Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 2: Shopping stories

As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House, in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official historic site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition includes rare treasures such as this page from a draft of the British North America Act (BNA), thought to have been handwritten by Sir John A. Macdonald himself.

A handwritten page in faded ink.

The first page of the British North America Act (MIKAN 456819)

Lesser known, but equally intriguing, LAC holdings are also highlighted in the exhibition, including a sampling from the vast assortment of receipts Macdonald accumulated over the course of a lifetime for items that he purchased. These unassuming documents—usually handwritten, and often with elegant 19th-century flourishes—give unexpected insight into Macdonald, as a private person; the purchases they record are often both amusing and endearing.

Macdonald purchased a toboggan, for example, from renowned Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company (“Importers, Manufacturers and Dealers in Hats, Furs, Indian Moccasins, Snowshoes, &c.”) on December 23, 1862. It’s possible to speculate that this iconic Canadian sled may have been part of his family’s Christmas celebrations—perhaps chosen as a present for his young son Hugh John. Or that Macdonald himself may have succumbed to the fad for recreational tobogganing that gripped the well-to-do during the 19th century.

A handwritten receipt from Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company detailing purchases made, on various dates, by Sir John A. Macdonald. These include a toboggan, which was purchased on December 23, 1862.Historians have also speculated about the expensive ladies’ riding whip, bought from London’s exclusive Swaine Adeney, during a trip to Great Britain that Macdonald undertook as a new widower. Though travelling on official business, to promote government projects, Macdonald still found time to choose this luxurious present. The identity of the lady who received it remains an historical mystery.

On another trip to Great Britain, Macdonald—whose receipts reveal a lifelong fascination with fine clothing and smart men’s accessories—visited relatives in Scotland and stopped there to purchase himself a full kit of Macdonald clan “Highland appointments”: including a kilt, hose and the “silk-velvet Highland jacket… generally worn by Gentlemen.” The distinguished Edinburgh firm from which he purchased these items provided its Canadian buyer with instructions on how to wear everything properly, together with a suitable “air-tight coat case” for storage.

Image shows a detailed receipt for a complete kit of Macdonald clan ‘Highland appointments,’ including a kilt and a Highland jacket (MIKAN 122162)

Macdonald suffered for years from ill health due, in part, to his alcoholism. The collection is full of curious receipts for 19th-century style medicine, together with copies of personal prescriptions. This prescription, for “The Ferruginous tonic,” was based on the commonly held idea that tincture of iron could improve the functioning of the digestive tract. Macdonald was said to have suffered terribly from indigestion. He was prescribed this mixture during the final decade of his life.

Image shows an 1883 prescription from Ottawa “Chemist & Druggist” John Roberts for a tonic designed to alleviate Sir John A. Macdonald’s gastric issues.Come see Sir John A. Macdonald’s personal receipts at Bellevue House National Historic Site between May 16 and October 12, 2015.

Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 1: Famous outtakes

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the most comprehensive collection of material in Canada related to our nation’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, LAC is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition will provide a chance for Canadians to see rare treasures, such as an exercise book from Macdonald’s school days, and the earliest known painted portrait of him:

Image shows a school exercise book belonging to Sir John A. Macdonald when he was a child; the book is open at a page of geometry exercises.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s exercise book (MIKAN 122162)

Image shows the earliest known portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, a portrait painted in oils in the Romantic style.

First oil portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, ca. 1842–1843 (MIKAN 2837236)

It also features other lesser-known, but intriguing, items. LAC’s collection includes most of the original glass plate negatives from personal photography sessions that Macdonald booked with prominent Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930), for example:

Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane. Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane.

Topley was the premier portrait photographer of his day, making images of both well-known and unknown citizens from across the country. His studio, always located in the neighbourhood of Parliament Hill, was convenient enough to attract the patronage of many of the new Dominion’s first MPs. Topley even served as official court photographer to Canada’s Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne (1845–1914).

Prints of the photographs from Macdonald’s studio sessions with Topley do not always survive, but most of the negatives for each session do—often including fascinating and unexpected ‘outtake’ images. Produced on thin plates of glass, the 19th-century technology that preceded the development of photographic film, these are both fragile and unwieldy—besides being negative images. Modern positive reproductions are usually made from them, as in the case of this exhibition, to allow for convenient viewing.

This exhibition displays several outtakes, and a print from the Topley sessions, in sequence. The outtakes lack the formality of finished studio portraits but give a small feeling of what a 19th-century studio session must have been like. When viewed as a set, they almost give a feeling of motion—bringing Macdonald to life again, before our eyes.

LAC is the only archives in Canada to hold the official records of the Topley Studio, including original counter books, prints and negatives. The Macdonald negatives illustrate just one way in which the collection works as one of the most important visual records of Canada during the first 50 years after Confederation.

Image shows one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s receipts for a photographic session with William James Topley, June 1885.

Topley receipt for a photographic session (MIKAN 122162)

Come see the Macdonald outtakes at Bellevue House National Historic Site, between May 16 and October 12, 2015.