The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: Agnes Macdonald

Crowning Glories

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
Brothers Grimm

Looking at pictures of Agnes Macdonald, Lady Dufferin, and other Confederation women, how can one not notice the hair? These women’s hairstyles are astonishing!

Agnes_hair Agnes in 1873 with elegant updo. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

 

Dufferin_hairLady Dufferin wearing a similarly intricate hairstyle. Source: Manitoba Archives.

Isn’t that something? How long did it take to put together those styles?

Quite a while, I should think. Just take a look at the first few steps for creating an updo in the following instructions.

Hair-instructions

Going to Great Length

Canada’s women of Confederation wore large and elaborate hairstyles. (They may have been taking their cue from their American neighbours, where hairstyles had been quite plain during the Civil War era – often simply parted in the middle and pulled back – but had also gotten larger in the course of the 1860s.) It looks as though a mass of hair was needed to put together those styles, and often the women did indeed have very long hair.

Aline_Vallandri Soprano Aline Vallandri with floor-length hair.

Vallandri, in an interview for Every Woman’s Encyclopedia described as “the famous Cantatrice, who has the Most Wonderful Hair in Europe,” advised women similarly endowed to keep hair and scalp clean, but also “to avoid any excessive use of water.” Instead, she suggested “much brushing” – a practice religiously followed by women of the time – and to avoid curling tongs but to massage the head regularly. She also endorsed “cutting the hair and singeing the ends with a lighted taper [as] beneficial for the growth.”

It’s fairly obvious from Vallandri’s picture that she grew her hair all her life, and that was standard practice for Victorian women. Never mind that the sheer weight of the hair must have given them constant headaches! Hair was considered the “crowning glory” of a woman’s beauty. It was also an indicator of social class – no working woman could afford to fuss with her hair for an hour before going off to scrub floors – and of maturity. In public, only young girls wore their hair loose or in braids. Adult and married women wore it pinned up. No exceptions. Letting her hair down, literally, signified privacy and intimacy.

“Fare Thee Well, My Beloved Friend”

Another common practice was the exchange of locks of hair for sentimental reasons. In a time when travelling to see friends or relatives who had moved elsewhere wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today, and when, frankly, life expectancies were shorter and mortality rates higher, locks of hair were mementos – literally a piece – of someone loved and perhaps lost.

In L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (published in 1908 but steeped in Victorian culture), Anne asks her bosom friend Diana for “a lock of [her] jet-black tresses in parting to treasure forevermore,” when the girls believe that they are never to meet again. Anne intends to sew the lock of hair up “in a little bag and wear it around [her] neck all her life” (110, 111). She intends the lock of hair, in other words, to be an instrument for remembrance.

Little Helpers

Masses of hair might have been nice, but not everyone had them. Fake stuff to the rescue!

Elaborate_hairstyle

The appearance of luxuriant, thick, long hair could also be achieved with the use of fillers (also called “rats”) and multiple hair pieces. For instance, if the woman’s own hair was heat-damaged – the Marcel wave that relied on curling irons was invented in 1872, and curls supposedly indicated a milder, sweeter temperament – fillers and hair pieces could be deployed to create the volume and height essential for the era’s elaborate styles.

hairstyle_backview

Not ratty

Hair rats could be made from a woman’s own hair.

Hairreceiver Source: Jackie Hyman

Hair receivers (ceramic or crystal) were commonly found in women’s boudoirs. Stray hairs were collected from the brush after brushing and put through the receiver’s opening for storage. Once sufficient hair had accumulated, it was rolled by hand into a tight sausage shape. The natural hair was then arranged over it and secured with pins. Voilà ! Great style.

Hairdresses (here with velvet pansies), hair wreath (with forget-me-nots), combs and pins were also used in creating the period’s styles.

Headdress

Hair_wreath

Hairpin

The Power of Hair

Toward the end of the Victorian era, the Delineator, a popular American women’s magazine read and appreciated also by Canada’s women of Confederation, summed up the importance of women’s attention to their hair as follows:

“A potent factor in any woman‘s appearance is her coiffure. Indeed, no other item of her toilette is really so influential, either to emphasize or to lessen her natural attractiveness, since no fashion is so capable of affecting the actual expression of her countenance as is one that pertains to the arrangement of the hair. The often-admired ‘crowning glory’ may be rendered almost a disfigurement if disposed unbecomingly, while a tasteful and careful dressing of the tresses, even though they are not very beautiful, will lend a decided charm to a plain face.”

Fashions are subject to change, but the complexity of Confederation women’s hairstyles is another indicator of the (self-)discipline that was part of their lives.

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Works Cited

Every Woman’s Encyclopedia. https://archive.org/stream/everywomansencyc07londuoft/everywomansencyc07londuoft_djvu.txt, accessed November 2, 2014.

“Fashionable Hair Dressing.” Delineator, December 1894.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. New York and London: W.W. Norton Critical, 2007.

 

First Wife

“I do so like to identify myself with all my Husband’s pursuits & occupations.”
Agnes Macdonald, Diary

Agnes.

Agnes the good, the care-taker, the preserver of him who was the hero, the arranger of domestic order and calm, the sayer of prayers. Agnes of God.

Agnes the shrew, the nay-sayer, the destroyer of all fun, the abstainer from booze (though he liked it), the enforcer of rules. Agnes the moralizer. Agnes of sourness and boredom.

Who was She?

Historians and biographers have long tried to figure out Agnes Macdonald, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s wife (and the new Canadian Dominion’s first ‘first lady’), ascribing to her a curious split – or double – personality: one, the vivacious, attentive, caring wife; the other, the humourless battle-axe inclined to stern judgments. That inability to pin Agnes down – and the consensus about her perceived multiple personality disorder – say as much about the apparent unease that has met political wives, and perhaps particularly prime ministers’ wives, in the nation’s mind, as they do about the complex character of Agnes.

Imacon Color Scanner Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Agnes Macdonald, Political Wife

A recent biography of Sir John A. credits Agnes – if perhaps somewhat grudgingly and born out of the trend to acknowledge more women in historical texts – as “a Mother of Confederation” (R. Gwyn 18). The label appears to be ‘official’ recognition of the person and role of the politician’s wife. Agnes is portrayed as always attentive to her husband’s needs and, through her care, even as having extended his life by the decade and a half he needed “to give the country a spine” (26). Even so, the split-personality view of Agnes (with all its unsympathetic characterizations) is perpetuated yet again.

Agnes certainly was closest to the centre of the whirlwind that was post-Confederation Canada. She was, after all, married to John A., but she owed her (perhaps privileged) position as much to her intimate relationship with the nation builder himself as to her own intelligence, interest in politics, and attraction to power.

During both of Macdonald’s tenures as premier, Agnes regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons. Seated in the Ladies’ Gallery, she was able to observe the proceedings (as well as to be observed in her attendances; there could be no question that she kept herself informed!). She even communicated messages and the political mood among the ladies present to her husband using the sign language they both had learned (Newman 10).

As early as July 5, 1867, just days after Confederation, Agnes noted with wry humour in her diary, “Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.” The comment isn’t just amusing. It also exposes as well as destabilizes the strict division between public and private space (that applied particularly to women), highlighting Agnes’s astute awareness of her ‘place.’ More so, in politicizing the kitchen, the very centre of domesticity, Agnes defines her domestic situation as “an active site of political negotiation and influence” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 108).

Agnes_reading Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In addition to her function in the politics of Canada – and her influence through her role as John A.’s confidante in the “political experience” of marriage (Rose 7) – Agnes also actively built the nation through her involvement in the church and in charitable organizations, such as the Ottawa Orphans’ Home. This engagement, providing examples of female participation in the public sphere, contributed to the production of civic society in the new Dominion.

Perhaps Agnes provokes a certain amount of hostility in commentators because as a woman who was highly intelligent, intellectually curious, serious-minded, and at times rather stern, she does not conform to traditional ideas of femininity. And perhaps political wives, unless they are more or less invisible, are bound to be controversial because of their closeness to power.

An Itinerant Life

Curiously, despite the uncertainties of political life, the 24 years of Agnes’s marriage to John A. were perhaps the most sedentary and stable in her life. Born Susan Agnes Bernard in 1836 to plantation owner parents in Jamaica, she experienced a series of upheavals before coming to Canada with her mother in 1854: her father’s death in 1850; farewells to two brothers whom she would never see again; a move to Britain; a further uprooting in the move to Canada. In Canada, Agnes and her mother lived with Agnes’s lawyer brother, Hewitt, who had become Macdonald’s private secretary. The job involved moving repeatedly while the government alternated locations between Toronto, Quebec City, and finally Ottawa (in 1865 – Agnes and her mother were not attracted to Ottawa; they chose to go to England instead).

Following a whirlwind romance in late 1866 to early 1867, the spinster – Agnes was thirty at the time – and the widower – Macdonald had been married before, to Isabella Clark, who had died in 1857 – were married. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born disabled and who required special care throughout her life. After Sir John A.’s death in 1891, Agnes and Mary went to live in Europe, where “they were wanderers and would continue to be such for the rest of Agnes’ life” (Reynolds 150). Agnes died in England in 1920.

Agnes_Mary Agnes and baby Mary, June 1869. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Love and Grief

In all her undertakings, Agnes was, first, John A.’s wife. She was not just interested in her “husband’s pursuits & occupations,” as she says in her diary (July 7, 1867), and not just attentive to his wellbeing, but also “head over heels in love with her brilliant husband” (S. Gwyn 192). Seen through her eyes, the intellectually edgy prime minister emerges “laughing like a schoolboy with his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown back” (July 7, 1867) or enjoying a quiet evening reading on the sofa, while Agnes rests her head on his shoulder (November 17, 1867).

How painful would it be for her to find that her contribution to Canada’s story has gone “largely unrecognized” (Sutherland, “‘Good Housekeeping’” 36). And how much more painful to find that history assesses her marriage as one of “convenience,” and John A.’s feelings for her as ones of “respect” and “loyalty” but “never stronger than these” (R. Gwyn 17, 25-26)?

It is equally possible that the easy affection Agnes and John A. shared early in their marriage was ground down by the tragedy of having a severely disabled child, as well as turned into a perhaps more profound but also more burdensome kind of love by the strain and effort invested by both, in different ways, into building a nation.

 

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Sources and further reading

Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume II: 1867-1891, Toronto: Vintage Canada Editions, 2011.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

Macdonald, Agnes. Diary, 1867-75; 1883. LAC. Macdonald Papers, MG26A, Vol. 559A.

Newman, Lena. The John A. Macdonald Album. Plattsburg: Tundra, 1974.

Reynolds, Louise. Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990. Print.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1983.

Sutherland, Robin. “‘Good Housekeeping’: Agnes Macdonald Writes About Home and Parliament in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 35-49. Print.

—. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Zeller Thomas, Christa. “Proximity to Power: Relationality in Agnes Macdonald’s Diary.” Conference paper, 7th IABA: Life Writing and Intimate Publics, Brighton, UK, 2010.