23 February 1876
It was hard times. In late 1875, Canada, indeed all of North America, was mired in what today is known as the “Long Depression” which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted, according to some economic historians, for more than twenty years. To encourage business, Canada’s Governor General, Lord Dufferin, came up with an ingenious idea: Let’s host a gala fancy dress ball! This was a nineteenth-century version of the “trickle down theory” of aiding the poor. Invitations were sent out at the end of November for the event to be held at Rideau Hall on 23 February 1876.
There was precedent for such an event. Twenty-five years earlier in 1851, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert held a grand costume ball at Buckingham Palace “as an impetus to the trade of the British metropolis” according to the Ottawa Daily Citizen. At that event, the Queen wore le grand habit de court of Louis XIV. Her entire costume was made of material of British manufacture. In the depressed financial climate of late 1875, Lord and Lady Dufferin aimed to emulate Her Majesty and give a boost to the local economy.
Others weren’t so sure about the idea. The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, René-Édouard Caron, decided against holding his annual ball that year, instead donating $1,000 to a fund for the relief of the poor. Pierre Garneau, the recently-retired mayor of Quebec City, donated $500 to the same fund. The Ottawa Evening Citizen opined that it would be well for the Governor General and private citizens to follow their example. The newspaper added that it believed that a majority of people who received invitations to the ball could not “with justice to themselves and their creditors accept the invitation.” It advised a postponement of the event, or that the ball be abandoned altogether. Given the prevailing financial distress, “the strictest economy is necessary in pleasure as well as in business” the newspaper argued.
Despite such reservations, the Dufferins’ fancy dress ball proceeded as planned. In the three months leading up to the big night, dressmakers, tailors, and costumers worked flat out to dress the 1,500 guests. The Canadian Illustrated News said that “one long golden harvest was reaped by tradesmen” and that “in the present ‘tightness’ of things monetary, the Ball [had] been a perfect godsend.” Maybe Lord Dufferin was right.
There were costume mishaps. A Mr. Baird, who purported to be the agent for Miss Jennie Kimball, a well-known Boston-based costumier, announced that he could be found in room 52 at the Russell House Hotel and was taking orders for any costume desired, either for sale or lease. However, a short time later, Miss Kimball wrote to the Citizen denouncing Baird, calling him a “speculator and a very dangerous one.” He was not her agent. However, should somebody wish to procure a gown or costume for the Ball, they should contact Mr. St. Jacques, the manager of the Russell House, who would forward the request to her. She had costumes available for rent, including “Sir Rupert” in silver armour ($20), a Spanish matador ($20), the “Duke of Buckingham ($12) and “King Charles,” a snip at only $10.
The vice-regal Fancy Dress Ball began at 9:00pm. Getting to it must have presented challenges given that Rideau Hall was located on the outskirts of Ottawa and it was mid-winter. Indeed, it was bitterly cold on 23 February with a high of only -19 degrees Celsius that day. It was unlikely that many carriages could be “parked” at Rideau Hall, which, given the temperature, would have been brutal for the horses unless they could be accommodated in the Hall’s stables. Some people may have come by private sleigh, with servants dropping them off and picking them up at an appointed time. For those without private conveyance, there was hired sleighs, and Ottawa’s “mass transit” system of the day, ran by the Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company. The Company offered rides on its sleighs to and from Rideau Hall by arrangement.
The Ottawa Citizen called the Ball, “the crowing triumph of social life in Canada.” The attendees read like a “who’s who” list of Canadian political, legal and commercial heavyweights. Top of the list was Alexander Mackenzie, the prime minister, and his wife. The frugal Mackenzie, perhaps in sympathy with the hard economic times, wore his official court uniform which featured a lot of gold braid, rather than a more fanciful outfit.
Lord Dufferin and his family and staff were dressed in the style of the Court of King James of Scotland. Dufferin wore a doublet, with trunk hose, pearl-grey bas-de-chausses (stockings that covered the lower part of his legs), a short coat of black velvet trimmed with gold thread, topped off with a black velvet cap with a white feather fastened with a diamond aigrette. Apparently, his costume was considered quite sombre compared to those of his guests, and was the high of good taste.
Lady Dufferin was clad in a crimson petticoat with a satin train with two rows of gold embroidery. Her gown had closed sleeves of white satin puffed with crimson. Over this was a crimson velvet robe lined with white satin, with ermine trim. On her head was a crimson velvet hat decorated with white feathers. She also wore a girdle of jewels and necklace of diamond stars. The three eldest Dufferin children, Helen, Archibald and Terrence, also attended the ball in costume.
On arrival, guests were shown into the ballroom which was lit by hundreds of wax candles as well as gas chandeliers. Floor-to-ceiling festoons of roses covered the pilasters than lined the room. At the far end was a dais raised up on three crimson steps on which were two state chairs. A passage through the middle of the room to the dais was cordoned off. Two bands provided the music—the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Gruenwald band from Montreal. The guests were dressed in all sort of costumes—gods and goddesses, cavaliers, roundheads, Britannia, Father Christmas, Quebec guardsmen from 1759, Lady Liberty, and Jacques Cartier were all represented, as were more humbler Campagna peasant women, fishwives and shepherdesses. William Topley, the famed Ottawa photographer, took scores of pictures for posterity that now form part of the collection at Library and Archives Canada.
At 9:30pm, Their Excellencies, accompanied by their attendants, which included two pages, their son Terrence and his friend, Master A. Littleton, who was the son of the Governor General’s secretary, entered the ballroom at the head of a procession of the cream of Ottawa’s society. After the opening bars of “God Save the Queen” were played, the ball began.
The opening dance was a state quadrille, the first of two such dances, the second one being held mid-evening. Eight couples performed the intricate dance, including Lord and Lady Dufferin. The stately dance was almost eclipsed by young Terrence and Master Littleton. Dressed in fancy costumes and equipped with toy swords, the two did what any self-respecting youngster their age would do. While lounging in the two state chairs, the two boys began duelling. The Canadian Illustrated News reported that the clash of steel was covered by the music. No fingers were lost in the affray.
A novel feature of the Ball was its “singing quadrilles” where the dancers provided the vocals to the accompaniment of a piano. The songs were in the form of nursery rhymes “very ingeniously and sweetly harmonized” by Mr. F.W. Mills, who had composed the previous year a one act operetta called “The Mayor of St.-Brieux” for Lady Dufferin’s theatricals.
His Excellency had a busy night. Partnering his wife in at least two dances, Lord Dufferin also danced with fifteen other women.
The dance floor was packed, especially at the beginning. But things opened up as guests drifted through other parts of Rideau Hall, including its drawing rooms and corridors, which were decorated with banks of flowers, card-rooms, and the conservatories lit by Chinese lanterns. Quiet lounges were set aside for those who wished to take a breather from the dances and engage in a quiet tête-à-tête, or whatever.
At midnight, the Governor General escorting Mrs. Mackenzie, the prime minister’s wife, led the way to the new indoor tennis court which was richly decorated and converted into a supper room. The upper part of the court was festooned with rose and white bunting. Along its sides were placed twelve large shields on banners, including those of the United Kingdom, the Royal Arms, the Dominion Arms, the Arms of Canada, and the Arms of each Province. Each were surmounted by a Royal Crown. The Arms of Blackwood, Hamilton and Temple, which were the quarterings of the Governor General, were each surmounted by an earl’s coronet. At the other end of the room was a display of gold plate, heavy golden spurs and roses.
Three long tables ran the length of the room set with gold and silver services. There was a large candelabrum and a massive golden centrepiece which apparently had at one time graced imperial banquets in France in the court of Napoleon III.
At a “late” hour the next morning, the opening bars of “God Save the Queen,” brought the festivities to a close. According to the Canadian Illustrated News, the patriotic strains “sent a tired but delighted crowd from the charms of the unreal world back into the daily monotony of this very real and grimy, practical nineteenth century.”
A few days later, another ball was held in Rideau Hall. This one was for the servants who laboured so hard at the Fancy Dress Ball. A supper was also laid out for them in the still decorated tennis court.
If you were wondering about all those expensive costumes, many were reused less than a week after the event at Rideau Hall at the Quebec Members’ Ball, held in the newly finished Parliamentary Library. Such were the financially straitened times.
While the Fancy Dress Ball may have given a temporary financial boost to tradesmen as suggested by the Canadian Illustrated News, hard times continued in Ottawa and throughout Canada. The following year, unemployed labourers in search of work stormed Parliament Hill looking for the prime minister. Mackenzie said there was little he could do beyond public works that were already underway. He advised the men to seek their fortune out west.
His advice did not go over well. In 1878, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives sweep Mackenzie and his Liberals from power.
Canadian Illustrated News, 1876. “The Governor General’s Fancy Dress Ball,” 18 March.
Hamilton-Hobbs, Emma, 2019. “Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876-1896),” Library and Archives Canada Blog, 9 May.
Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1875. “No title,” 30 November.
————————–, 1876. “The Fancy Dress Ball,” 22 January.
————————–, 1876. “A Letter from Jeannie Kimball, 4 February.
————————–, 1876. “Grand Vice-Regal Fete,” 24 February.
————————–, 1876. “The Servants Ball,” 26 February.
————————–, 1876. “Quebec Members’ Ball, 29 February.