to accounts and photographs that her son, Fred Williams Jr., had contributed to other projects documenting the history of Gleichen. In this case it raised further questions: under what research contexts would it be appropriate to refer to an image of our subject in fancy dress? To what extent do we assume that consent was given (or would be given today) for the use of images depicting people of the First Nations?

A montage of newspaper articles with the headlines "Lady farmer raises record crop", "Record flax crop at Gleichen", Woman farmer has record for flax", and "A lady farmer"

A selection of the newspaper coverage of Annie’s record harvest.

In our newspaper search, we found articles announcing Annie Williams as a lady farmer who had produced a record crop of flax in 1913. ‘Record’ as in more than twice the average yield per acre across Alberta as a whole and only a fraction less than three times the average yield per acre in the United States that year. That’s definitely impressive, but we’re most struck by how she’s attributed as the farmer and given credit for the achievement. For that period in history we often have to search for $MrsHusband’sName because the wife is practically invisible to written accounts of public life. Why was Annie permitted centre stage and the glory in this instance?

Annie is also notable to us because she patented her skirt elevating mechanism not just once, but six times across different countries between the years 1911 and 1915:

  • France: application 16/08/1911, granted 18/11/1911
  • Great Britain: application 16/08/1911, granted 26/10/1911
  • Canada: application 10/10/1911, granted 05/03/1912
  • US: application 13/10/1911, granted 01/10/1912
  • Australia: application 04/08/1914, granted 10/11/1914
  • New Zealand: application 12/8/1914, granted 10/06/1915

From her son’s account of the family history given in The Gleichen call: a history of Gleichen and surrounding areas, 1877-19681, we learn that 1915 was their best harvest year, and that in 1916-1917 they bought more land and moved towards a crop share model. This coincided with the early part of a period of economic recession and depression across Alberta and beyond, with collapses in land prices, World War I and a run of bad harvests. It’s unclear whether the Williams’ boom years put them in a position of relative wealth that enabled Annie to move forward with patenting her skirt elevator in Australia and New Zealand in 1914, or whether this was motivated by a time of insecurity and Annie was trying to put in place alternative sources of income. Regardless of the motivation, and in contrast to the extent of the patenting activity, we have been unable to find evidence of the skirt elevator having made it into production and onto the market. (That’s not to say there isn’t any evidence – just that we haven’t found it yet!)

Annie does at least seem to have gained some local acclaim for her invention, even if perhaps that only extended as far as family and friends. The back of the informal photo of the group of Gleichen area pioneers (above) proudly identifies her as “inventor of skirt lifter”. Yes! We have a few photos of Annie! This is thanks to a donation of materials her son made to the Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, held at the University of Calgary and, importantly for us, partially available digitally online. Amenable staff (thank you!) also helped us to access more artefacts from their store.

One of the first photos we found via the online search is of Annie stood next to a First Nations woman and two children, we presume they are on the reservation that borders with Gleichen. What we can’t make presumptions about is consent to publish the image here, so we’re going to stick with a text description only.

We can’t make out a lot of detail in the scan we have of the photograph, but we can see that Annie is wearing a long dark skirt, a white blouse, a formal coat and an extravagant hat; the other woman is wearing a patterned fabric, belted at the waist, and moccasin style footwear. They are stood in front of a canvas tent, with a tin bath tub, laundry washboard and a horse and cart dotted around them. I’m somewhat familiar with the valleys of South Wales. I have traveled through prairie near Calgary once. My reaction on first seeing this photograph was “Oh Annie, you are so far from home.”

Moments later I was caught up in a whirl of wondering what the other woman had experienced as her traditional ways of life were decimated by the incoming colonisers. I find photographs of our research subjects can have a very emotive power like this, emphasised by their comparative rarity in the sources we’re working with.

The majority of the sources we’ve accessed in researching Annie centre the pioneer identity and perspective: intrepid souls taming the wilderness and bringing modern farming techniques and camaraderie to the prairies. However, it’s important to note that Siksika Nation is still fighting for the return of land and resources within their traditional territory (see and is also working to build its own, Blackfoot-centred, digital library to appropriately archive materials and ensure knowledge is carried through to future generations. The Blackfoot Digital Library can be accessed at

Archives and other sources have brought a great richness to our research and understanding, but we’re also very aware of the gaps and limitations in the information and perspectives we’ve been able to access. Our team’s language skills effectively mean we’re limited to English language resources or using machine translation tools to understand gist. Often we’re constrained to whichever portion of an archive has been digitised at the point in time that we happen to be looking at it. The design of various search tools often results in wailing and gnashing of teeth…

Meanwhile, our next phase of research relating to Annie Williams is to follow her design to make a garment incorporating her skirt elevator. ‘Incorporating’ is a good word, as this research will also involve wearing the garment in order to learn more about what affordances it offers the body. Will the research involve mud? Stay tuned…