Collection Spotlight: John Boyd Letters

John Boyd was a Scottish man working in Barcelona for the J. P. Coates thread company in the 1920s and 1930s. He was worldly, with many family and friends around the globe. One of his cousins, Frank Ellison, lived in Marquette. Three letters from their correspondence have ended up in the Archives.

The letters indicate that he had a vast network of family all over the world with whom he kept in touch. Family clearly meant much to Boyd. His letters contain many references to the visits of various long-lost cousins and mentions of long-dead ancestors.

Boyd’s letters, however, contain more than just family events. They are filled with commentary that can provide insight about aspects of everyday life, business, immigration, and politics in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In a letter written in 1927, John describes newspaper articles he has read about new inventions such as the TV and sensor devices that could tell if a person was moving in the dark. He comments, “It is a horrible prospect to contemplate that the time is approaching when one cannot feel secure in the privacy of his own affairs.” In John’s next letter from 1930, he describes taking his family to a cinema in Barcelona to see The Broadway Melody and states that,  “I myself have given up attending the shows long ago because I found that the films featured, with very few exceptions, were uniformly vapid and stupid.” He continues to review the film:

“I cannot say that I saw anything to induce me to alter my opinion regarding the quality of the stuff served up at the cine houses generally, even admitting that I was skeptical to begin with. In a great many scenes, the sounds coming over did not synchronize with the movements of the players on the screen and it seemed to me incongruous that these huge figures should be booming out their lines with the harsh grating sound of a foghorn one moment and the next be squeaking dismally like the dried up axle of a wooden wheelbarrow. Of course the recording apparatus may have been at fault but if you add to all this the horribly mutilated English spoken by the actors and the disgusting disrobing bedroom and bathroom scenes depicted where young girls in order to earn a living are induced at the behest of cinematographic magnates not only to throw off their clothing but also to throw off every vestige of womanly modesty they possessed and pose in nude pictures in order to create amusement for a type of humanity whose mentality cannot be above such a sordid spectacle…I felt impelled to the conclusion that I had not done a good turn to my family by taking them to see such an exhibition.”

He goes on to explain that while most Spaniards think that the movies accurately depict life in the United States, “intelligent people know that to be a travesty of the truth”. He comments that “pictures of this kind do incalculable harm to the moral prestige of the American people”.

As can be inferred from the tone of his comment about the intelligence of most Spaniards, Boyd is disdainful towards anyone who does not have a British background. In 1927, he wrote, “Here in Barcelona our local factories employ over three thousand work people and are staffed entirely by Britishers. Every year we send half a dozen Spaniards to our headquarters in Scotland for training in our business methods but in spite of that we would drop about 75% in efficiency if the British staff was weakened or withdrawn. We have got to be eternally alert. If we did not there would be an epidemic of sleeping sickness. Probably the climate accounts for it but the natives do take life easy.” Five years later, he wrote, “It is clear that under any form of government that Spain is hopeless. It seems to be inherent in the nature of the Spanish race to be rebellious as can be seen from the almost perpetual state of revolution and unrest.”

Americans, however, were slightly redeemed in Boyd’s eyes. While discussing European journalism about a trip which the Queen of Romania took to the US, he says, “Most of the continental papers contain the usual sarcastic articles on American avarice. The British papers take a saner view possibly because they understand the temperament of their own race better and are accustomed to it through so many Americans marrying into the British peerage.”

His letters contain interesting references to emigration from Scotland to the United States. He tells stories of cousins and friends who moved to the United States to find work and at first did quite well. However, by his 1932 letter, many had lost their jobs due to the Depression. Although Scotland’s economy was not doing much better than the United States, some of his cousins returned there because it already had systems of aid to support unemployed workers.

letterBoyd also discussed his opinions on international events. He approved of Spain’s military dictatorship under Rivera. In 1932, he wrote approvingly of the elections creating a republican government and of the king’s voluntary abdication. However, he also clearly believed that the military dictatorship had ruled Spain better than its new elected government.

Boyd also took a positive view of Mussolini. In another ethnocentric comment in his 1927 letter, he mused that “when one considers the volatile nature of the Italian temperament it appears very marvelous” that the entire Italian people seemed to be behind Mussolini.

One wonders what Boyd thought about events in the following years. What did he think of Mussolini as time went on? How did the Spanish Civil War and the takeover of the country by Franco affect his life? In light of the tumult, did he decide to remain in Spain after his retirement from the thread company as he proposed doing in his 1932 letter? Unfortunately, the correspondence stops in 1932, and so it remains a mystery.


Prepared by Annika Peterson


2 thoughts on “Collection Spotlight: John Boyd Letters

  1. Mary Lou

    Hello. The Frank Ellison you refer to is my husband’s grandfather and we are wondering if there is any way we can get a hold of either the letters or copies of the letters you refer to where John Boyd talks about the family? Also, do you know the source of these letters? Who had them?

    1. The Northern Tradition Post author

      Yes, we can get you copies of the letters. I am e-mailing you more information at the e-mail address given in your comment. It’s wonderful to know that our blog post helped you to find the letters!


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