In case you missed it, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last week, ending a 108-year championship drought and the “curse of the billy goat.” The win also put to rest one of sport’s greatest bits of trivia: the last time the Cubs won the World Series, the Ottoman Empire was still in existence. Clearly, a lot has changed in the last 100 years, which had us wondering, what was life like in 1908? More specifically, what was it like working in Canada when the Cubs last won a World Series?

The country Canadians lived in

Montreal was the largest city in the country at that time, with over 270,000 inhabitants, but Ontario was the most populous province. It also had the edge in automobile use. There were less than 200 cars registered in Canada – and they were all in Ontario.

Free mail delivery started in rural areas in 1908, but the route was, shall we say, limited. It ran between Hamilton and Ancaster, Ontario.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the Prime Minister and he would have likely been at the opening of the Canadian branch of the Royal Mint, in Ottawa. That same year, Robert Stanley Weir wrote the English version of ‘O Canada.’ It was not, however, sung at the Stanley Cup finals, which saw the Montreal Wanderers sweep the Ottawa Victorias in 2 games.

One of the country’s most well-known citizens was an opera singer by the name of Emma Albani (née Emma Lajeunesse). Born in Chambly, Quebec, Albani performed in opera houses across Europe, becoming the first Canadian singer to make a splash internationally.

The world Canadians lived in

The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.

The average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. This was no doubt aided in part by the fact that only 14 per cent of American homes had a bathtub (and only 8 per cent had a telephone). More than 95 per cent of all births took place at home, which was fitting, because only 10 per cent of doctors had a college education.

New York’s new year tradition also started in 1908, as the city dropped a ball at Times Square for the first time.

Where Canadians worked

Canada had been mainly a nation of farmers, but that changed in the early 20th century. The introduction of electricity saw the rise of manufacturing, with factories – and their need for cheap labour – cropping up in cities around the country. Salaries for factory workers were roughly $375 a year, and a large portion of the manufacturing workforce came from rural regions and Europe.

Here’s what the Canadian Encyclopedia has to say about that period:

“From the countryside, and from Britain and Europe, hundreds of thousands of people moved to Canada’s booming cities and tramped through Canada’s industrial frontiers. Most workers remained poor, their lives dominated by a struggle for the economic security of food, clothing and shelter.”

Women, meanwhile, continued to make their presence felt in the workforce, despite the fact that “the number of jobs available to women was limited and strong sentiment existed against married women working outside the home.” According to an 1891 census, 196,000 women had jobs, representing 11% of the labour force. The majority of those jobs were in domestic service (41%), but many women did find work in sweatshops and factories, especially in the garment industry.

women in the workplace early 20th century

Working conditions

The rapid increase in population in Canada’s cities meant an increased demand for housing. Many families were forced to live in one room, and water and sanitation standards were far from where they are today (read: it was gross and it stank). Things were not much better on the work front. Factory work was a test of endurance, with 12- to 14-hour days in spaces that often lacked proper ventilation or heating. If you managed to survive the hours and the dank conditions, you then had to worry about machinery, which was not designed or regulated to meet safety standards.

The good news for men was that if you were stuck working all day and night, you didn’t have to do it alone. Your child (some as young as 6) might have been working right alongside you, in the same crappy conditions. Talk about quality family time!

It’s worth noting that in 1872, workers in Ontario and Quebec had rallied behind something called the “Nine-Hour Movement.” The movement’s goal was to standardize working days, and to make them shorter. This ultimately proved unsuccessful, but not before capturing international attention, and opening the doors to…

The rise of the unions

People had started to realize that banding together was the only way to improve labour conditions across the country. Worker strikes and the Nine-Hour Movement eventually pushed Sir John A. Macdonald to introduce the Trade Unions Act in 1872. This stated that unions were not to be regarded as “illegal conspiracies,” which was great, except for the fact that unions actually had very few rights under the law. During a strike, for example, an employer could ask the government to send in troops, which happened more than 30 times before 1914. See the Fort William Freight Handlers Strike for an example.

So, unions for skilled and unskilled workers continued to pop up, and they continued to be treated like criminals. This lead to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which is the largest general strike in Canadian history, with nearly 30,000 workers walking out on their jobs. The strike ended with the tragic “Bloody Saturday,” when two men were killed and 27 others injured in clashes with the North West Mounted Police.

Winnipeg Strike of 1919

It would be nice to say that this made a difference, but that’s not really true. Another 30 years would pass before “Canadian workers secured union recognition and collective bargaining rights.”

We’ve come a long way

The world has dramatically changed in the last 108 years, and every now and then, it’s worth remembering how lucky you are sitting in an adjustable, ergonomic chair, in a well-ventilated, climate-controlled office. As the past shows us, it could be a lot worse.

The fun is in imaging what it might be like when the Cubbies win their next World Series…in 2124.