Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876–1896)

By: Emma Hamilton-Hobbs

Don’t you just love to dress up, spending hours upon hours devoted to selecting, conducting research on, and finally creating an impressive outfit for an exclusive costumed event? Well, many Canadians in the late nineteenth century certainly did!

A fancy dress ball was a private costumed party that grew in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century, hosted and attended primarily by the most privileged members of society. The men and women who received invitations to the events spent weeks upon weeks carefully selecting their costumes, poring over published magazines and books devoted to fancy dress, and even perusing historical books or paintings for inspiration. Popular ideas included historical dress, literary, mythological and allegorical characters, and finally, characters from “exotic” lands.

Newspapers in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal reported extensively on the major Canadian fancy dress balls, providing detailed descriptions of the various costumes that the elite guests had worn. Many who attended the balls eagerly flocked to photography studios in the days and months following these special occasions to have their portraits taken in costume. Sometimes these portraits were used to create impressive composite photographs, including the one fabricated by Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) of the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by Governor General Lord Dufferin and his wife Lady Dufferin in the Rideau Hall ballroom on February 23, 1876.

A group photograph of hundreds of costumed guests at a fancy dress ball. The background is a painting of the Rideau Hall ballroom.

Composite image of the Dufferin Grand Fancy Ball at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. The final composite was completed in either May or June. (e008295343).

This composite was created by pasting hundreds of individual portraits taken in Topley’s studio onto a painted scene of the Rideau Hall ballroom, which was then re-photographed to create the final product. Topley learned how to create composite images from his former mentor and employer, William Notman (1826–1891), who owned a successful photography studio in Montreal. Topley, like Notman, was an astute businessman who took full advantage of these vice-regal events to turn a profit, as guests were eager to have their costumed characters preserved in the form of photographic portraits that they could share with family and friends, or paste into personal albums as memorable keepsakes.

Many individuals played up their character in the photography studio, assuming different poses and using a variety of props in their staged portraits. Mr. Campbell posed theatrically as a “Court Jester” when he visited Topley’s studio shortly after the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by the Dufferins had ended. William Campbell was the private secretary to Lord Dufferin and a well-liked staff member.

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed as a jester and posing in a photography studio. He grasps a puppet on a stand in his right hand.

William Campbell, private secretary to Lord Dufferin, as a “Court Jester” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091709)

Miss Maggie Jones and Miss Zaidee Cockburn both dressed up as “Bonnie Fishwives of New Haven” at the Dufferins’ Grand Fancy Ball. They attracted some attention throughout the evening, which may have been linked to the lengths of their skirts, which were much shorter than acceptable Victorian dress.

A black-and-white photograph of a young woman dressed up as a “fishwife” and posing in a photography studio. She is shown standing with her left hand resting on her hip, her other hand holding a papier mâché fish and her right foot raised and leaning on a wooden barrel.

Miss Maggie Jones dressed as a “Bonnie Fishwife of New Haven” by William Topley, March 1876 (e011091718).

Fancy dress skating carnivals were also very popular during this time, and, unlike the fancy dress balls, were far more accessible to the average Canadian citizen. In his studio, Topley recreated outdoor skating scenes for his sitters with a painted, snowy backdrop complete with artificial snow and a reflective surface to imitate ice. Women loved to wear peasant or pastoral dress to skating carnivals, as shorter skirts also allowed them to move around freely on skates.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up in costume as a shepherdess on skates in a photography studio. The backdrop is a painted, snowy scene.

Miss Fraser as a “Shepherdess” by William Topley, February 1889 (a138398)

Allegorical characters were also well represented at the fancy dress balls and skating carnivals. Women dressed as “Night,” “A Hornet,” “The Alphabet,” or even as the “Dominion of Canada,” as represented by Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine at the Dufferins’ ball.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up as the “Dominion of Canada” in a photography studio. On the front of her dress is the coat of arms of the Dominion surrounded by embroidered maple leaves, with miniature snowshoes on the train of her dress.

Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine as the “Dominion of Canada” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091705)

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed up as explorer “Jacques Cartier” in a photography studio.

Mr. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine dressed as explorer “Jacques Cartier,” March 1876. (e011091707)

The Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen, and his wife, Lady Aberdeen, in the Senate Chamber of the original Parliament buildings on February 17, 1896, was another widely reported event. This educational ball featured nine periods in Canadian history, from the Vikings to the Loyalists, enacted by two hundred and fifty individuals in a series of dances at the ball.

A photographic portrait of a group representing the voyages of the Norsemen at the Aberdeens’ ball illustrates how the medium of photography had evolved since the Dufferins’ ball twenty years earlier. Topley, who once again photographed the groups in his studio after the ball had ended, could now take an entire group together as a result of faster exposure times. The scene is also illuminated by natural light streaming in from the skylight seen at the top left of the image.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of seventeen men, women and girls wearing Viking costumes in a photography studio.

A historic group representing the voyages of the Norsemen to Northeastern North America photographed in Topley’s studio. They were the first historic group who performed a lively “polska” at the Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen in February 1896. The young girl seated in the middle is Lady Marjorie Gordon, daughter of the vice-regal hosts, wearing a white and gold dress with her mother’s Celtic jewellery. (a137981).

A souvenir album was created and sold to guests afterward as well, illustrated with photographs of the historic groups taken by Topley (with the exception of one group) and text by historian and civil servant Dr. John George Bourinot, who provided advice and guidance to Lady Aberdeen in the months leading up to the event. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a copy of this souvenir album in its collection.

All of the above digitized images were reproduced from original glass plate negatives found in the Topley Studio fonds at LAC. These images, along with many others taken by Topley of guests who attended the Ottawa fancy dress balls and skating carnivals, are available online through LAC’s website.

Reproductions of these original glass plate negatives are on display at the National Gallery of Canada in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.


Emma Hamilton-Hobbs is a photo archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Anna Heffernan

During his lifetime, Louis David Riel was a controversial figure—a leader of two uprisings, regarded as either a hero or a traitor—but today he is recognized for his contributions to the development of the Métis Nation, the province of Manitoba, and Canada. In 1992, he was named a founder of Manitoba, and in 2016, he was recognized as the province’s first leader. Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a rich selection of materials relating to Louis Riel and the movements he led. The We Are Here: Sharing Stories project digitizes Indigenous-related materials in LAC’s collections. One of our priorities is to digitize the documentary legacy of Riel to make it more accessible to Métis Nation communities and researchers. While Riel is one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, some aspects of his life story are less known.

Most Canadians will recall that Louis Riel led the Red River Resistance in 1869–1870. At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their rights to Rupert’s Land, granted to them by the British Crown, to the Dominion of Canada. Métis Nation and First Nations peoples who traditionally inhabited the area did not recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the land, and therefore saw this as an illegitimate sale. In response to the sale of their homelands, Louis Riel and his colleagues formed a provisional government, pictured below, at Fort Garry.

A black-and-white photograph of 14 men, arranged in three rows (the front two rows sitting and the back row standing), with Louis Riel seated in the centre.

Louis Riel (centre) with the councillors of the provisional government in 1870 (a012854)

However, not everyone supported Riel’s provisional government. A group of Ontario settlers were captured by the provisional government’s forces while preparing to attack Fort Garry. One of the group, Thomas Scott, was executed for insubordination on March 4, 1870. Despite this incident, negotiations with Canada continued, and Riel successfully negotiated the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. When the negotiations were complete, a military expedition was sent from Ontario to enforce Canadian control over Manitoba. Many in Ontario viewed Riel as a traitor and murderer for the execution of Thomas Scott. Fearing for his life, Riel fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the less-well-known stories of Louis Riel’s life is his ill-fated journey to Ottawa. In 1873, Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, and he was re-elected twice in 1874. Riel travelled to Ottawa to take his seat, but his foray into federal politics was to be short-lived. His attempt to sit in the House of Commons is documented in our collection by some interesting material. The first item is the test roll bearing his signature, pictured below, which every Member of Parliament signed upon taking the oath.

Page with six columns of signatures. Louis Riel’s signature is seen at bottom right.

Caption: Page from the House of Commons test roll signed by Louis Riel (e010771238)

Going to Ontario at this time was an enormous risk for Riel. After the execution of Thomas Scott, Ontarians reacted with anger—particularly Protestants, because Scott had been a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. In response, the premier of Ontario offered a $5,000 reward for Riel’s capture, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. In Parliament, a motion to expel Riel was brought by Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Ontario. The motion passed, and Riel would not return to the House of Commons, despite being re-elected a third time. The second piece of material relating to Riel’s journey to the capital is the photograph below. Before leaving hastily, Riel had his photograph taken in Ottawa, inscribed with the caption “Louis Riel, MP.”

Sepia-tone vignette photograph of Louis Riel facing the camera, with handwritten inscription underneath reading “Louis Riel, MP.”

Caption: Studio portrait taken in Ottawa after Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba (e003895129)

In 1875, Riel went into exile in the United States. From 1879, he lived in Montana Territory, where he married Marguerite Monet, dite Bellehumeur, in 1881. They had three children. He followed the buffalo hunt and worked as an agent, trader, woodcutter and later teacher. Riel returned to Canada, to Batoche in what is now Saskatchewan, in July 1884.

The test roll and the photograph of Riel in Ottawa are examples of how even some of the small items in our collection can illuminate moments in Canadian history. By researching and digitizing more of the Indigenous documentary heritage in our collections, we aim to share the stories not only of famous figures like Riel but also of many other Indigenous people in Canada.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

Recent documents digitized through the DigiLab

By Karine Gélinas

The DigiLab is a new hands-on facility for clients to digitize and contextualize documents from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collections. Since its launch in 2017, the DigiLab has hosted more than 30 projects that have resulted in the digitization of over 30,000 pages of textual material and 9,000 photographs.

A colour photograph of a room containing a large-format scanner on a table in the foreground, a series of shelving on the left side, and two people sitting at workstations in the background.

The DigiLab space at 395 Wellington. Photo by Tom Thompson.

One of the projects hosted in the DigiLab was with the National Capital Commission (NCC), which digitized stunning historical images of the National Capital Region. You will find below some of the material the NCC digitized that is now available on LAC’s website.

Albums from the National Capital Commission fonds

  • Aerial views of Ottawa, 1952–1962 (8 images) – MIKAN 5025694
  • Federal District Improvement Commission, 1927–1929 (56 images) – MIKAN 5016537
  • Federal District Commission, 1927–1932 (291 images) – MIKAN 5023881
  • Photos by R.A. Ramsay showing installation of a steel railway structure (4 images) – MIKAN 5025167
  • Russell House block, Russell Hotel photographs (63 images) – MIKAN 3788413
  • Ottawa Region, Federal District Commission, 1902 (20 images) – MIKAN 5050722
A black-and-white photograph of a quiet park and streets surrounded by two major buildings flying the Union Jack flag from their highest rooftop. Old cars are parked on the main street in the foreground.

Looking south from East Block on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, MIKAN 5026166

Aerial black-and-white photograph of an industrial landscape with logs floating in the water and a power station and rail lines in the foreground. The Parliamentary Precinct is in the background.

LeBreton Flats, Ottawa West Station & Turning House, ca. 1962. [Present-day City Centre Bayswater Station area] @Government of Canada (e999909317-u)

Ted Grant fonds

A black-and-white photograph of a street at night with cars parked on both sides and neon store signs adding light.

Sparks Street [Ottawa] at night, taken November 14, 1960. Credit: Ted Grant. (e999906140-u)

Federal District Commission fonds

Photographs, editorials catalogue and newspaper supplement proofs for the plan and model of the National Capital Planning Committee’s Master Plan, and its Canadian Tour – MIKAN 3788892

Interested in the DigiLab?

If you have an idea for a project, please send us an email at bac.numeri-lab-digilab.lac@canada.ca. Give us an overview of your project, the complete reference of the material you would like to digitize and any extra information you know about the collection.

After we verify the condition of the material to ensure it can be digitized safely, we’ll plan time for you in the DigiLab. We’ll provide training on handling the material and using the equipment and you’ll digitize and capture simple metadata. Material has to be free from restrictions and copyright.

We hope to hear from you soon!

Links of interest


Karine Gélinas is a project manager in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Newly digitized images of the construction of 395 Wellington

By Andrew Elliott

Located on a site overlooking the Ottawa River, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) building (known more fondly as 395 Wellington or, even more archaically, as PANL—Public Archives National Library) is an iconic structure that is highly visible from many vantage points on both sides of the Ottawa River. The building embodies the preservation of the national collective documentary memory, which Library and Archives Canada gathers and disseminates.

The history of the design and construction of this Classified Federal Heritage Building is an interesting one. While the original proposal targeted a site near the intersection of Bank and Wellington streets, in November 1952, the National Planning Committee of the Federal District Commission (now the National Capital Commission) approved the 395 Wellington Street address as the most appropriate location for the new National Library and Archives building. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Cabinet agreed to retain the services of the prestigious firm Mathers & Haldenby to design the new building.

The firm of Mathers and Haldenby (1921–1991) was established by Alvan Sherlock Mathers ([1895–1965] born in Aberfoyle, Ontario) and Eric Wilson Haldenby ([1893–1971] born in Toronto).

Construction, however, was delayed for almost a decade. The primary reason: No. 1 Temporary Building, which sat on the site, had not yet been demolished. In 1958 the project was further delayed following a major gas explosion on Slater Street, which destroyed a government building and saw the relocation of hundreds of civil servants to the remaining offices at No. 1 Temporary Building.

In 1960 Ellis-Don was awarded the contract to construct the building and in the fall of 1963 construction finally began in earnest. The entire construction project, which lasted until 1967, was recorded by Ottawa’s Van Photography Studio.

Recently, a remarkable series of photos showing the progress of the building was digitized by LAC. These images can be found in the Department of Public Works Accession. Included are the following photos:

A black–and-white photograph showing a large construction site with various types of construction equipment, and trees and other buildings in the distance

Excavation of the building site, September 4, 1963 (MIKAN 3600820)

A black-and-white photograph showing the unfinished facade of a 10-storey building. There is construction board on the ground floor. There are cars (including a VW bug!) and pedestrians going about their business.

A view of the partially constructed building looking north, July 15, 1965 (MIKAN 3600860)

A black-and-white photograph showing a building completely surrounded by scaffolding.

View of the building looking southeast, August 16, 1965 (MIKAN 3600863)

A black-and-white photograph showing a construction site with a partially finished building.

A view looking northeast taken on November 26, 1965 (MIKAN 3600869)

A black-and-white photograph a low-ceilinged room with rows upon rows of shelving in various states of completion.

An interior view of partially finished stack shelving, November 21, 1966 (MIKAN 3600895)

A black-and-white photograph of a large room with scaffolding and construction materials scattered about.

Partially finished Reading Room showing the coffered-light ceilings, February 24, 1967 (MIKAN 3600901)

A black-and-white photograph showing a partially completed interior covered in deeply-veined, white Carrera marble.

Main floor showing the beautiful marbles in the entrance of the building, June 27, 1966 (MIKAN 3600882)

On May 10, 1965, Governor General Georges Vanier laid the official cornerstone. Inside the cornerstone he placed an elaborate copper casket containing pictures and descriptions of the building as well as copies of the latest publications of both the National Library and the National Archives. On June 20, 1967, in time for the celebration of Canada’s centennial, Canada’s new, purpose-built National Library and Archives building was officially opened. You can listen to the opening ceremonies here:

395 Wellington is an interesting combination of functional and aesthetic design. As the Federal Heritage Building Review Office Report 04-027 (FHBRO) states, “[it] is a high quality achievement . . . . Aesthetically, it is a hybrid of two tendencies, balancing remnants of federal classical modernism with Modernism’s new trends, both of which it handles with sophistication and refinement, resulting in a modern, functionalist, rational appearance . . . . Functionally, the complex range of the building’s uses is well served and the arrangement of public areas and that of services and stacks is reflected in the composition of the building.” (For further reading see: http://historicplaces.ca/media/18730/2004-027(e)publicarchivesandnationallibrarybuilding.pdf)

As one can see, neither time nor expense was spared with regard to the building’s design. Today, the building continues to have an iconic presence near the heart of downtown Ottawa.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

 

Ottawa’s Uppertown: A lost neighbourhood uncovered

By Andrew Elliott

A black-and-white photograph showing a streetscape at a crossroads.

Wellington and Bank, ca. 1900 (MIKAN 3325940)

On February 27, 1912, following what appears to have been at least a few years of behind the scenes deliberations, the federal government expropriated all properties located in Uppertown, an area bounded by Bank, Wellington, and Bay streets and the cliff along the Ottawa River. On March 9, 1912, a notice of expropriation was filed at the Ottawa City Registry Office (the area can be seen on these fire insurance plans: east view and west view (MIKAN 3816030).

The area was expropriated to make way for a new supreme court and other federal buildings. In 1913, the government launched a design competition, in response to which many of the major architects of the day submitted designs for the building complex. The designs can be found in the following LAC collection, which comprises 11 designs for the location of proposed departmental buildings. With the outbreak of the First World War, the fire and subsequent reconstruction of the Parliament Buildings, and changes in government, no concrete action was taken with respect to these plans until the early 1930s.

The area expropriated was both commercial and residential in nature. We have come to think of the stretch of Wellington between Bank and Bay streets as a boulevard flanked by grand, iconic government structures and large green spaces, but this is a relatively recent development. The towers of the Confederation and Justice buildings were built in the 1930s, followed by the Supreme Court building and, finally, the National Library building (now Library and Archives Canada), which was erected for the 1967 centennial. Continue reading

The Parliament Hill Precinct

The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are some of the most recognizable structures in Canada. Although the Peace Tower may be the most iconic part of the exterior of the buildings, it’s the newest addition to the precinct. Originally built between 1859 and 1866 in the Victorian High Gothic Revival style, Centre Block officially opened on June 6, 1866 as Parliament for the Provinces of Canada. The location was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1857 and was the biggest construction project of its time in North America, running way over budget, in part due to the cost of blasting out the bedrock to build the foundation. On July 1, 1867, Centre Block was chosen to be the official Parliament for the Dominion of Canada. Its location was considered ideal for many reasons, namely its distance from the American border, as well as its visibility to those who lived in the area.

A black-and-white photograph of the original Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Parliament Buildings, Centre Block, by Captain Jacobs, c. 1886 (MIKAN 3319558)

Centre Block stood on Parliament Hill for 50 years until the evening of February 3, 1916 when a fire broke out in the House of Commons’ reading room. The flames spread quickly and seven lives were lost that night. While many of the stone walls remained standing, the only part of the building to truly survive was the library, which was built in 1876 with iron doors (which were closed by a clerk before leaving that evening). Although rumours claimed arson was the cause, the fire was a result of a discarded cigar.

A black-and-white photograph showing a very elaborate round building with pinnacles and flying buttresses in a wintry setting next to a building partly encased in ice. Firemen are putting out a fire.

View of the Library of Parliament and Centre Block on the day after the Centre Block fire, taken by William Topley in 1916 (MIKAN 3194673)

Despite Canada being heavily involved in the First World War at the time, it was clear that the buildings had to be rebuilt. With the country expanding, it was decided that the Parliament Buildings would follow suit. The plan was to keep the same Gothic Revival style as the original buildings without creating carbon copies of them. Construction started later that year and was completed in 1922. The Peace Tower, named in commemoration of Canada’s commitment to peace, was completed in 1927.

A black-and-white photograph showing the first three stories of a building with the rotunda of the Library of Parliament in the background. Cranes and construction materials surround the area.

Rebuilding of the Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, c. 1917-1918. Photo taken by Samuel J. Jarvis (MIKAN 3319865)

A black-and-white photograph showing the main Parliament building from the front with crowds of people filling Parliament Hill.

Jubilee celebrations on Parliament Hill in 1927 (MIKAN 3549627)

Today, Centre Block is bordered by the East and West Blocks and by a large public open space that serves many purposes—it’s a celebration area on Canada Day, a place for demonstrations and protests, a spot for noontime yoga in the summer, etc. Tours of Centre Block are given throughout the year and it’s become one of Ottawa’s most popular attractions.

Other resources

The Children of Topley – Pint-sized portraits from the William Topley collection

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books, the Topley collection dates from 1868 to 1923, and illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montreal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

By the early 1870s Topley had purchased the studio he had been managing for William Notman, and was attracting upwards of 2,300 sitters per year. Topley’s prestigious downtown Ottawa location—he moved multiple times over the years, but always within walking distance to parliament—meant he attracted much of the city’s elite, including politicians and other important figures, who made their way to the photographer’s studio to have their portraits taken.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings. In looking through these images we notice not only recognizable names, identifying some of these children as the offspring of the capital city’s movers and shakers, but something unchanged despite the time period. We see beyond the formality, the constricting clothing and stiff poses, and recognize that these portraits are not too different from those we might take today. We recognize children dressed up for a photo, attempting to sit still, looking either overly eager or slightly bored.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl in a white dress.

Missie McLaren, 1873 (MIKAN 3461050)

Studio photographers of this era often had clients pose with props, and Topley was no different. In his portraits of children we notice items like books, skipping ropes, dolls or pets clutched in the hands of the small sitters. Some children stand or sit up very straight with serious, concentrated expressions on their faces, while others lounge tiredly in chairs. In these ones especially, we can imagine how tedious the long exposures must have felt to a child, how many plates the photographer might have had to take to get a proper, non-blurry image.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl with her chin resting on her hands, a book beside her.

Missie Cambie, 1877 (MIKAN 3435180)

Also interesting are the portraits of babies with hidden, or barely-in-the-frame mothers. It was quite common at the time for babies to sit on their mothers’ laps for a portrait, while a blanket or other fabric was thrown over the mother so that only the baby would be the focus. In several of Topley’s portraits of babies, we see a more subtle approach, with the mother encouraging the child from the edge of the frame. The photographer would later crop the mother out for the final print.

Black-and-white photograph of a young child with the mother to the right, partially blacked out.

Missie Ruttan, 1876 (MIKAN 3434482)

These wonderful portraits provide an alternative perspective on the face of Canada’s capital in the nineteenth century, and seem to offer a bridge from past to present, where some things never change.

Black-and-white photograph of two young boys in black jackets, one seated and one standing on a chair.

Two boys posing—Master Borthwick, 1882 (MIKAN 3418410)

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl dressed in winter clothing.

Missie Helena Topley, 1882 (MIKAN 3418246)

Related resources:

Ottawa Winter Carnival, 1922 edition

“A Week Without Worry!”… “Mirth Will be King for Carnival Week.” These were some of the slogans used to describe the first Canadian National Winter Carnival—otherwise known as the Ottawa Winter Carnival—of 1922. This was no tame affair. Instead, for a week at the end of January and early February 1922, Ottawans partied—and even went foolishly wild.

Canadians were used to winter parties. Since the late 19th century, there had been somewhat more genteel winter carnivals, which featured ice forts, informal skating parties and hockey matches. During these, there was only the occasional leap into the absurd. An example is the February 1894 skating masquerade at Rideau Hall where Lord Aberdeen’s male staff dressed up as schoolgirls:

Black-and-white photograph showing eight people standing on a snowy staircase, holding decorative fans. They are all wearing similar costumes comprised of dresses, pinafores and bonnets. Close inspection reveals that some of them have mustaches and look somewhat masculine.

Lord Aberdeen’s staff dressed as schoolgirls for a masquerade skating party at Rideau Hall, called “Dame Marjorie School” (MIKAN 3422882)

The 1922 Ottawa carnival was the brainchild of stock broker and mayor, Frank Plant. He organized everything within a matter of weeks. Lord Byng, the Governor General, was asked to open the festivities, which he did outside the Château Laurier on Saturday, January 28, 1922, with 10,000 people in attendance.

Black-and-white photograph of an ice castle taken from a very high vantage point. Crowds of people are milling about and the city fades into the distance.

Ice Palace at the Ottawa Winter Carnival (MIKAN 3517932)

The carnival included the following activities:

  • torchlight snowshoe parades on downtown streets
  • a grand ball at the Château Laurier
  • hockey matches between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens
  • curling and boxing
  • nightly bean dinners in Lowertown
  • giant bonfires at Major’s Hill Park and at Connaught and Cartier Squares
  • ice castle climbing
  • midnight dances
  • horse-drawn passenger cutters that ferried people around the city
  • ski jumping off the cliffs at Rockcliffe Park

Although prohibition was in effect in the province of Ontario, alcohol was still legal in neighbouring Quebec. And with the exuberant party atmosphere, authorities turned a blind eye to the reveling hordes travelling back and forth across the river from Hull (now Gatineau) with bottles of booze.

There were three major attractions. The first was the 22-metre Ice Palace located at Cartier Square on Elgin Street.

Black-and-white photograph showing many people standing, possibly queuing, around an ice castle.

The Ottawa Winter Carnival Ice Palace during the day (MIKAN 3517934)

Black-and-white photograph showing an ice castle, brightly illuminated from the inside.

Ottawa Winter Carnival Ice Palace at night (MIKAN 3517933)

The second attraction was the giant ice column that towered over Connaught Square (now Confederation Square, roughly where the National War Memorial is located) between Union Station, the old Post Office, and the Château Laurier.

Black-and-white photograph of an ice column topped with a crown. A man stands beside it.

Ice column in front of the old Post Office (presently the location of the National War Memorial), Ottawa Winter Carnival, Jan. and Feb., 1922 (MIKAN 3384979)

And the pièce-de-résistance—the ski and toboggan slide.

“Ride a mile for a dime” was the slogan attached to this breathtaking chute. Built out of ice blocks with deep tracks, it extended from the Château Laurier down to the Ottawa River following the side of the Rideau Locks. The departure gate looked like an innocent-enough rustic wooden construction covered in evergreens. But when you entered and looked down, this is what you saw:

Black-and-white photograph of a view of the toboggan chute looking down towards the river and beside the Rideau Canal Lock. The track is very long and steep, and almost reaches the Alexandra Bridge in the distance.

Ski and toboggan chute for the Ottawa Winter Carnival (MIKAN 3517935)

If you were brave enough to venture forward, the chute fell at a daring 45-degree angle which levelled out somewhat before being punctuated by a series of steep dips, rather like a roller coaster. (For more views, see the Flickr album). Lord Byng presided over the first toboggan ride, which held Mayor Plant, prominent businessman A.J. Major, and two others. Throughout the week, daredevil ski jumpers would conduct daily demonstrations on the slide. And the rest of the time, thrill seekers bravely took the plunge on toboggans, racing down and out onto the frozen expanse of the Ottawa River at speeds of over 100 kilometers an hour!

When the week was over, the first Canadian National Winter Carnival was declared a resounding success, with tens of thousands of revelers (the city’s population had only just reached 100,000). The present-day equivalent of the Canadian National Winter Carnival—Winterlude—now garners more than half a million visitors every year.

Capital City Portraits: Faces from the Topley Collection

One of the most popular collections at Library and Archives Canada is the William James Topley photograph collection, acquired in 1936. The Topley collection is comprised of over 150,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives, in addition to 68 studio proof albums, daily assignment logs and account books.

Dating from 1868 to 1923, the large collection illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montréal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. Having worked in Montréal for a number of years as an apprentice to the well-known photographer, William James Topley, would eventually drop the Notman name and run his own studio from a series of Ottawa addresses, moving from Wellington Street to the corner of Metcalfe and Queen, and finally to two separate addresses on Sparks Street.

The photographs produced during Topley’s lengthy career serve as a fascinating visual reference to life in Ottawa, as well as other Canadian cities and towns. His images include street scenes documenting daily life, commissioned photographs of store fronts, Parliament Hill before, during, and after the 1916 fire, and perhaps most compelling, his portraits of citizens, both famous and otherwise.

By 1872, the Topley studio was attracting more than 2,300 sitters a year, including prime ministers, governors general, members of Ottawa’s high society, businessmen, and average citizens. He created his famous composite image of the first major Canadian fancy dress ball, hosted by the Earl of Dufferin and his wife, in 1876.

Many of Topley’s clients were the families of Ottawa’s movers and shakers. Being the capital city, it was common for relatives of politicians, land owners and lumber barons to make their way to Topley’s studio at some point, to sit for a portrait. In the early nineteenth century, it was still a somewhat prestigious event to have your portrait taken, and wives, children, and even pets were photographed at the studio, some of them multiple times over the years.

In viewing these wonderful portraits, it is fascinating to see the clothing, hairstyles, and expressions of Ottawa’s earlier citizens, and interesting to see the faces of people for whom some of Ottawa’s streets, parks and schools are named.

Miss Powell, 1870

Miss Powell, 1870 (MIKAN 3479280)

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873 (MIKAN 3461227)

Mr. Brewer, 1875

Mr. Brewer, 1875 (MIKAN 3433630)

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889.

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889 (MIKAN 3448969)

Mrs. Bronson, 1869

Mrs. Bronson, 1869 (MIKAN 3478860)

Other local portait sitters

For further research