The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: Socializing

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.

 

Stepping Out

“Baby … dance with me tonight.”
Olly Murs

This blog post should perhaps have been my first one, because without the events on which it is based (and that lie just outside my timeframe of 1865-1900), Confederation would never have happened.

The conferences in Charlottetown in September and Quebec in October of 1864 paved the way for the constitution of Canada in 1867. And one woman recorded the behind-the-scenes socializing – and there was plenty of it – in her diary: Mercy Ann Coles, the twenty-six year-old daughter of George Coles, former premier of Prince Edward Island and leader of the Liberal opposition to Confederation (PEI did not enter Confederation until 1873 because it initially found the terms unfavourable). Mercy, the eldest of “several attractive daughters, well educated, well informed, and sharp as needles,” according to George Brown, owner of the Globe newspaper (qtd. in Dann), wrote about the dinners, balls, déjeuners, and outings that made up the social side of the conferences.

Mercy_Coles Mercy Coles during her visit to Quebec in 1864. (Source: McCord Museum.)

Without her diary, “Confederation history is incomplete,” Anne Macdonald has recently argued. Mercy’s record offers “an intimate view of Canada’s movers and shakers of the time. It includes places and events that made up Canada’s social and cultural history” (31).

Province_House_Ball_1864 Dusan Kadlec, Province House Ball, 1864. (Source: Parks Canada.)

Gossip Girl

Thanks to Mercy’s diary, we know that the Confederation conferences were not just, 24/7, about serious political maneuvering.

We know, for instance, that the daughters of William Steeves, conference delegate from New Brunswick, seemed “to be the possessors of the parlour downstairs [at Government House in Charlottetown]. I think they never leave it,” Mercy noted (perhaps with some indignation). “There is a Mr. Carver who seems to be the great attraction.”

Province House Province House, location of the 1864 Charlottetown conference. (Source: Parks Canada.)

And we know that Samuel Leonard Tilley, the premier of New Brunswick and a widowed father of seven, was a hot item among the unmarried ladies: “It is rather a joke,” wrote Mercy in the context of the first big event in Quebec, “he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour.”

And we know that the would-be nation maker himself had, as usual, his game face on. Thus, Mercy wrote, “Mr. J. A. Macdonald dined with us last night. After dinner he entertained me with any amount of small talk.” Was Macdonald interested in her? Or was he wooing her father by paying attention to Mercy? Just a few days later she recorded, “I went to dinner in the evening. John A. sat along side of me. What an old Humbug he is. He brought me my dessert into the Drawing Room. The Conundrum.” Whatever the precise “conundrum” may have been that night, it is clear that John A. was fully aware of the stakes of the conferences and therefore was performing his public, political persona, even to a young single lady.

Shake That Booty

The festivities that took place at the Drawing Room in the Legislative Building in Quebec were the most sought after, and again Mercy recorded for posterity her impressions of the splendour:

“We all went down to the Drawing Room last night. Quite a crowd when we all got together. All the ladies looked very well and were quite a credit to the lower provinces. Pa, Ma, and I went together. A half dozen gentlemen wanted to take me into the room, but I preferred to go in with Papa. The Governor General stood in the middle of the room with his private secretary on his right hand. We did not require to have any [visiting] cards. The Aides announced us each time. … There were about 800 people presented.”

Spencerwood Spencer Wood, Quebec, residence of the Governor General at the time of the conferences, before the government’s move to Ottawa. (Source: Library and Archives Canada.)

Dancing figured prominently among the entertainments provided. “I went down to the Ball last night,” Mercy wrote about another evening’s fun, “such a splendid affair.” She delighted in being a desirable dancing partner: “Mr. Crowther danced with me the first quadrille. … I was engaged for every dance.”

The Congress Dances – and Advances

Mercy may well have wished to present herself as a statesman’s daughter “with imperial feminine virtues – conscious of the male gaze and playing the role of a young woman under its spell” (McDonald-Rissanen 201), but another observer, PEI delegate Edward Whelan, confirmed in his articles for the Examiner newspaper that dancing at the conferences was far from simple fun.

Calling the senior conference members “the most inveterate dancers I have ever seen,” Whelan also noted that “they are cunning fellows; and there’s no doubt that it is all done for a political purpose; they know if they can dance themselves into the affections of the wives and daughters of the country, the men will certainly become an easy conquest” (“The Life and Times”). Mercy accordingly notes in her diary after one event (that she had to sit out because of being ill), “Papa came home with every stitch of clothes wringing wet with perspiration,” having danced the night away.

Victorian_Dancing

Dancing, at those steamy conference balls, clearly meant putting one’s best foot forward in more than one sense.

Rather than taking the view, as male writers and critics have done in the past, that the feminine perspective offers “no great issues … to agitate the mind” (Sinclair quoted in Wright 8), Mercy’s diary demonstrates that, however civically-minded a nation, however engaged its leaders, without social energy the political apparatus might well get stuck for lack of lubrication.

P.S. Whatever Mercy may have hoped for from the conference social activities, she never married. She died in 1921 or 1922 in Charlottetown, having lived into her eighties.

 

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Works Cited

“The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867.” https://archive.org/stream/lifeandtimesofco030808mbp/lifeandtimesofco030808mbp_djvu.txt, accessed November 16, 2014.

Coles, Mercy Ann. “Reminiscences of Canada in 1864.” LAC MG24-B66.

Dann, Moira. “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?” Globe and Mail, Aug. 28, 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/where-were-the-mothers-of-confederation/article4284401/, accessed November 16, 2014.

McDonald-Rissanen, Mary. In the Interval of the Wave: Prince Edward Island Women’s Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Life Writing. Montreal and Kingston, London, Ithaca: MQUP, 2014.

MacDonald, Anne. “Daughters of Confederation.” Canada’s History Aug.-Sep. 2014: 30-33.

Wright, Donald. “Introduction to the Wynford Edition” of The Elegant Canadians, by Luella Creighton. Don Mills, On.: Oxford UP, 2013. 1-8.