The Canadian Historical Exhibition stirs nationalist sentiment in June 1899.
When the Canadian Historical Exhibition opened at Toronto’s Victoria College in June 1899, journalists hailed that its myriad exhibits would, by arousing historical awareness, awaken nationalist sentiment among visitors. Items on display ranged from domestic utensils of pioneer households and General Isaac Brock’s watch, to a brick from Fort Rouillé and military colours flown at Lundy’s Lane. Actual objects of this sort brought “new vividness” to history, a Mail and Empire reporter argued, unmatched by invocations of the past in poetry and books.
“We see that the people then had the same unceasing toll as to-day; that they had their ambitions and jealousies, their friendships and antipathies, their loves and hatreds,” a Globe writer echoed, asserting how preserved relics offered a tangible connection with history, bridging the past with the present. “We see that the cares and trials, the endless strivings, the triumphs and joys, the nobility and meanness of a past age, have been handed down to us, and that we in turn will pass them on to others. It is the historical romance springing from a lively imagination and sympathetic human heart that tells us the truth.” The public’s reaction as they turned out to the two-week Exhibition in droves, fulfilling Saturday Night‘s prediction it would be “one of the successes of a very bright season.”
(Right: Poster for the Ontario Historical Society’s 1899 Historical Exhibition. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.)
The idea of staging a historical exhibition originated in late 1895 with Oliver Aiken Howland, a lawyer, member of the provincial assembly for Toronto South between 1894 and 1898, and future mayor of Toronto. In late 1895, he initiated planning of a summer-long celebration for July 1897 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s journey to North America. Undoubtedly influenced by the immense success of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—400 years after Christopher Columbus’s explorations of the Americas—Howland boasted his would be an event “of great national and intellectual importance.”
He envisioned historical exhibits, and zoological and botanical gardens sprawling across the buildings and grounds of Queen’s Park and the university, including the recently opened Parliament, and predicted over 500,000 would visit—including royalty. Attractions would include pageants and ceremonies, military reviews, music and entertainment, and an international congress debating “the history and nature of the principles of government as applied to the constitution and government of the British Empire.”
(Left: Portrait of Lady Edgar from the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto Transaction No. 8 .)
“No such exhibition has ever been attempted in any other country,” Howland proclaimed in the Globe, “and the novelty of it alone must attract large numbers of visitors, but its educational value both from scholarly and patriotic points of view must prove inestimably great.” Making speeches before local bodies and promising that historical exhibits assembled and all proceeds raised could be used for the establishment of a public museum and art gallery, Howland secured support of local history societies, literary and cultural organizations. He believed the ambitious venture could be funded through a combination of provincial and municipal grants, and by selling shares to the public at large. But, despite seemingly widespread support for an Exhibition—as evidenced by a well-attended public meeting at St. George’s Hall in February 1896—the proposal never moved beyond initial discussions.
The idea of a historical exhibition was revived by the Ontario Historical Society in 1898, albeit as a less ambitious endeavour. The OHS had been formed that same year with the collection and preservation of artifacts and documents, and the establishment of a historical and ethnological museum as some of its central goals. Although there already existed a small Provincial Museum on the third floor of the Toronto Normal School, the OHS urged the provincial government to fund the establishment of a permanent, comprehensive museum.
Attracting the public to a province-wide exhibition of relics and artifacts, the OHS decided at a meeting in September 1898, would strengthen demand for a public museum. A sub-committee was struck to investigate plans. Chaired by Charles Canniff James, the deputy minister of agriculture, the sub-committee’s membership included Lady Edgar (Matilda Ridout), Mary Agnes FitzGibbon, and Sara Mickle—three leading members of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto (WCHST), which had been founded in November 1895 with goals that overlapped with those of the OHS.
(Right: Mirror belonging to Mrs. Wolfe at the Canadian Historical Exhibition, Victoria College, 1899. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.)
By the next OHS meeting in February 1899, the sub-committee reported great enthusiasm from around the province. Having contacted hundreds of local history and cultural groups willing to loan exhibits and artifacts, the sub-committee certainly had no shortage of material to put on show. But, citing financial constraints and the difficulty of members scattered around the province to carry out the heavy-lifting required for such a large event, the OHS elected not to pursue the matter with haste.
Early the next month, led by Lady Edgar and FitzGibbon, the women of the WCHST took the initiative to fundraise and organize the historical exhibition themselves, along with any volunteers willing to help. They quickly secured the $265.00 previously raised for the earlier Cabot celebrations, a $100 grant from the Ontario government, $35 leftover from a grant to the OHS, as well as smaller sums from individuals. And they secured a venue when the board of Victoria College offered the use of its building and grounds on Queen’s Park for the last two weeks in June. The women organizers, Gerald Killan writes in his history of the OHS, soon proved “a force to be reckoned with and brooked no interference from officious males outside their ranks.” University of Toronto historian George M. Wrong offered his own take after a disagreement with the women at an organizing meeting, and complained: “Women are in the ascendency there, and they will run the [Ontario Historical] society into the ground.”
Once again local history societies around the province, and other interested organizations were approached about loaning relics and documents to illustrate the history and progress of Canada and Ontario in particular. A circular outlined the sorts of things the organizers were looking for: First Nations artifacts, items related to the fur trade and pioneer life, military implements, and any personal property—books, pens, or snuff-boxes—”once belonging to any distinguished Canadians or others connected with Canadian history.” However, it also specified what organizers didn’t want, namely any “[o]bjects that are merely curious and without any educational value.”
Private collectors and individuals were also invited to participate on the organizers’ belief that personal items handed down through generations of common folk—but of no apparent interest beyond their family—could play an important part in illuminating the wider history of the country. One newspaper article placed in the Globe (April 22, 1899), made this pitch:
Few families in Canada are without some treasured relic of the past which carries with it the history of some event, some record, some reference to or reminiscence of the men or women who have done their share, added their [effort] to the making of the history of the locality in which they lived. The man who laid out the first road, who built the first house; cleared the first space in the forest; the man whose skill, whether with rude axe or modern triumph of scientific instrument, sword or pen, whose knowledge or eloquence at home or abroad has built up his native or adopted country, or has reflected honor on his alma mater, or has moved men to better deeds, and life; the women whose patient endurance of solitude, who in the hour of peril were strong to do and dare for love of home, loyal to king and country, whose influence has sent men of power out to make their mark, to leave their names upon the honor roll of their country’s fame—all have left in portrait, sword, medal, written record, printed book, faded sampler, wedding dress, bit of lace or silver, or maybe only a well-worn cook book, something about which the story of a period or life may be told. Thus in vignettes, picturesquely illustrated by the exhibits, may the history be made intensely interesting.
The call for submissions was successful beyond the organizers’ best hopes. As soon as the organizers moved into offices at Victoria College in early June, exhibits began arriving from all corners of the country. The cost of postage and shipping soon became one of the Exhibition’s major expenditures. And, as cost-saving measures, the organizers appealed for locals to drop off their relics in person or for those who could afford it to send them carriage-paid. The Exhibition catalogue listed no fewer than 1,989 items, though the organizers admitted that the publication was far from complete, owing to the difficulty in obtaining properly completed entry forms from exhibit owners in time for the catalogue’s publication.
The handsome and spacious college building was soon the scene of busy workmen. Moulding was erected on the walls from which portraits and paintings—including dozens of watercolours, lithographs, and ink sketches loaned by the Telegram‘s John Ross Robertson—could be hung. Display cases were installed. And sub-committee volunteers set up and labelled items in each of the Exhibition’s themed rooms.
On the afternoon of June 14, Lord Minto and Lady Minto and the Governor General’s suite were given a personal tour by the Exhibition organizers. The vice-regal left “intensely delighted with everything he saw,” in the Mail and Empire‘s account. The official opening ceremony took place that same evening. In a sprawling but well-received address George W. Ross, who chaired the evening’s ceremony, “traced the long procession of able men who had made this province famous,” stretching from “the cordial relations that had always existed between the pioneers and the Indians” to those who fought at Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane in the War of 1812. Andrew Pattullo, newspaperman and provincial member for North Oxford, spoke on the neglect of Canadians for their country’s history. And James H. Coyne, president of the OHS, praised the WCHST’s efforts to bring about the Exhibition, singling out Lady Edgar, and FitzGibbon for particular notice.
(Right: Globe [June 24, 1899].)
Members of the press, who’d been given a private tour of the clothing, furnishings, chinaware, literary curiosities, militaria, and First Nations artifacts the previous evening, hailed the Exhibition as having “in all probability the finest collection of the kind ever gathered together in Canada.” The Star lauded: “No one who is at all interested in the history of his country should miss this unique opportunity of touching past events in these valuable articles which survive the fate of their original owners.”
Each day from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., spectators streamed through the corridors and lecture halls of Victoria College, visiting 12 rooms filled with artifacts on display. In the first room were displayed dresses, fancy work, fashion accessories, and a handful of male garments. Here antique attire from the time of Louis XIV hung beside dresses from the 19th century, tortoise shell combs, and a pair of lace mittens said to be over 200 years old. “The good pater familias who is called upon to consider dressmakers’ bills and who derides each change of fashion,” the Globe assessed of men visiting the fashion exhibit, “must stand aghast when he views the creations which adorned the grande dames of a century ago, although perhaps they are not much more worthy of ridicule than some of the productions of the modern modiste.”
Over 75 pieces of furniture and quaint household items—some recognizable, some archaic—filled two adjoining rooms intended, FitzGibbon later wrote, to represent “the living rooms of the early settlers.” Here were a table and chair owned by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, and an elaborately decorated spinning wheel reputed to have been given to his wife by Queen Charlotte. There was a writing desk, cabinet, and mirror once housed in General James Wolfe’s home, a Louis XIV-era clock from Acadia, and, in a far corner, the desk used by William Lyon Mackenzie when he was a member of Parliament. The displays of furnishings proved popular with the public.
In the military hall, portraits of British and Canadian military leaders on the walls gazed down on displays of flint-lock pistols and modern rifles alongside swords and munitions, and a copy of Sir Francis Bond Head’s proclamation offering £1,000 for the capture of William Lyon Mackenzie. Hanging around the room were military banners, some of them tattered witnesses to battles at Lundy’s Lane, Stoney Creek, and elsewhere. Many of the military relics were of such value that not only were they locked in glass cases, but the Exhibition organizers hired a paid guard to protect them.
Members of the Niagara Historical Society members lent 69 items, filling the eastern end of the college’s upper corridor with paraphernalia mostly related to the War of 1812. The most popular items included a hat ordered by Sir Isaac Brock—but which didn’t arrive until after his battlefield death at Queenston—a tea caddy used by Laura Secord, the sword surrendered to the British at the capture of Fort Niagara, and the muster-roll of Butler’s Rangers.
Another room was full of First Nations artifacts loaned by Frances Brant-Sero, whose husband was among the OHS organizers, and Dr. Peter E. Jones—son of Mississauga leader and missionary Peter Jones—as well as a number of Euro-American collectors. The exhibit included over 150 items representative of a wide range of different nations including the Mohawk, Blood, Cree, Sekani, Blackfoot, and Ojibwe. The artifacts on display ranged from a war drum from the 1885 Rebellion and the peace pipe sent by Big Bear to General Middleton at Fort Pitt, to specimens of Iroquois, Cree and Blackfoot bead work and porcupine quill work. Buffalo robes could be viewed, along with a Mohawk prayer book from 1771, and an Inuit dog whip. Joseph Brant’s personal effects, including a tomahawk, knife, war club, and silver-mounted pistols, filled a display case dedicated to the famed Mohawk chief.
(Left: Secretary belonging to Mrs. Wolfe displayed at the Canadian Historical Exhibition, 1899. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.)
Descendants of prominent citizens of the past—like Indian agent James Givins, Surveyor-General Thomas Ridout, militia leader C.J. Baldwin, and fur trade factor James Anderson—lent diaries, medals, correspondence, watches, visitation cards, and other curios. There were locks of hair from the famous and infamous, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, and General Brock.
The literary field was well-covered at the Exhibition. Librarian James Bain curated a room with nearly 100 books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, pamphlets, and charts from the Toronto Public Library. In the college library was arranged a small collection of Canadian publications, letters, and literary curiosities. But the real draw to that room was the impressive array of rare, illuminated sacred texts painstakingly inscribed on vellum by hand, maps, and manuscripts from the early Jesuit missionaries and French explorers. The artifacts, all dating from 1522 to 1806 were brought to Toronto through arrangement with St. Mary’s College in Montreal.
Elsewhere at the Exhibition, a heavy metal bowl used by Jesuit missionaries for mixing communion wafers, proved popular with spectators. Said to have been a gift from Louis XIII to the Jesuit order, the bowl, which weighed 40 pounds, was decorated with fleurs-de-lis and inscribed with the year 1636. Discovered by chance in the 1860s when a storm uprooted a tree near Parry Sound, the 40-pound bowl was loaned by by its owner, William Beatty.
(Right: Globe [June 19, 1899].)
Similarly enticing to visitors was a Silver Communion Service with a unique back story. Presented to Mohawks of upstate New York by Queen Anne in 1712 for use in a new chapel, after the American Revolution the communion set had been divided between Mohawks settling a the Bay of Quinte and on the Grand River in Upper Canada. The Exhibition’s display of the communion service as a complete set represented the first time all the pieces of the set had been brought together in well over a century. Photos of the reunited communion set were sold as souvenirs at the Exhibition before it was divided once again between the churches in their respective communities. Other popular souvenirs for sale at the Exhibition included shield-shaped enamel pins. Bearing the Dominion coat of arms encircled by a wreath of maple and laurel—and marked in silver gilt with “C.H.S.” and “1899”—these souvenir pins sold out by the exhibition’s close.
“The exhibits are nearly all Canadian,” the Globe (June 7, 1899) assessed of the Exhibition, “and if not purely Canadian they are owned by Canadians, and are in some way connected with the history of Canada.” Despite the vigilance of the organizers, however, some oddities or items with tenuous connections to Canada crept in. Among these were a ring belonging to Oliver Cromwell, some books belonging to Lord Byron, a variety of relics once owned by Sitting Bull, a plate belonging to Captain James Cook, and a silver snuff-box, elaborately decorated with inlaid ivory, once owned by Robbie Burns. Perhaps oddest of all was a tress of hair said to belong to Highland Mary, who served as inspiration for Burns’ poetry.
“The Great Canadian Historical Exhibition” (or just “The Historical”), as it was dubbed, was promoted locally through streetcar placards, and newspaper advertisements, circulars, and 2,000 copies of an attractive wall poster distributed to towns and villages across the Dominion. Attendance was sparse in the first week. But, as word-of-mouth spread of the Exhibition’s marvels, the crowds continued to grow as the exhibition progressed, and many out-of-town visitors were drawn to the lively college campus daily. Moreover, heeding the warnings of journalists that careful examination of all the antiquities on display “would take several days” and enticed by the changing programme of nightly lectures and entertainments, many visitors returned to the Exhibition again and again over its two week run.
Many evenings featured guest lecturers, including C.C. James on “The Romance of Ontario“, Chief Green of the Six Nations of Grand River giving a history of his people, Lady Edgar on Montcalm and Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, H.J. Wickham on the Royal Navy, and Dr. William Canniff on the United Empire Loyalists. Frank Yeigh, treasurer of the OHS, presented “Canadian History In Panorama,” an illustrated talk—accompanied by stereopticons of paintings, portraits, and other imagery—that spanned the country’s history from Cabot’s arrival to the 1837 Rebellions.
Another evening, the Canadian Club presented a celebration of Canadian authors and musicians with a slate of male and female authors and poets appearing on-stage. A garden party on June 21 attracted many leading citizens, including Zoé Laurier and Elizabeth Sifton, the wives of the prime minister and a leading cabinet minister respectively, to the lavishly decorated college grounds. When there were no evening lectures scheduled, visitors enjoyed concerts given by the Queen’s Own Rifles bugle band, a variety of school choirs, and some of the city’s leading vocalists and musicians.
(Left: One of nine spinning wheels displayed at the Canadian Historical Exhibition, 1899. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.)
With attendance surpassing expectations in the days before the Exhibition was scheduled to close, the organizing committee decided to extend the event for three more days. Had space at the college been available for another month, FitzGibbon declared in the final report of the event she wrote a few months later, attendance would have continued to grow and “the receipts would have been considerable.”
After the Exhibition finally closed on July 1, volunteers set about the arduous task of packing up the artifacts and returning them safely to their owners across the country—”never again to be gathered even temporarily under one roof,” as the Globe lamented. By all accounts, the Exhibition was an overwhelming success, attracting thousands to its exhibits, and demonstrating, as FitzGibbon wrote, the value “of preserving from loss valuable historic relics and records, and of arousing an appreciative interest in the value, romance, and picturesqueness of our history.”
While the Canadian Historical Exhibition was billed as an OHS event, press accounts and FitzGibbon’s final report singled out “the members of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto, who worked so hard and devoted so much of their time to make the Exhibition not only a success, but enabled it to be held at all.”
In the wake of the Exhibition, optimism was high that its demonstrated popularity would lead to the establishment of a permanent museum. On one hand, it had proven there was an immense amount of historical material available to fill a permanent museum. On the other, despite an admission fee of only 25¢, the revenues raised from tickets, catalog advertisements, and the refreshment room not only covered the significant costs of staging the Exhibition, but returned a small profit of $330.24, which was transferred to a special Provincial Historical Museum Fund managed by the OHS.
(Right: Portrait of Mary Agnes FitzGibbon from the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto Transaction No. 13 [1913-1914].)
“A city of the size and population of Toronto without a museum is an anomaly in the eyes of the thousands of visitors who yearly enjoy its hospitality,” FitzGibbon’s final report stressed the importance of using the Exhibition as a springboard for establishing a permanent museum, “and even more important is the fact that if such a building is not speedily provided, valuable historical treasures and property will be destroyed or lost beyond recall. It rests with the citizens of Toronto as well as of Ontario at large, the Provincial Government, and the members of the Historical Societies, to see that this reproach is soon removed.”
Initially, George W. Ross, the Liberal minister of education, had been supportive of the idea of a permanent museum, and had offered the OHS and WCHST space in his department’s facilities for a library and the display of a small number of artifacts. But, soon after Ross became premier in October 1899, his enthusiasm waned, prompting Gerald Killan to suggest the earlier support arose merely from political expediency. When the room occupied by the WCHST was needed for other purposes in 1904, however, the organization was asked to vacate, resulting in a nomadic existence for a number of artifacts which had been entrusted to their care at the 1899 Exhibition’s conclusion, including some autographed poems by Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman, soldiers’ brass belt buckles dating to 1759, and a stone axe found along the Humber River.
When the province did support the construction of a permanent museum, the James P. Whitney’s Conservative government backed an initiative led by the university, Charles T. Currelly, and the city’s elite, resulting in the 1914 opening of the Royal Ontario Museum—with its emphasis on European, Asian, and Middle Eastern civilizations.
Sources consulted: Catalogue, Canadian Historical Exhibition (W. Briggs, 1899); Stella M. Cook, Seventy Years of History, 1895-1965 (Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto, 1970); Michelle Hamilton, Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010); O.A. Howland and David Boyle, The Canadian Historical Exhibition, 1897 (1895); Gerald Killan, Preserving Ontario’s Heritage: A History of the Ontario Historical Society (Love Printing Service Limited, 1976); and articles from the Globe (November 8 and December 26, 1895; January 10 & 25, February 11, March 25 & 28, April 17, May 23, October 31, and December 3, 1896; January 4, March 8, April 22, June 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27 & 28, July 1 & 22, and September 2, 1899; December 22, 1900); the Mail and Empire (June 15, 1899); and the Star (March 25, 1896; January 11, and June 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 27, 28 & 30, 1899)