The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: Fashion

The Muffin

“Dashing through the snow.”
Les Paul, “Jingle Bells”

Just in time, as winter is setting in – the long, cold, snowy, icy Canadian winter (am I making myself clear?) – a little heart-warming story about a roughly Confederation-era, distinctly Canadian type of woman: the muffin.

To pre-empt any speculation that a muffin is a kind of cupcake you buy at Tim Horton’s (or Starbucks, or Bridgehead, or wherever your desires take you), muffins abound in contemporary accounts of 1860s Canada.

One distinguished visitor to Canada, for instance, William Howard Russell, war correspondent extraordinaire – he had earlier reported on the Crimean War – of The Times of London, admiringly described skating “muffins” as wearing “dandy jackets and neat little breeches.”

Similarly, the sister of Governor General Sir Charles, Viscount Monck, Lady Frances Monck (who visited her brother in Canada from 1864-1865), took note of a group of well turned-out “muffins” guarding their complexions: “All the girls now wear blue veils with their fur caps, as the hot sun tans.” She also found one especially fascinating muffin on the rink, performing “most exquisite skating,” proper “poetry of motion,” who was jauntily dressed in a “red petticoat and stockings, and … a brown dress and pretty fur cap—no cloak.”

Lady_Monck Lady Frances Monck. (Source: McCord Museum.)

You say potato, …

A somewhat more disapproving visitor, however, Isabella Bird, commenting on the gay (in the contemporary sense of the word) spectacle she witnessed, noted with a frown: “It might be expected that the Bishop’s family would move in a different class of society, but no. Miss Mountain is a muffin and received officers the whole morning while pretending to be crocheting and in winter drives a tandem sleigh to Montmorency Falls. Any young lady who is not a ‘muffin’ in the winter is totally despised.”

It was, finally, W. H. Russell who explained, “A muffin is simply a lady who sits beside the male occupant of the sleigh …, and all the rest is leather and prunella.”

Well, not quite, Mr. Russell. There was a bit more to it than that.

Winter Wonderland

The muffin was a winter creature, and winter in Canada “was a magic season, a never-ending holiday, played out against the wild, sweet music of sleigh bells. It was in the garrison days at Quebec that the mythology of the Canadian winter … first began to take hold” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 29). Quebec, Montreal, Kingston – Canada’s garrison cities presented a colourful scene with officers and men in dark green and scarlet uniforms, many of them driving their own low-slung sleighs, also sporting the regimental colours. Need I spell out that our (pre-)Confederation women were delighted by their presence and attentions?

Enter the muffin. Every girl aspired to be one. Muffins sparkled, looking “very nice and bright, flying along in sleighs, with their men friends” (Monck) – those friends being the same dashing military men just mentioned.

Miss_Muffin Alice Killaly. A Picnic to Montmorenci. Captain Buzbie drives Miss Muffin. (Source: Creative Commons.)

What the ‘in’ Girl Wears

Since “muffinage” was a lot about making an impression, it’s perhaps unsurprising that “muffins had their own distinct uniform for sleigh-riding: a perky little cap made of sealskin and velvet; a scarf of finest wool, two and a half yards long, wrapped round and round the forehead and neck” (Gwyn, Private Capital 30) – the so-called “cloud” already mentioned (Diplomatic Lady).

Thus decked out, the muffins sped away to ice picnics at Montmorency Falls, to enjoy hot food and dancing. There, the “Cone,” as Lady Monck recorded, was “formed by the frozen spray from the Falls falling on a large rock out in the river. The big cone is about eighty feet high.” It was hollowed out to form a chamber and held ice sculptures along with an ice sofa and table.

Once the Governor General moved with the government to Ottawa, “the great tradition of winter fun travelled with [him]” (L. Creighton 60). At Rideau Hall, skating and tobogganing parties were held, and the fashion changed to involve what has since become a Canadian icon: the blanket coat, worn by muffins and men alike, with brightly coloured stockings, a sash, and a knitted ‘tuque.’ A muffin’s blanket coat was “cut to follow the proportions of her frame and the silhouette of her skirt,” signaling among other things an emancipatory development in the coat’s “true assimilation into women’s wear” (Stack 27).

Blanket_Coat A later, 1880s, blanket coat, tuque, sash, and snow shoes. (Source: McCord Museum.)

It’s All Fun and Games

Punishing though the Canadian winter can be – well, is – Canadians in the pre- and early Confederation era reveled in it. Everyone, it seems, skated – Montreal had two rinks, one opened in 1862, the other in 1867, illuminated in the evening by gas lamps – tobogganned, curled, sleighed, and snow-shoed. Muffins weren’t just, as Mr. Russell would have it, decorous-looking females. They skated “exquisitely” (according to Lady Monck, above), drove their own horse sleighs (remember Isabella Bird’s disapproval), including through Quebec’s narrow streets (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 31), hurled themselves in toboggans down precipitous slopes – and managed to look good in the process.

Skating_costume 1860s skating costume (unlike the blanket coat, above, still made for wide skirts). (Source: Metropolitan Museums.)

Our Confederation foremothers demonstrated that they were just as capable as their men to cope with – and relish – Canada’s inclement winter. They, too, had tenacity and determination along with the physical and mental toughness it took to build a northern nation.

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Works Cited

Bird, Isabella. “Diary.” Library and Archives Canada. R12849-0-2-E.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1989.

Creighton, Luella. The Elegant Canadians. Don Mills, On.: Oxford UP, 2013.

Monck, Frances. My Canadian Leaves: an account of a visit to Canada in 1864-1865. http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/monck-leaves/monck-leaves-00-h-dir/monck-leaves-00-h.html, accessed November 30, 2014.

Russell, William Howard. My Diary North and South. https://archive.org/details/mydiarynorth00russrich, accessed November 30, 2014.

Stack, Eileen. “‘Very Picturesque and Very Canadian’: The Blanket Coat and Anglo-Canadian Identity in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century.” Ed. Alexandra Palmer, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. 17-40.

 

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.