“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.