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.
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.
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.
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.
Come see Sir John A. Macdonald’s personal receipts at Bellevue House National Historic Site between May 16 and October 12, 2015.