Remembering the Aftermath of the War of 1812

Originally published on Torontoist on April 9, 2013.

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The Death of Brock at Queenston Heights, painted by C.W. Jefferys, circa 1908. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.

With all the hoopla over the bicentenary of the War of 1812, it’s easy to concentrate on the battles, the heroes who filled generations of school textbooks, and the idea that the conflict was an important part of establishing our national identity. The complexities of the war and its legacies aren’t as romantic or attention-grabbing, but they invite interesting questions about our notions of who we are and how we remember critical events in our history.

Perceptions of 1812: Identity, Diversity, Memory, the current exhibit at the Archives of Ontario‘s exhibit space on the York University campus, uses the archives’ holdings to provide a broader picture of the war and its enduring impact. The items and panels on display cover topics ranging from personal wartime correspondence to the role auto-based tourism played in preserving crumbling forts.

How many items related to the War of 1812 does the Archives have among its 100,000 metres of textual records? It’s hard to guess. “Although some documents are directly related to the conflict,” notes David Tyler of the Archives’ information department, “most of our related material documents life in Upper Canada at that time, providing the necessary context for studying the war. We also hold many items related to Ontario’s attempts to memorialize and commemorate the war over the past 200 years.” Tyler has noticed a significant increase in requests about the war over the past year, mostly from people living in areas affected by the conflict in southwestern Ontario and around the U.S. border. Many of these requests are followups to the Archives’ main online exhibit about the war. Tyler recommends that anyone looking for a general introduction to the Archives’ war-related holdings consult an online research guide, available in PDF format.

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Perceptions of 1812, at the Archives of Ontario. Image courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.

For Perceptions of 1812‘s curator, Ross Fair, the diversity of the material in the Archives made it easy to avoid duplicating existing online exhibits. Because most of the military records are held elsewhere, Fair had no choice but to focus on political and social issues that arose in the war’s aftermath.

Among the war’s effects was a noticeable change in the nature of the political divisions of the time, from national borders to the ideological boundary between the high Tories who formed the Family Compact and the Reformers who paved the path to responsible government. Another issue was “aliens,” migrants from the United States whom the colonial elites regarded suspiciously. Attempts to block the rights of those who migrated during or after the war raged until 1828, when those who arrived before 1820 were given full rights as British citizens, while those who arrived after could swear an oath of allegiance after seven years of residency. In other words, postwar Canada was far from perfect. “We celebrate the heroes who stood and defended this war,” Fair noted in a recent Heritage Toronto lecture, “but I suspect most of us wouldn’t want to live in the society that they envisioned Upper Canada to be.”

In an interview with Torontoist, Fair observed that the Archives has great photos of efforts to restore the remains of several War of 1812 forts, during the 1930s. The images on display show the shocking extent of the decay at these sites. Kingston’s Fort Henry, in particular, had practically disintegrated into rubble. The forts were restored, in part, because of their intrinsic historical value, but also because they were tourist attractions. Their roles as destinations for motorists—and as make-work projects during the Great Depression—shouldn’t be underplayed.

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Laura Secord, by Mildred Peel, 1904. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.

Romanticized illustrations of the war also played a role in keeping its memory alive. The work of C.W. Jefferys, in textbook illustrations and books like the three-volume The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, in some cases, gave faces to historical figures whose actual images were never recorded—like Laura Secord, now legendary for her brave trek through the woods. Perceptions of 1812 contrasts Jefferys’ depiction of the future candy-store icon with a portrait of an older Secord displayed for years in Queen’s Park—a portrait that x-rays later revealed had been painted over a depiction of Ontario Premier George Ross.

We asked Fair and Tyler which items in the exhibit were their favourites. Tyler chose a 1912 picture from celebrations at the Brock Monument, commemorating the centennial of the Battle of Queenston Heights. Among the depicted dignitaries is Dr. Alexander Fraser, the first Archivist of Ontario, whose kilt stands out from the rest of the crowd. Fair chose two items: a letter Isaac Brock wrote after the British victory at Detroit, which conveys the sense of the joy he experienced, and maps made by surveyor David Thompson to define the postwar border.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Valentine’s Day Sampler

Valentine’s Day

Originally published on Torontoist on February 11, 2015.

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The Globe, February 8, 1928.

Valentine’s Day: a time to demonstrate one’s appreciation for others, to profess one’s love, and to write florid verse and purple prose in the name of Cupid. Celebrating love on February 14 (or surrounding days, if it fell on Sunday) has been a long, profitable tradition for Torontonians.

One of the earliest commentaries we found was a Globe editorial published in 1858. The elevated prose that publisher George Brown and his writers used forces modern readers to refer to a dictionary. For example, booksellers offering Valentine’s Day stationery were “bibliopoles,” a term we’re waiting for an enterprising young entrepreneur to use any day now. A sample of the Globe’s thoughts:

Our bibliopoles have right diligently done their part to secure the due celebration of the mysteries pertaining to this time-honoured festival. For weeks have the counters and windows of their marts have been profusely garnished with amatory missives, exhibiting all the canonical adornments peculiar to such documents. Dan Cupid there drives teems of harnessed doves, as he was wont to do when “our auld cloak was new,” and smirking couples wend their way “ankle deep in flowers” towards rural churches climaxed with tiny spires suggestive of toothpicks.

20150211flowersThe Globe, February 12, 1931.

By 1862, Toronto’s post office processed 3,500 valentines on February 14. Though rumours suggested sending greetings was passé, stationers reported strong sales, especially among high-end products. “Those of a comic character were sold in large quantities, but the great demand was for those with embossed edges, varying from a quarter to five dollars,” the Globe observed. “The post office was crowded with the fair sex all day; and the smiles on their faces, as they left, showed that their swains had generally done the proper thing.”

During the Victorian era, the degeneration of valentines into cards with grotesque, insensitive jokes was heavily criticized. Cheaper cards replaced sentiment with insults and, the Globe reported in 1889, “the effect upon the unfortunate receiver must be like that of a quart of dishwater thrown from some unseen window.” A valentine sent to a pharmacist might insinuate he was a quack, while a young woman might receive a card inferring she had loose morals. “It is not good even for children to be the carriers of insults the full meaning of which they do not understand.”

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The Globe, February 10, 1933.

Sentimentality was back in fashion when the Great Depression hit. As the economy tanked, caring thoughts and tender reassurances written in valentines provided solace. Around 150,000 valentines were distributed by Toronto mail carriers on Valentine’s Day 1930. The Globe glimpsed the feeling around the city that year:

Sweethearts are giving expressions to their affection in generous measure today and they are “saying it” with valentines. Perchance it is but a dainty card or folder, charmingly embellished with lace and cupids and intriguing bits of verse, and again the valentine may take the form of a basket of red roses or heart-shaped boxes of candies. Twilight last evening fell upon a city seething with excitement akin to that one finds on Christmas Eve, with book stores, candy shops, and florists crowded with young men with dreamy eyes, and thoughtful husbands.

Additional material from the February 13, 1858, February 15, 1862, February 14, 1889, and February 14, 1930 editions of the Globe.

Valentine’s Day ’54

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Toronto Star, February 12, 1954.

Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, a day of happy lovers and happier chocolate purveyors. Back in 1954, two of the city’s larger candy chains filled the newspapers with ads showing off their sweet suggestions. Beyond wolfing down bonbons, what else could sweethearts do that year?

There was the option of more food. Culinary columnists provided their ideas for suitable meals and treats for lovebirds to make at home, which would have helpful in 1954 as Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday, a day when entertainment options outside the home were limited. The Telegram proposed a full buffet consisting of baked Virginia ham, sweet potato casserole, tossed salad, French bread, cranberry/celery salad, iced relishes, and Cherries Jubilee with ice cream. This spread may have been a plot to fill up diners so much that they wouldn’t be in the mood for any monkey business later on. Margaret Carr of the Toronto Star offered up a strawberry-almond mould loaded with gelatin, ladyfingers, and “frills of whipped cream” that may have stimulated a few lovers. The Globe and Mail determined that a one-bowl orange cake was appropriate, as long as one mixed the batter with six hundred spoon strokes—three hundred before the eggs were added, three hundred after. One stroke too many and both the cake and the romance would be ruined.

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The Telegram, February 11, 1954.

If you were unable to come up with a poem to deliver to your Valentine, editorial pages came to the rescue, especially if you were as negligent in delivering your wishes as the protagonist of the Star’s offering, Len G. Selle’s Valentine:

Oh, lovely girl who reads this verse
Think not I am unwise;
I know the softness of your hair
The languer in your eyes.
The laughter of your “rosebud mouth”
And “teeth like pearls”—I guess;
It just remains, my love, for you
To send me your address.

Ah, what a novel scheme this is
To win a Valentine,
To advertise my heart’s desire
At nothing flat a line?
But breathing on my shoulder
Is my last important date…
Alas, this little Valentine
Is twenty years too late!

At the University of Toronto, University College co-eds celebrated by re-enacting Valentine rituals from 1754. These included pinning bay leaves on pillows to ensure any sweethearts dreamed of would be yours within a year, a performance of a play that used creepy masks, and writing names of suitors on slips of paper, rolling them in clay, and dropping them in a jar of water, with the first to float indicating the lucky man.
Modern rituals were the focus of the Telegram’s “Teen Talk” column, where Cynthia Williams offered advice:

Are you trying to woo and win the lady of your choice? Are you trying to get rid of a dope who has been stalking your steps for the past six months? Now’s your chance! Ready-made! But here’s a pointer, boys, if you do want to be popular. The girl, or girls, in your life might not be expecting a card, but believe me, you’ll be number one boy if you remember to send one! And girls, I did get a few of the boys to admit that they were kind of flattered if they got cards, even unsigned ones, that piqued their curiosity!

No mention was made of what a small gift of chocolates could do.

Additional material from the February 11, 1954 and February 12, 1954 editions of the Globe and Mail, the February 13, 1954 edition of the Telegram, and the February 9, 1954 and February 13, 1954 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Two of the recipes mentioned in this story…

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Toronto Star, February 9, 1954.

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Globe and Mail, February 12, 1954.