The Canadian Historical Dinner Service

18 June 1898

When John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, the 7th Earl of Aberdeen (later 1st Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair) was appointed Governor General of Canada in May 1893, few Canadians would have known that they were effectively getting two governors general rather than one. Lord Aberdeen’s wife, Ishbel, the Countess of Aberdeen, was not the traditional, self-effacing Victorian wife, content to live in the shadow of her illustrious spouse. While she fulfilled her expected roles of mother and hostess, her real passion in life was improving the lot of the poor, at home in Scotland, or wherever her husband was posted.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen LAC

Lord and Lady Aberdeen with (left to right) Dudley, Marjorie, George, and Archibald, Topley Studio-Library and Archives Canada, PA-027852.

Both she and her husband were progressive socially and politically, with links to the Liberal Party. Back in Scotland, she had founded charitable organizations aimed at improving the education and health of working-class women. When her husband was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the mid-1880s (and again prior to World War I), it was hard to tell who worked harder. Sensitive to growing Irish nationalism, Lord Aberdeen favoured Home Rule while his Countess worked tirelessly for Irish economic development, and better health care and housing for Irish poor. A Sinn Féin (Irish Nationalist) newspaper called her “the real governor-general of Ireland.”

In Canada, Lady Aberdeen continued her social crusading ways.  Immediately upon her arrival in the country, she launched the National Council of Women and was elected its first president, a position she accepted on the proviso she be considered an honorary Canadian. This was not some sinecure. She took the lead in making the Council a reality. She had already been elected President of the International Council of Women at the Chicago World Fair, a position she was to hold for more than thirty years. In 1897, she started the Victorian Order of Nurses in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, criss-crossing the country to drum up support and donations. She and other leading Ottawa ladies also worked hard to establish a public library in Ottawa, though this campaign didn’t bear fruit until some years after she and her husband had left Canada.

Charming, persuasive and an excellent orator, Lady Aberdeen’s effectiveness was also due to her willingness to use her high social position and contacts to her advantage. Needless to say, she irritated men who thought the role of the wife of a governor general should be limited to official hostess. Some saw her as bossy, sticking her aristocratic nose into things that weren’t her concern. One Halifax newspaper fumed that “we expect our Governors General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” A New York newspaper said she was “too clever and too advanced for Canadians” and that she was “too much interested in movements.”

During Lord Aberdeen’s five-year appointment, the couple tirelessly crossed the country meeting and greeting Canadians of all types. They had a particularly strong connection with British Columbia where they had a large ranch. The Aberdeens are credited with launching the Okanagan fruit industry on a commercial scale. Lord Aberdeen, already extremely popular among Canadians of Scottish and Irish extraction, endeared himself to French Canadians by speaking French, and promoting French culture and heritage. It was he who started the practice of speaking in both official languages at public gatherings in Quebec. He also spoke Gaelic when he visited Nova Scotia. (There were so many Gaelic speakers that there was an attempt in the mid-1890s to make Gaelic Canada’s third official language.)

Aberdeen dinner plate

Dinner plate, Parliament Buildings and Ottawa River by Martha Logan (1863-1937), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia.

In 1898, Lord and Lady Aberdeen took leave of Canada. His last speech in the Senate was on 13 June 1898 when he prorogued Parliament. It was an emotional affair for all concerned. After the Governor General had concluded his valedictorian speech, people adjourned to the drawing room of the Senate’s speaker. There, Lady Aberdeen was given a farewell present, the gift of senators and members of parliament. The Honourable George William Allan of the Senate and Mr. Frank Frost, the Liberal MP of Leeds North and Grenville North made the formal presentation of a 204-piece formal dinner service. Speaking on behalf of everyone, Senator Allan said that the dinner service was a “memorial to their esteem and affection in recognition of the signal devotion of Her Excellency [Lady Aberdeen] to the promotion of all good works in Canada and [her] invariable kindness to the members of the Dominion Parliament.” He noted that the painted plates were the work of the Women’s Art Association of Canada and was hence “most suitable for presentation, both because it is purely Canadian and because it is the result of efforts of Canadian women, in whom Your Excellency has always shown the deepest interest.”

Aberdeen Fish

Fish plate, Cytherea gibbia, Halymenia ligulata by Lily Osman Adams (1865-1945), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

Lady Aberdeen was surprised and genuinely touched by the magnificent gesture. She responded without notes, saying that she was “overwhelmed” by the splendid gift. She added that the parliamentarians “could not possibly have chosen anything that [she and her husband] could have valued more,” and that it held “a special value to [her], being handiwork of those Canadian women workers with whom [she had] so many cherished associations of affectionate sympathy and co-operation for common aims and common works.” She concluded by saying that during every festive event, the plates would remind them of their stay in Canada.

The dinner service had its origins in an idea championed two years earlier by Mary Ella Dignam, the founder and president of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) as a way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the John Cabot’s journey of discovery to North America in 1497.  Sixteen Canadian women artists were jury-selected to paint images of Canadian places of historic importance as well as examples of Canadian flora and fauna on the 204-piece, ceramic dinner service.[1] Dignam hoped that the Dominion Government would buy the service, which was called the Cabot Commemorative State Service, for use at Government House (Rideau Hall) for state banquets. The selling price was $1,000 (roughly $30,000 in today’s prices).

Aberdeen soup

Soup plate, Entrance to Fort Lennox, by Clara Elizabeth Galbraith (1864-1941), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

In an interview that appeared in The Globe newspaper in 1897, Dignam credited a Mr. Howland (most likely Oliver Aiken Howland, an Ontario politician and future mayor of Toronto) as coming up with the idea of commemorating the event with a historical work, and a Mr. Thompson with the suggestion that the work take the form of a state dinner service. However, Dignam was the person who brought the idea to fruition. In addition to honouring Cabot and equipping Rideau Hall with a distinctively Canadian dinner service for state events, Dignam hoped that the work would help establish ceramic art as a “permanent industry” in Canada.

The inspiration for a Canadian state dinner service appears to have come from south of the border. In 1879, the wife of then U.S. president Rutherford Hayes commissioned a state dinner service for the White House featuring American flora and fauna. The plates were designed by the American artist Theodore R. Davis and were produced by a company in Limoges, France. While this American service may have provided the model for the Canadian dinner service, Dignam was adamant that there was no resemblance between the two services except for their intended use. The American plates were designed by one man and decorated in one factory, whereas the Canadian plates were the designed by many female artists and were made across the country.

Aberdeen dessert

Dessert plate, Redcurrants by Alice M. Judd (18?-1843), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

After being selected through a competition, the sixteen artists bought commercially-produced, plain white, ceramic “blanks” produced by Doulton China of England for $6.60 a dozen. Dignam promised the artists at least $60 less ten percent for twelve pieces of original ceramic art, on the assumption that the service would be sold for $1,000. The rest of the funds raised would go to cover other expenses such as postage. If the service didn’t sell, the artists were on the hook to find buyers for their creations.

Each place setting consisted of a soup plate, fish plate, dinner plate, game plate, salad plate, cheese plate, dessert plate and a coffee cup and saucer. Each plate and cup had its own unique design. A ceramics committee of the WAAC provided a collection of pictures and sketches of Canadian historic sites, Canadian game animals, fish, shells and ferns for the inspiration of the artists. Artists were assigned plates to design, paint and fire. For example, Mrs Egan of Halifax and Miss Whitney of Montreal were assigned the game plates, with the former painting large game birds and the latter small game birds. On the rim of the game plates were painted the food favoured by the species shown in the centre. On the back of every plate was a special red logo of the shield of the WAAC surmounted by rendering of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, with the dates 1497-1897 underneath.

Aberdeen saucer

Saucer, Jewel weed by Anna Lucy Kelly (1849-1920), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

The artists had only four months to complete their designs and fire the plates. Working in isolation from each other, the full dinner service was only seen in its entirety when the ceramics committee assembled it for inspection. The Cabot Commemorative State Dinner Service went on public display at the Pantecnetheca (116 Yonge Street) in Toronto in July 1897. It was subsequently displayed during the British Association meeting held in Toronto the following month, and at the headquarters of the WAAC where Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister, and Lady Laurier inspected the pieces. The dinner service then travelled to other cities for public viewing.

While the dinner service was highly praised, Mary Dignam was unable to persuade the Dominion Government to part with the $1,000 needed to cover the costs of production. So, Dignam approached Lady Edgar, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who put her in touch with a number of senators and members of Parliament. More than 150 senators and MPs put up the required $1,000 in a private subscription to purchase the dinner service to honour the Canadian achievements of Lady Aberdeen.

The dinner service, now called the Canadian Historical Dinner Service, went home with Lord and Lady Aberdeen and took up residence in their home, Haddo House, where it was stored in a specially-built cabinet. The dinner service, which is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland, resides there to this day. In 1997, part of the service was exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now known as the Canadian Museum of History, for the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s journey to North America.

Sources:

Duncan, March 2015, “An Irishman’s Diary on Lady Aberdeen,” The Irish Times, 3 March.

Elwood Marie, 2018. “The Cabot Commemorative State Service for Canada, 1897 – A History,” Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/cadeau/caint02e.shtml.

—————–, 1977. “The State Dinner Service of Canada, 1898, Material Culture Review, Vol. 3, Spring, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/16955/23046.

Globe (The), 1897. “Chit Chat,” 15 April.

—————, 1897. “The State Dinner Set,” 23 July.

—————, 1897. “Chit Chat,” 8 October.

—————, 1897. “Ceramic Art,” 4 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1997, “Exhibits celebrate unusual art objects,” 8 September.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “A Farewell to the Aberdeens,” 14 June.

[1] Lily Osman Adams, Jane Bertram, M. Louise Couen, Alice M. Egan, Clara Elizabeth Galbraith, Justina A. Harrison, Juliet Howson, Margaret Irvine, Alice Lucy Kelley, Margaret McClung, Hattie Proctor, M. Roberts, Phoebe Amelia Watson and Elizabeth Whitney.

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Victorian Order of Home Helpers, a.k.a. the VON

10 February 1897

By early 1897 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was fast approaching. Across Canada, communities and governments were trying to decide on how best to mark this historic event. On 10 February 1897, a public meeting was held under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Canada in the assembly hall of the Normal School on Elgin Street to discuss a proposal to establish the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a means of honouring the Queen’s long reign. This idea was consistent with the Queen’s wish that celebrations be connected with efforts to alleviate the suffering of the sick and poor. The Council’s president was the Countess of Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks, was a woman of extraordinary energy and ability. An early feminist, she had founded a number of charitable organizations in her native Scotland that focused on poor women. Following her husband’s appointment as Canada’s Governor General, she founded in 1894 the National Council of Women of Canada, and was the Council’s first president.

VON Lady Aberdeen, 1898, LAC

Lady Aberdeen, 1898, Library and Archives Canada

The idea of a national organization of “Home Helpers” originated in western Canada, possibly at a meeting of the Vancouver local council of women and Lady Aberdeen. Another report suggested that the idea came from the local council of Victoria, and was later forwarded to the National Council of Women. Regardless, Lady Aberdeen was an early supporter and quickly became identified with the proposal.

The public meeting at the Normal School was well attended. With the Governor General and senior government officials present, including the Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, Lady Aberdeen addressed the assembly. She stressed the debt owed by women to Queen Victoria—“no section of Her Majesty’s subjects have more cause to sing the praises of this glorious epoch than the members of Her Majesty’s own sex.” She noted that new possibilities had opened up for women during the Queen’s reign. The Queen has demonstrated that a woman can “have an intimate knowledge and grasp of the affairs of state whilst at the same time being a model of all womanly, wifely, and motherly virtues and charms.”

Speaking about the proposed scheme, Lady Aberdeen said Home Helpers would need to have a practical knowledge of midwifery, first aid, home-keeping, simple home sanitation, and the preparation of food for invalids. She thought that a “Home Helper” would be “constantly visiting homes in need—would be giving advice, cheering the home and doing various acts of mercy and kindness.”  Successful applicants, who would have to pass an examination set by the medical profession, would be supplied with a uniform and the badge of the Order.

She estimated that $1 million was needed to ensure that funds would be available in perpetuity. Local women’s councils would undertake collections in co-operation with others. The Bank of Montreal agreed to receive subscriptions.

At the public meeting, Wilfrid Laurier, moved the following resolution, seconded by Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior:

That this meeting heartily approves of the general character of the scheme described as the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a mode of commemoration by the Dominion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and that a fund be opened for the carrying out thereof.

Despite governmental support, Lady’s Aberdeen’s Order of Home Helpers met mixed reviews, especially from members of the medical profession. Although doctors in Montreal, including Professor Craik, the dean of McGill’s medical school, supported the plan, it was rejected by others, including the Ontario Medical Association, as being impractical and even dangerous. Many feared that well-meaning but otherwise under-qualified women would be sent out to administer to the sick.

In part as a way to alleviate these concerns, the name of the scheme was quickly changed to the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The plan was also tweaked to make it clear that only highly-qualified nurses would qualify for the Order. The VON’s objectives were also clarified. They were: i) to provide skilled nurses in sparsely settled regions of the country; ii) to provide skilled nurses to attend sick poor people in their own homes; iii) to provide skilled nurses to attend cases in cities at fixed charges for persons of small incomes; iv) to provide cottage hospitals or small lying-in rooms in homes; and v) to train nurses to carry out these objectives. Nurse salaries, estimated at $400-500 per year, would be paid by the Order, with any fees collected by nurses from those who could afford them to be sent to the Order.

Despite these changes, opposition continued. Many doctors believed that it would be better if physicians and surgeons were paid bonuses to go out to frontier districts, or if funds were used to expand existing hospitals. Others doubted whether “even a very strong-minded female,” would be physically up to the rigours of a north-western winter if called out in the middle of the night.

Lady Aberdeen and other officials worked hard speaking to groups across the country to drum up support for the Victorian Order of Nurses and to dispel rumours that only minimally trained nurses would be hired. They also stressed that instead of replacing doctors, the nurses would, to the extent possible, be working under their direct supervision. This helped. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, which had been a fervent opponent to the scheme, was converted. Instead of believing that the Victorian Order of Nurses was “a well-meaning fad” that was “ill-digested, unwise and impractical,” as it had earlier opined, it concluded that “as the scheme becomes better known and its aim better understood, opposition and indifference will disappear.” The paper chided Winnipeg doctors for not attending a public meeting where details of the scheme were presented.

Some criticisms became very personal. The Halifax Herald attacked Lady Aberdeen. It wrote that the proper commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was being “frustrated through Lady Aberdeen’s inability to mind her own business.” It was a “thoroughly quixotic scheme” and that “we expect our Governors-General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” The New York Evening Post said that Lady Aberdeen was not popular in Canada, being “too clever and too advanced for Canadians.” Instead of paying attention to “etiquette and raiment,” she was “too much interested in ‘movements.’” Clearly the sight of an independent woman striving to make a difference in a male-dominated world was too much to stomach for some members of the public.

Given such criticisms, Lady Aberdeen must have received a much welcomed confidence boost when the British Medical Association and Lord Lister, the father of antisepsis, endorsed the Victorian Order of Nurses. She must have been similarly gratified when Florence Nightingale, the most famous nurse of all time, also came out in favour of her scheme.

VON toej 3-6-98

Newspaper clipping announcing the granting of a Royal Charter to the Victorian Order of Nurses, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 3 June 1898.

Here in Ottawa, weekly meetings were held through the spring of 1897 in the Governor General’s office in the Departmental building on Parliament Hill to get the VON up and running. A provisional management committee was established, comprised of some high-powered people, including Lady Ritchie, the wife of Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Bishop of Ottawa, and Sir Henri Joly de Lotbinière, a former premier of Quebec, later to become the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Four trustees were also appointed to manage the money that began to flow to the Order. Sandford Fleming, a resident of Ottawa and the father of world-wide standard time, was one of the trustees. In late April 1897, the VON was officially endorsed by Ottawa citizens at another public meeting at the Normal School. The indefatigable Lady Aberdeen presided.

Slowly the money began to roll in. Subscriptions began at 5 cents. Both the great and small contributed. Sir Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal), the president of the Bank of Montreal and the man who hammered in the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway, donated $5,000, and pledged another $5,000 as soon as donations of $100,000 had been made by others contributing $1,000 or more. Meanwhile, fourteen children, the oldest aged 12, at a francophone school near Ottawa sent in their allowances. Their teacher attached a letter to Lady Aberdeen saying “The children of my school cannot pass this occasion to do something for Queen Victoria. Not being rich but having the will to aid the poor, they send you the amount enclosed.” The letter listed the names and ages of the children.

Although the scheme came nowhere near reaching the goal of $1 million, a huge sum back in those days, it received enough in donations and pledges, about $250,000, for it to proceed. On Jubilee Day, 22 June 1897, Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General officially announced the formation of the Victorian Order of Nurses as a lasting tribute to Queen Victoria.

VON Charlotte MacLeod, c. 1897. LAC

Miss Charlotte MacLeod, First Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses, 1898, Library and Archives Canada

The VON hit the ground running. Within its first year, Lady Aberdeen had acquired the home of Alderman Davis of Ottawa at 578 Somerset Street for the Order’s headquarters. VON training homes were also established in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Miss Charlotte MacLeod, who had worked with Florence Nightingale, was named as the VON’s Chief Superintendent. In the spring of 1898, four nurses were sent to help administer to the sick in the Yukon. At this time, tens of thousands of people were travelling to the Klondike in the great gold rush.  Disease, owing to poor sanitation, was rampant. Lady and Lord Aberdeen bid the nurses au revoir with a dinner at Rideau Hall on the eve of their departure on their month-long journey to Dawson City.

In early June 1898, it was announced that the Victorian Order of Nurses had received a Royal Charter for Canada as well as a local charter for an Ottawa chapter for the counties of Carleton and Russell in Ontario, and the country of Ottawa in Quebec. Life membership in the Ottawa chapter was set at $100, with an annual membership costing $5. Quickly, Ottawa had 18 life members and 40 annual members. A meeting was also held in the committee room of the Ottawa City Hall to elect a board of management. With the now Sir Sanford Fleming in the chair, an all-woman, twelve-person board was elected. Prominent among them were Lady Laurier and Lady Ritchie.

In late 1898, Lord Aberdeen’s tour of duty as Governor General came to an end. But before the vice-regal couple left Ottawa, Lady Aberdeen received a letter from Colonel Evens, the commandant of the Yukon military contingent expressing his and his soldiers’ “sincere appreciation” for the services of the Victorian Order nurses. “The work of the Victorian Order in Dawson is a great one, and the opening of the new hospital was providential.  Their presence with the force has been invaluable…I don’t know how we should have fared without them.”

Today, the Victorian Order of Nurses has 5,000 employees and 9,000 volunteers, and provides 75 home care, support and community services in more than 1,200 Canadian communities.

Sources:

Halifax Herald (The), 1897. “A Halifax Opinion,” in The Ottawa Evening Journal, 25 May.

Manitoba Morning Free Press, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 23 April.

————————————-. 1897. “The Victorian Fund,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victoria Order,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Order of Nurses,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 2 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 7 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Doctors And The Victorian Order,” 8 June.

The New York Evening Post, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” in the Vancouver Daily World, 12 August.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Victorian Home Helpers,” 11 February.

————————————-, 1897. “Some Explanations,” 3 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Getting Organized,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Citizens Will Meet,” 21 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 24 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Ottawa Is In Line,” 26 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 14 June.

————————————-, 1897. “The Scheme Unpopular,” 13 July

————————————-, 1897. “Eager To Help, 20 July.

————————————-, 1898. “Klondike Nurses,” 28 March.

————————————-, 1898. “Music For Rideau Hall,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1898. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 3 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Home For V.O.N.” 7 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Women’s Council,” 12 July.

————————————. 1898. “Victorian Nurses In The Klondike,” 1 October.

Vancouver Daily World, 1897. “Women Helpers,” 22 February.

—————————–, 1897. “Taking Practical Form,” 26 March.

—————————–, 1897. “Cablegram from Sir Donald Smith” 28 June 1897.

—————————–, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 1 October.

—————————–, 1898. “Training Home For Nurses,” 27 July.

VON Canada, 2017. http://www.von.ca/.

National Council of Women of Canada

11 April 1894

The National Council of Women of Canada, an Ottawa-based, women’s advocacy group, celebrated its 125 anniversary in October 2018. It was founded in 1893 in Toronto by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the then Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks (pronounced Marshbanks), was a person of outstanding ability with a strong interest in social reform, an interest shared by her husband. In Scotland, she established, among other things, the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union that helped young girls in cities, and the Onward and Upward Association that provided education to servant girls. She was also head of the Women’s Liberal Federation that advocated for women’s suffrage.

Shortly after her husband took up his post as Governor General, Lady Aberdeen attended the congresses of the National Council of Women of the United States and the Women’s Alliance held at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893. There, she spoke on women as a force in politics. This was, of course, long before women’s suffrage. Canada’s Dr. Emily Howard Stowe also spoke at the same meeting. Stowe was the president of the Women’s Enfranchisement League of Canada. Subsequently, women convened at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago where it was decided to organize a National Council of Women in every country which in turn would be affiliated with the International Council of Women. Lady Aberdeen was elected as the International Council’s first president. She was to hold this position for three extended terms—1893 to 1899, 1904 to 1920, and 1922 to 1936. May Wright Sewell, an American pioneer for women’s rights, was elected Vice President. Sewell was famous for advocating sensible clothing for women at a time when women’s clothing, which included corsets, bustles, petticoats and floor-length skirts, was anything but sensible.

The small group of Canadian women who attended the meetings in Chicago returned home ready to organize a National Council of Women of Canada. Five months later in late October 1893, hundreds of women assembled in Toronto to launch the new organization under the leadership of Lady Aberdeen. Speaking to the assembly, she remarked on how wonderful it was to look at the advances made in the recognition given to “women’s work, women’s education, women’s influence, and women responsibilities in all directions.” She also commented that women of her day owed much to the heroism of such people as prison reformers Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin. As well, Lady Aberdeen outlined the plan for the National Council. She envisaged every town having a local council or union of women’s organizations which in turn would send delegates to a National Council so that the “work and thought of women in the Dominion” would be represented from “Halifax to Victoria.” The locals and National Council would be free of religious denomination and open to all. The only requirement would be that the institution or organization have as its objective the good of mankind. Besides sharing information about what each group was doing and identifying gaps, the idea behind a National Council was to draw strength from unity in order to advance nation-wide social objectives. At the meeting, Lady Aberdeen was elected President of the National Council of Women of Canada. She accepted the position on the condition that the women of Canada allowed her to be considered an adopted Canadian.

National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, Oct1898 LAC-PA-028033

Lady and Lord Aberdeen with the National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, shortly before their return to the United kingdom, October 1898, Topley Studios/Library and Archives Canada, PA-029033

After this inaugural conference, major cities in Canada began forming local councils of women’s organizations and associations. Organizations that had both male and female members could also join if the women of those organizations put forward a woman representative to participate in council meetings. Toronto was the first city to establish a local council in early November 1893 with 24 federated societies or associations. This was followed by Hamilton and Montreal later that same month with 25 and 32 member organizations, respectively. Ottawa followed in mid-January 1894 with 27 member organizations. These included: the Children’s Hospital, the Protestant Home for the Aged, the Home for Friendless Women, the Protestant Orphan’s Home, St. Patrick’s Asylum, the Ottawa Humane Society, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Women Christian Temperance Union, and the Ladies’ Auxiliaries of many Protestant churches. There were few Catholic organizations as the Roman Catholic Church had not yet given its blessing to the new Women’s Council. The cost to affiliate with the Ottawa local council was $2.

Lady Ritchie, born Grace Vernon Nicholson, was elected the first President of the Ottawa chapter. She was the wife of Sir William Johnstone Ritchie, who at the time was Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lady Ritchie had for many years been the president of the Humane Society. She was also the Vice-President of the National Council of Women of Canada.  Other vice-presidents, all women with high-powered connections, included Mrs R.W. Scott (Mary Ann Heron), wife of Mr. Richard W. Scott (later Sir), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Madame Taschereau (Marie-Antoinette Harwood), the wife of Supreme Court Justice Henri-Elzéar Taschereau (later Sir), Mrs Erskine Bronson (Ella Webster), the wife of Erskine Henry Bronson, the businessman and philanthropist, and Mrs Gwynne, the wife of another Supreme Court Justice, John Wellington Gwynne.

Normal School Ottawa, Topley-LAC-PA-008857

Ottawa Normal School, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008857.

The first Convention of the National Council of Women of Canada took place in Ottawa over a two-day period beginning 11 April 1894 under the direction of Lady Aberdeen. The afternoon prior to the meeting, the Executive Committee of the Council met at Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General, to finalize last-minute arrangements for the Convention. Around a large table set in the middle of the room sat the presidents of the various local councils and representatives of nationally-organized associations affiliated to the National Council. Lady Aberdeen chaired the meeting.  It was described as a very business-like affair with full regard given to Parliamentary rules. It was also described as “very womanly” as “the meeting did not adjourn without the inevitable cup of tea.” After the meeting, blotters and pens were removed and the table was reset for an Executive Council dinner hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen.

The Convention officially began the next morning at 10 a.m. in the convocation hall of the Normal School at Elgin and Lisgar Streets. (Today, this Gothic-revival building erected in 1874 forms part of the Ottawa City Hall.) The hall was decorated with flags and bunting with flower arrangements in the windows and on the platform. For the first session, roughly 120 women were present from all the principal cities of Canada. Lady Aberdeen presided over the proceedings. She began the meeting with a silent prayer after noting that the women present represented “different creeds, different churches, different races (i.e. English and French), have different views but are all children of the same Father.”

In her opening address, Lady Aberdeen provided a traditional assessment of woman’s place in society. She described the movement as “mothering.” While not everybody had children, all women were called upon to “mother” in some way, she said. As well, it was the responsibility of women to be the “true homemaker”—“her husband’s companion, her children’s guide” who “should always understand the changes that take place in the everyday world.” She hoped that the Council would be able “to forge a grand band of union between the members as homemakers and home builders.” Later in the conference, she noted that some thought that the Woman’s Council was only a cover for a campaign for women’s rights. She assured people that the women’s movement was “not seeking to agitate for rights or to glorify their own sex at the expense of the other.” Women’s duties rather than women’s rights were their watchwords. Such duties were to the poor, to the fallen and to the ill. Moreover, as well as finding cures, it was important to get to the root causes of the evils.

National Council ExCommitee Oct1898, Topley-LAC PA-028035

Executive Committee of the National Council of Women of Canada, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-028035.

Lady Aberdeen’s description of women in their traditional roles as nurturers and caregivers may have in part been directed at disarming potential critics rather than being indicative of her own beliefs. Her position as the Governor General’s wife also limited her to what she could say or do. When approached by women’s suffrage supporters for her support, she refused to comment noting that the subject was politically too controversial.

Over the two-day convention, papers were presented and discussed covering three broad topics—co-operation in the workplace, women’s clubs and their advantages, and the relation of parents and children and their responsibilities—with three to four papers presented in each section. When the presenter on “co-operation of working women for protective purposes” was unable to speak, Lady Aberdeen stepped in and took her place. Lady Aberdeen spoke of women employed in Toronto factories and workshops earning as little as $2-3 per week, with the women’s pay docked for the slightest excuse. She also spoke about the impact of women who worked for pocket money on the wages of those who worked for a living. When buying cheap items in a bargain store, she thought that the purchaser needed to reflect upon the lives of those women who made those goods. Lady Aberdeen opined that a union was necessary—a radical position for somebody in her position at this time.

Also discussed was the issue of domestic service. While not a subject that resonates today, it was a major topic back in the late nineteenth century. Papers were provided from the mistress’s point of view, the servant’s point of view, and on possible solutions. While the report on the discussion was very limited, it would appear at issue was the difference between a mistress’s expectations and a servant’s rights. One suggestion to improve the lot of servants was for families to be content with cold dinners on Sundays.

The Ottawa author and poet Annie Howell Fréchette spoke on raising difficult children. In a very well received lecture, she told the audience that “no child should be asked to submit to a rule that will not permit the search-light of wisdom and right.” She added that “the rod of correction cannot be the diving road that searches the pure waters in the child’s soul.” In other words, corporal punishment doesn’t work—a very modern concept, and one that did not jibe with the biblically-derived proverb of “spare the rod, spoil the child” that many took literally at the time.

At the conclusion of the first day’s business, the Aberdeens hosted a huge reception for delegates and guests at Rideau Hall, opening up the entire ground floor of their home. More than one thousand people showed up despite a conflicting ball being held on the same night at the Russell House Hotel for the wives of members of parliament and senators. Many people attended both functions. Lady Aberdeen wore black with diamonds as she was in mourning for the death of her father the previous month. In the ballroom, amateur musicians and vocalists played and sang. Refreshments were served in the winter tennis court under a red and white marquee that was lowered from the roof.

The highlight of the second day’s afternoon session, which was open to the public, both men and women, was the appearance of Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General, and Sir John Thompson, the Prime Minister. Lord Aberdeen heartedly endorsed the formation of the National Council of Women of Canada, saying that it would promote “greater unity of heart, sympathy, and purpose among the women workers of all sections and classes of the people.” He also thought that it was no longer “a strange or fantastic thing that a body of ladies should be gathered together with the serious and definite purpose of promoting the public welfare.” Lord Aberdeen became the Council’s first patron, donating $100.

Sir John Thompson seconded the motion and congratulated himself that the National Council had been established during his premiership. He promised that “the sympathy of Parliament would be extended to the movement in any practical form.” This, of course, did not extend so far as supporting women’s suffrage.

At its first Convention, the National Council of Women of Canada approved a number of resolutions. It urged provincial governments to appoint women inspectors for factories and workshops that employed women. Another resolution advised provincial departments of education to supply schools with an improved history of Canada, with decent maps, that skillfully blended the “whole record of ‘Indian Romance,’ ‘French Chivalry,’ and British Endeavour.’” Governments were also called upon to use international arbitration to settle international disputes peacefully. As well, the National Council asked local councils to co-operate with the Children’s Aid Society to try to secure separate prisons and trials for young offenders, especially first-time offenders.

National Council of Women Lady Aberdeen Lady Taylor Mrs. John H. AchesonLACPA-057319

Lady Aberdeen (right) with Mrs John H. Acheson, 2nd President of the National Council of Women, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-O57319.

Following the conclusion of the Convention, a number of affiliated associations held their own meetings at the Normal School. These included the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Dominion Girls’ Friendly Society, the Montreal Hebrew Sewing Society, the Montreal Ladies Morning Musical, the King’s Daughters, and the Temperance Workers of Hamilton.

From this auspicious beginning, the National Council of Women of Canada grew and prospered. During the late 1890s, it was active in bringing free public libraries to Canadian cities, including Ottawa in 1906. It was also active in the development of the Victorian Order of Nurses formed in 1897 with Lady Aberdeen as its first president. In the early twentieth century, it came more involved in the women’s suffrage movement. The National Council also supported the “famous five” Alberta women, all of who were Council members, in their fight in 1930 for women to become eligible persons to sit in the Senate of Canada. Other work over the years included efforts related to public health, equal pay for equal value, rights of children, and consumer protection. These and other initiatives have improved the lives of countless Canadians.

The Council’s work continues today educating the public and working with governments on a host of issues including human rights, reproductive technologies, violence against women, development assistance and disarmament.

 

Sources:

Evening Journal (The), 1893. “The Divided Skirt At The World’s Fair,” 17 May.

—————————, 1893. “Lady Aberdeen Elected,” 20 May.

—————————, 1893. “The National Council of Women of Canada,” 2 December.

————————–, 1894. “Women For Women,” 17 January.

—————————, 1894. “Twenty-Five In Affiliation,” 8 February.

—————————, 1894. “Women’s Field,” 11 April.

—————————, 1894. “National Enthusiasm,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Bargains and Sweating,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Notes,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “It Has The Sympathy Of The House,” 13 April.

Globe (The), 1893. “Where Women Held Sway: National Council For Canada,” 28 October.

————–, 1893. “Women Of Canada,” 10 April.

————-, 1893. “The Women’s Council,” 13 April.

————-, 1893. “From A Woman’s Standpoint,” 21 April.

Harris, Carolyn, 2016, “Lady Aberdeen,” in Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ishbel-gordon-lady-aberdeen/.

National Council of Women of Canada, 2018. http://www.ncwcanada.com/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 2017. “The Capital Builders: Lady Aberdeen, a feminist for Canada,” 25 June.

Lady Aberdeen’s Historical Fancy Dress Ball

17 February 1896

These days, dressing up in fancy costumes is mostly confined to Halloween parties and fantasy conventions such as Comic Con, where super heroes and fairy princesses abound. But back in the latter part of the nineteenth century, costume parties were very fashionable, especially among the upper and middle classes in Britain and North America. Popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, dress-up balls were quickly adopted by high society. People delighted in wearing fantastic costumes as long as there was some ostensible historical or literary theme to provide social cover; one couldn’t just have fun. Balls hosted by socialites or aristocrats were widely covered by newspapers and magazines just as today’s tabloids report on celebrity events. The names of the invited, the costumes they wore, and the evening’s entertainments were often front page news even in the most serious broadsheet.

For the sexually repressed and sober-minded Victorians, being able to dress up provided relief from convention’s restrictions, as well as scope for self-expression. A lady, whose normal clothing consisted of a floor-length dress with multitudinous petticoats and long sleeves, could provocatively display her ankles, or wear a diaphanous silk gown, as long as she was portraying a peasant girl or some exotic Oriental princess. Instead of a severe chignon, she might wear her hair loose on her shoulders, a style suggestive of the bedroom, without fear of social opprobrium. For a gentleman, the fancy dress ball allowed him to become the peacock. For an evening, a man could put aside his black frock coat in favour of brightly coloured satins, ruffs, and lace, and transform himself into an Elizabethan courtier, a Stuart cavalier, or a Georgian dandy.

Aberdeen Fancy Dress Ball

Lady Aberdeen’s Historical Fancy Dress Ball , Senate Chambers, Ottawa, 1896

While many rented their outfits from professional costumiers, others spent small fortunes having their costumes specially made following extensive historical research. No higher accolade could be received than to be called historically accurate. Even better would be to wear actual period clothing handed down through the generations, or to buckle on an ancestral sword.

In February 1876, Canada’s Governor General, the Earl of Dufferin, and his wife hosted a historical fancy dress ball at Rideau Hall. Lord Dufferin appeared as James V of Scotland, while Lady Dufferin came as Mary of Guise, James V’s wife. The event, which was widely covered by journalists in North America and Britain, put Ottawa, and for that matter Canada, on the social map of the world. No longer could the city be considered a rough, shanty-town in some distant, frigid land. The ball was effectively Ottawa’s “coming out” party.

The Dufferin ball was the talk of the town for a generation. However, by all accounts, it was eclipsed by an even more spectacular ball hosted by a later governor general and his wife, Lord and Lady Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks, was the prime mover behind the event. A considerable personality in her own right, she had strong social views, founding the Victorian Order of Nurses. She was also a proto-feminist, establishing the Canadian branch of the National Council of Women whose mission was to advance women through education and encouragement.  She also loved historical pageants and fancy dress. The Aberdeens hosted three major fancy dress balls during the late 1890s, held respectively in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

The first of the three was held in the Senate Chamber in the old Centre Block on Parliament Hill on Monday, 17 February 1896. Its theme was outstanding episodes in Canadian history. It was no accident that the contributions of French Canadians were highlighted. The late nineteenth century was a time of major religious and linguistic divisions in Canada. The decision of the Manitoba government in 1890 to eliminate Catholic public school education, and to make English the sole language of instruction in publicly-funded schools brought these divisions into the open, and threatened the unity of the country. After a number of court decisions, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, Canada’s highest appellant court, ruled in 1895 that the Dominion government had the power to force the province to fund French-language, Catholic schools. This ruling split the weak, vacillating Conservative government of Sir Mackenzie Bowell, some of whose members were anti-Catholic and anti-French. The progressive Lord and Lady Aberdeen, who were very conscious of the prevailing religious and linguistic undercurrents, wanted to underscore and honour the richness of French Canadian history, thereby helping to educate English Canadians about the role played by their Francophone co-citizens in the discovery and development of Canada.

Approximately 1,300 invitations to the ball were sent out in early February, but planning for the event started much earlier. Lady Aberdeen and eight society women (the wives of judges and members of parliament) each took responsibility for enlisting their friends and acquaintances to participate in nine historical groups of twenty or so members. Each group dressed in period costumes, with individuals representing historical figures, such as Jacques Cartier, or supporting characters such as peasants, trappers, and aboriginal peoples. The theme for each group was chosen with the help of Dr John Bourinot, the clerk of the House of Commons, the author of a number of books on Canadian history. In chronological order, the groups included: i) the Voyage of the Norsemen to North America, circa 986-1015; ii) the Discovery of the Continent by Jean Cabot,1497; iii) the Discovery of Canada by Jacques Cartier, 1534-36; iv) the Foundation of Port Royal (Annapolis) and the Settlement of Acadia, 1604-1677; v) the Foundation of Montreal and the Settlement of the Surrounding District, 1641-1670; vi) Days of Settlement and Exploration from Tracy to Frontenac, 1665-98; vii) the Days of Montcalm and Wolfe and the Conquest of Canada, 1754-60; viii) from the Fall of Port Royal (Annapolis) to the Second Taking of Louisbourg, including the Expatriation of the Acadians,1710-58;  and, finally, ix) the Coming of the United Empire Loyalists, 1775-92.

The ball was almost cancelled before the formal invitations went out owing to the death in late January of Prince Henry of Battenberg who was married to Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter. Court protocol called for six weeks of public mourning, meaning no court entertainments. Notwithstanding this, the Aberdeens went ahead with their plans. As a nod to protocol, the governor general and his wife did not dress up for the ball. Instead, Lady Aberdeen wore formal court dress with ostrich feathers and veil while her husband wore his official Windsor uniform.

Prior to the big day, the historical groups practiced the period dances they were asked to perform, as well as a number of special poses, or attitudes, that illustrated their particular subject. A dress rehearsal was held two days before the actual ball. Some groups hired dance instructors to help them with their steps as some of the dances were quite intricate. For example, the group portraying Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada performed a quadrille, while the participants in the “Days of Montcalm and Wolfe” danced a faranole. Other dances included a gavotte, a bourrée, and a pavane. For the expatriation of the Acadians, young girls danced around a maypole; there was little reference to the Acadians’ expulsion despite the title of the theme, though perhaps a direct reference to that unpleasantness would not have been well received given the circumstances.

To keep down the personal expenses of guests, Lady Aberdeen invited two costumiers from Montreal to come to Ottawa to help outfit her invitees. People could rent their outfits for the night for $5 to $10 dollars (roughly $100-200 in today’s money). In preparation for the ball, the Senate chamber was closed for two days prior to the big event to permit workmen to lay a temporary pine dance floor at a cost of $25,000, equivalent to at least a half million dollars today, the tab for which was picked up by the Dominion government. This exorbitant cost was later the source of criticism, as was the allegation that labourers worked through the Sabbath to complete the floor in time for the ball.

In addition to the dance floor, bunting and decorations were also installed in the Senate chamber. Each pillar was draped with blue silk banners, topped with a crown. On one side of the vice-regal throne the armorial shields of the governors of New France were installed along with the white royal standard of France decorated with golden fleur-de-lys. On the other side were placed the shields of English governors and Union flags. The escutcheons of Great Britain and Canada were also displayed. One of the galleries overlooking the Senate chamber was set aside for the orchestra, while the Parliamentary rotunda was converted into buffet-style dining room.

The ball began at 9pm, guests having previously arrived on Parliament Hill on sleighs, their invitations checked at the door by policemen. Most of the guests were initially confined to the upstairs Senate galleries to watch the performances of the nine historical groups who began their routines after the arrival of the Governor General and Lady Aberdeen, along with the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and Supreme Court Judges.  After each historical groups had performed its dances, their members were formally presented to the vice regal couple. The Aberdeens marked their appreciation for the dancers’ efforts by giving each participant a silver brooch or a scarf pin carrying their family motto, Fortuna sequitur. At about 11pm, the roughly 240 participants in the nine historical groups and the vice-regal party left the dance floor to take refreshments in the Parliamentary rotunda. With the floor cleared, the other guests who had been watching from the upstairs galleries were allowed onto the dance floor. Dancing continued until 5am.

Just before the vice-regal party and the nine groups of historical performers left the Senate chamber, the performers who had played parts of First Nations’ people in the earlier historical groups rushed to the centre of the room war-whooping in a stereotypical display of “the savage Indian.” The impromptu group was led by Hayter Reed, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Hayter, who was dressed in a full-length, Plains feather headdress, was supposed to represent the sixteenth-century, Iroquois leader Donnacona, who travelled to France with Jacques Cartier. Ostensibly speaking in Cree, with his words “interpreted” by another individual representing the Algonquin chief Tessouat, Hayter spoke of the Indians’ love for the “great chief,” and passed Aberdeen a peace pipe. It was not evident that anybody minded or was even aware of the cultural insensitivity and historical inaccuracy of the portrayal of Canada’s first inhabitants.

The ball was deemed a great success. Toronto’s Globe newspaper said “the brilliant spectacle was beyond comparison.” The Aberdeens could take comfort watching “Montcalm” and “Wolfe” dancing on the same floor. Their efforts at bringing together English and French in harmony was achieved at least for one night, the nation’s linguistic and religious divisions temporarily forgotten.

 

Sources:

Bourinot, J. G. 1896. Historical Fancy Dress Ball held in the Senate Chamber, Ottawa, John Derie & Sons Publishers.

Buchart, Amber, 2012. In the Spotlight: An Unofficial History of Fancy Dress, 26 October, http://amberbutchart.com/2012/10/26/in-the-spotlight-an-unofficial-history-of-fancy-dress.

Canadian Museum of History, 2015. Dressing Up Canada, http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/balls/i-1eng.shtml.

Cooper, Cynthia, 1997. Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General, 1876-1898, Goose Lane Editions and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Globe, 1896. “Vice-Regal Ball, The Brilliant Affair, The Talk of the City,” 19 February.

————, 1896. “Vice-Regal Ball: Senate Chamber Thronged with Youth and Beauty,” 19 February.

————, 1896. “The Commons Bar,” 13 April.

Image: The Aberdeens’ Fancy Dress Ball in the Senate Chambers, Ottawa, Ontario, 1896, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3384402, Samuel J. Jarvis Fonds, C-010108.