VAIL, EMMA FRANCES JANE (Birge; Pratt), social reformer; b. 1851 in New York City, daughter of Albert Smith Vail and Sarah Frances — ; m. first 2 June 1870 Morton Burdett Birge (d. 1873) in Hamilton, Ont., and they had a son; m. secondly there 29 April 1879 Thomas Henry Pratt; d. there 21 Feb. 1917.
Of German descent, Albert Vail left a supervisory position with a New York City clothing firm in 1861 and, accompanied by his family, located in Hamilton, where he joined the business of William Eli Sanford*. Emma attended Central School and, at the age of 12, she was enrolled at the Wesleyan Female College. She was one of the few students who took both of its diplomas, a mistress of liberal arts in 1869 and a mistress of English literature the next year. In 1870, the year she married Morton Birge, a Hamilton tobacconist, Vail joined the college’s Alumnae Association, one of only five married women in the 35-member organization. She soon began to participate in the monthly meetings of its Literary Club. The club satisfied her personal devotion to reading and discussion; she spoke to the group on books and current events. She would later serve as the club’s president (1890–1907) and honorary president (1907–17) and as president of the Alumnae Association (1876–80, 1890–94).
The Birges’ son, Anson Horace, was born in March 1871, but by the following year Morton had abandoned his family, leaving Emma to raise her child in her parents’ home. By the time she was 24, her dedication to social activism was evident.
In 1875 Vail was a founder of the Hamilton branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, through which she embarked on a career of organization and instruction that would focus on the spiritual development of children. For Vail, who saw her role as part of the “privilege of being a co-worker with God,” peace and happiness could be achieved only through the “control of appetites” by “subjecting matter to mind.” She attended provincial conventions of the WCTU in 1881 and 1884, by which time she was secretary of the Hamilton union. Under her supervision the union’s printing committee distributed 4,000 temperance pamphlets in Hamilton and formed a young ladies’ and children’s committee. She started the Band of Hope at the Hamilton Boys’ Home, of which she was treasurer, organized a girls’ sewing school and a night school for newsboys, and served on the board of the WCTU’s Day Nursery. The Band of Hope meetings and the newsboys’ school combined temperance education with instruction in reading, writing, and social skills. Vail herself augmented the weekly ten-cent donations of the sewing students, and the money was used to purchase supplies. She held weekly gatherings for story-readings and conversation among the working mothers whose children attended the nursery. In addition, Vail petitioned the province’s Department of Education to have temperance instruction in public schools. Though the idea was enthusiastically received at the Ontario Teachers’ Convention of 1884, the department initially would not go along with it. Vail had few illusions about the ease of her undertaking. “Reforms of any kind produce prejudice,” she said, “so we cannot hope to have a universal opinion in our favour.” More effective in achieving the goal of temperance were personal contact and individual involvement. Writing in the WCTU’s monthly magazine, she stressed the importance of avoiding alcohol as medication for sick children and advising nursing mothers against drinking. For Vail, word of mouth and door-to-door campaigns were the means by which mothers of young children should be educated. She would continue her interests in temperance into her sixties; by 1911 she was honorary president of the WCTU’s county union.
In 1879 Vail had married T. H. Pratt, the owner of a local dry goods store. His appreciable means enabled the couple to purchase a large estate in Hamilton east, Rose Arden, where Vail would hold WCTU picnics and meetings of the Day Nursery. As chairman of the Women’s Christian Association, she called a gathering of 150 women in 1889 for the purpose of “taking steps to elevate the moral tone of the young girls” of Hamilton. She and Alice Maud Mary Lazier drew up the constitution for the new organization, to be known as the Young Women’s Christian Association of Hamilton.
During the South African War and World War I, Vail was active in the women’s groups of Centenary Methodist Church. As president of the Mount Hamilton Women’s Patriotic League, she raised money for the British Red Cross, taking as her special interest the welfare of soldiers’ children. In the summer of 1916 her own son, by then a doctor in New York, died. Later that year, on 21 October, she took part in local Trafalgar Day celebrations as captain of one of the 11 districts into which Hamilton had been divided for a door-to-door canvass aimed at raising $75,000 for the British Red Cross. Hundreds of women participated in this one-day effort, one of Vail’s last public contributions. Vail soon became ill and she died at her home in February 1917 at the age of 66. In recognition, the Literary Club cancelled its February meeting and set up a memorial fund in her name, the interest from which would go to the charities she had supported. The WCTU remembered her as one of its “most efficient leaders” and the Hamilton Evening Times noted that she had been “a woman of liberal education, large reading and broad views.”
Vail’s philanthropic activities reflected the concerns of a middle class faced with the instabilities of a developing urban society. Although she might have been happiest to pursue literary interests, the circumstances of her early adulthood exposed her to the difficulties of single motherhood, while her Methodist convictions provided the ideological framework for social action. The financial and social status brought by her second marriage enabled Vail to carry out her improving impulses in a wider public sphere, where she demonstrated the need for, and the efficacy of, reform.
AO, RG 22-204, reg.N (1874–79): 26; RG 22-205, nos.3126, 3167, 10402; RG 80-5-0-9, vol.8: f.359; RG 80-5-0-87, no.12043. HPL, Alumnae Literary Club, minute-book, 1915–28; Hamilton Wesleyan Ladies’ College; Clipping files, Hamilton biog. and YWCA, vol.1. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Hamilton, Ont., St Andrew’s Ward, div.1: 52 (mfm. at AO). Hamilton Spectator, 1870–1916; 22, 24 Feb. 1917. Canadian White Ribbon Tidings (London, Ont.), September 1912–March 1917 (mfm. in AO, F 885). DHB, vol.3. Directory, Hamilton, 1869–80. S. G. E[lwood] McKee, Jubilee history of the Ontario Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1877–1927 (Whitby, Ont., [1927?]). YWCA – a centre for girls (Hamilton, 1929; copy in HPL).