The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Tag: winter

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.

 

Diplomatic Lady

“She was a shy woman.”
Harold Nicholson about Lady Dufferin

In July 1872, a new wind began to blow in Ottawa that swept though all of Canada – which had grown to span the continent from coast to coast – and that emanated from Rideau Hall. Between 1867 and 1872, during the tenures of governors general Lords Monck and Lisgar, official Ottawa had been quite informal, according to contemporary sources (though Agnes Macdonald had found Lady Lisgar a bit chintzy). All that changed when the Dufferins arrived, who brought to Canada a grand social energy that bestowed a sparkle on the rough new Dominion it had not had before.

As the new governor general’s consort, Lady Dufferin – Hariot Georgina Rowan Hamilton – was not ‘Canadian’ but a diplomat’s wife, yet her interest and influence in Canada make her a Woman of Confederation. (Canadian citizenship, in any case, did not exist then; ‘Canadians,’ like the Dufferins, were British subject.)

Dufferin Source: New York City Public Library.

Falling in Love with Ottawa

Lady Dufferin, born in 1843 in a Norman castle in Northern Ireland and nurtured in grand estates, found that rough little Ottawa, and Canada, “agreed with her” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 163). Following his stint in Ottawa, Lord Dufferin, with Hariot by his side, went on to a splendid career, serving as ambassador to St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Rome, and Paris, and as viceroy in India, the jewel in the imperial crown, yet of all these postings, it was Canada that captured Lady Dufferin’s heart.

Her stay in Ottawa started ominously. After landing in Quebec, and immediately being “charmed” by the city and everything else she saw en route to the capital (Dufferin 3), she found that the “first sight of Rideau Hall did lower our spirits.” The access road to the building was “rough and ugly” and the house itself “at the land’s end” and without a view (4). Not twelve hours later, however, Lady Dufferin had already cheered up: “I dare say that in winter this place looks lovely! Our house is, they say, very warm and comfortable, and the Houses of Parliament which, after all, I do see from my windows are very beautiful … so why did I grumble? We have driven in state through the town, and have visited the Government buildings. I was delighted with the Senate, and with the Library, a large, circular room. When the House is sitting I may come and listen to debates” (4).

Political Observer

And that is exactly what she did. Like Agnes Macdonald before her, Lady Dufferin was a regular visitor to the Ladies’ Gallery in the House, actively following Canadian politics and staying, if necessary, into the early hours of the morning. She gained a reputation for animatedly reporting the proceedings to her husband (who by law was prevented from attending the debates to ensure his non-partisanship), and even acting out the speeches and gestures of individual speakers.

DufferinsLord and Lady Dufferin.

She immersed herself in Canadian life, doing charitable work and organizing amateur theatre – she herself was an enthusiastic actress – that had a “galvanic effect” on Ottawa and “spread through the town like a wild-fire” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 174). She also threw more parties and travelled further and wider in Canada than any woman in her position had done before, ever “impatient to see more of the country and the people” (8-9). She was the first Governor General’s consort to accompany her husband on his tours.

Travel, Travel, and More Travel

Looking back to the 1870s from our current perspective, one has to admire the stamina needed to undertake all those voyages at a time when travel was anything but fast and easy. In 1872, Lady Dufferin visited Quebec and Tadoussac (where the Dufferins chose to build a summer house) as well as Toronto and Hamilton. In 1873, while pregnant with their sixth child, she went to Montreal as well as, after the birth of a daughter in May, to the Maritimes, celebrating in Charlottetown Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation.

In 1874, while Lady Dufferin was pregnant again (with their seventh and last child), she toured Ontario, delighting in rustic accommodations and tents “spread with fir-boughs, which are laid down most carefully and scientifically by the men, and make a most delightful carpet and spring mattress” (168). In 1876, the Dufferins went to British Columbia, having to rely on American rail lines (Canada’s Pacific Railway was far from completed), and in 1877 they toured Manitoba, also accessible only by American rail (and boat). Before departing Canada in 1878, they squeezed in a trip to the Eastern Townships. Just about everywhere she went, Lady Dufferin enjoyed the beautiful scenery and pleasant, friendly people. The very air she found “delicious,” feeling overall “so well and cheerful!” (12).

The Joys of Winter

Even Ottawa’s cold climate, though warranting several entries in Lady Dufferin’s journal and thus apparently a matter of some concern, did not really put her off. On one occasion she wrote, “the thermometer was 10 below zero, but the day was bright, and we did not feel the cold at all” (49). One simply “wraps oneself up like a mummy,” she declared, “and drapes one’s face in an indispensable and most becoming cloud [a long wool scarf draped round and round], and thus defies the weather” (127). Her winter-hardiness alone should make us conclude that “Lady Dufferin is one of us” (Fowler 218).

Dufferin_cloud Lady Dufferin wearing a ‘cloud.’

In later life, she suffered a series of heavy blows. Her eldest son was killed in the Boer War, another in WWI, and her third son died in an accident in 1930; her husband died in 1902, having lost his entire fortune. She lived until 1936.

A Sense of Duty

The woman that emerges from Lady Dufferin’s Canadian Journal, though, is one that impresses through its enthusiasm, optimism, sheer physical health and vigor, vivacity, and the ability to have fun. That she was prepared to be such a public persona (not just accompanying her husband but occasionally also filling in for him) is all the more remarkable as she was, at heart, private. The mark she left on Canada – through involvement in politics, federal-provincial relations, social and creative activities – is a measure, therefore, not just of her lively interest in the Dominion, but also of her sense of responsibility and duty.

 

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Works Cited

Dufferin and Ava, The Marchioness of. My Canadian Journal. London: John Murray, 1891.

Fowler, Marian. The Embroidered Tent: Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

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