Collecting – and Curating – Eclectic Canadiana

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Forrest Pass

Collecting made me a historian. A few months ago, in the course of my work as a curator at Library and Archives Canada, I came across a letter from Francis Parkman to Dominion Archivist Douglas Brymner and it made me smile, because my first “acquisition” as a child philatelist had been a stamp commemorating “Francis Parkman – American Historian.” It probably had not occurred to me before examining that stamp – carefully peeled from a postcard – that “historian” was a career option.

I continue to collect as an adult, although stamps are no longer my focus. Today I comb thrift stores and estate sales, Facebook Marketplace and eBay for unusual books, quirky paper ephemera, and inexpensive but evocative small artifacts, all under the broad theme of “eclectic Canadiana.” Some of these acquisitions support my scholarly projects. For example, I have accumulated a large collection of postcards, pamphlets, matchbox covers, and other ephemera documenting the history of Canadian flag culture, which serves as source material for ongoing research (and, incidentally, for an illustration in a previous Active History contribution).

Not everything I collect is linked to a specific project, but that doesn’t mean that it is unconnected to my work and identity as a historian and curator. Part of the fun of each new “find” is researching its story, and uncovering its connections to broader themes in Canadian and world history. Collecting gives me opportunities to hone my curatorial craft, to think about how objects, however insignificant they might seem at first glance, can reveal intriguing, and even otherwise undocumented, aspects of the past.

A few examples illustrate the tales that these modest acquisitions can tell.

Provincial Politics meets Egyptomania… and Bardolatry

I purchased this Pharaoh-themed toast list on eBay for a few dollars from a seller who advertised it as Masonic ephemera. This was a reasonable guess, as the Masons do have an affinity for things Egyptian and, if you squint just right, the emblem on the back of the card might be an “M” entwined with an all-seeing eye. However, the list of toasts – to the Governor General and “Young Reformers,” among others – suggested a political rather than fraternal event.

Left page is piece of paper with decorative borders. The text reads "Toast List: 1 - The Queen 2 - The Governor-General 3 - The Lieutenant-Governor 4 - The Guest of the Evening 5 - The Parliament of Canada 6 - The Ontario Government 7 - The Ontario Legislature 8 - Our Sister Provinces 9- The Liberal Press 10 - The Army, Navy and Volunteers 11 - The Agricultural, Commercial and Manufacturing Interests 12 - The Young Reformers 12 - The Ladies." Right page has a stylized "OM" in the middle.

Author’s personal collection. Photos courtesy of Forrest Pass.

Aside from the Egyptian motif, the quotations from Shakespeare are the most striking feature of the card. There is one quotation for each toast and four more around the border. In most instances, the choices are complimentary, but one selection is a little cheeky: although diners toasted the “Parliament of Canada,” the remark that “the dissolution of it must cure it” (Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 2) hints at partisan differences.

The strongest clue of the document’s purpose is the quotation that follows the toast to “The Ontario Legislature”: “And all their lands restored to them again.” (As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 4). Could this be a reference to a boundary dispute?

Toronto Liberals celebrated Mowat’s triumphant return with a gala banquet on September 16, 1884. The list of toasts in a Globe report the following day matches my list.[1] The ornament on the back is, therefore, not a Masonic emblem but the initials “O.M.”, for Oliver Mowat. Mystery solved!

But the newspaper account mentions neither Shakespeare quotations nor an Egyptian theme.  The quotations function something like modern internet memes: each is a well-known cultural reference that illustrates something about the figure being toasted. The toast card’s unknown designer had an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare and assumed the same of his audience, much as a modern meme-maker might assume a knowledge of The Office or The Princess Bride. As for the Egyptian flourishes, these may well have been a typesetter’s fancy, a safe choice given the prevalence of “Egyptomania” during the 1880s. A souvenir of a largely forgotten interprovincial spat, the card is also a relic of prevailing cultural tastes.

A Well-Travelled Trinket

Territorial conflict is also embodied in a teak letter opener that I found at an estate sale, as is nostalgia for fading imperial glory. A small brass plaque indicates that the opener was fashioned “From the teak of H.M.S. Ganges, the last sailing ship to serve as a seagoing flagship.” This unassuming artifact tells a story of British imperialism and of Canada’s place in it.

Close-up photograph of a brown piece of wood. There is a brass plate affixed with these words embossed on it: “From the teak of H.M.S. Ganges, the last sailing ship to serve as a seagoing flagship.”

Author’s personal collection. Photo courtesy of Forrest Pass.

H.M.S. Ganges was built in Mumbai, India, between 1819 and 1821, under the direction of Indian master shipbuilder Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia. Wadia came from a long line of Parsi shipbuilders and had also overseen the construction of H.M.S. Minden, whose shelling of Fort McHenry near Baltimore during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. For its part, Ganges saw service in South America and in the eastern Mediterranean before becoming flagship of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station in 1857.

The following year, the Admiralty sent Ganges to Vancouver Island to assert British sovereignty during the early days of the Fraser River gold rush. She made another show of force in 1859, as Britain and the United States almost came to blows over an American settler’s senseless slaughter of a Hudson’s Bay Company employee’s pig in the disputed San Juan Islands. As historian Barry Gough notes, Ganges and other ships of the Pacific Station also helped to impose colonial rule on First Nations territories along the coast of present-day British Columbia.

Ganges returned to England after her west-coast deployment and became a training ship. She was finally decommissioned in 1923, a century after her launch, and broken up in 1932; British Movietone captured her final days in this newsreel. Pieces of her timbers were repurposed in various ways. For example, a seat back from the captain’s gig is mounted on a cairn in the Salt Spring Island community of Ganges, named for the ship.

My letter opener is only one example of the inexpensive knick-knacks that enterprising souvenir sellers made from Ganges’ teak. To those who bought them, match-holders, ashtrays, and napkin rings served as nostalgic reminders of a global empire – well in decline by the 1930s – in which ships built from South Asian materials by South Asian labour had made the west coast of North America “safe” for settler colonialism.

Names and Dates

Gage’s New English and Canadian History Note-Book (Second Edition, 1892) makes for pretty dull reading. It is a dry compilation of lists – names, dates, dynasties, constitutional changes – for high school and normal school examinations; think Cole’s Notes or Wikipedia for nineteenth-century crunch-time cramming.  My copy, from the sale bin of a now-defunct used bookshop, is more interesting for the distraction that its original owner scrawled on the endpapers than for the book’s content.

An orange book cover with a crest in the bottom right corner. The title is Exam. Primer Series, Eng. & Canadian History

Author’s personal collection. Photo courtesy of Forrest Pass.

Arthur Vincent Jesse Herbert purchased the book on April 5, 1894. According to the census and his birth registration, Arthur would have been almost seventeen at the time and lived with his parents and many siblings at 599 Wellington Street in Ottawa. The address in itself is an interesting artifact, for it is now long gone. Built sometime after 1888, the family home was apparently destroyed, along with many other primarily working-class homes, in a catastrophic fire that swept the working-class Lebreton Flats neighbourhood in 1900. Today the site lies underneath the Pimisi O-Train station.

Endpaper of a book with the following text written by hand: "Ottawa April 5, 1894, Arthur Herbert, 599 Wellington St, Ottawa, Ont., Can."

Author’s personal collection. Photo courtesy of Forrest Pass.

Arthur’s mind was clearly on other things than his history homework in the spring of 1894, for on April 9, he transcribed a four-stanza love poem, entitled “Violet – A Pearl” by “M.H.B.”, into the endpapers of his copy of the History Note-Book. I googled the first lines – “On gay parade, in crowded hall, / Where fickle fashion flirts and flaunts…” – and found the poem readily, reprinted in an Oakland, California, newspaper in 1902 and signed “M. Hedderwick Browne”.[2]

A page filled with handwriting.

Author’s personal collection. Photo courtesy of Forrest Pass.

Marie Hedderwick Browne, a minor British author of sentimental verse, certainly appreciated purple spring blooms: the title of her only poetry collection was A Spray of Lilac (1892). However, the poem that caught Arthur Herbert’s attention was originally dedicated to “Margaret” rather than “Violet”. Was Violet, perhaps, a young woman of Arthur’s own acquaintance, who inspired in him a desire “to be her faithful knight,” and to rework Browne’s verse? If so, two possible candidates appear in the 1891 census, Violet Monk (b. 1877) and Violet Hick (b. 1880). Both lived in Wellington Ward, close to Lebreton Flats, and could conceivably have been part of Arthur’s social circle.

If “Violet” was indeed Arthur Herbert’s first love, she was not to be his last. In 1900, he married Emma Lilla Cluff. They settled in the city’s east end, where Arthur worked as a roofer – his father’s trade. Arthur died in 1953, some sixty years before I found his high-school history study guide. The true identity of “Violet – A Pearl” probably died with him.

Each example of eclectic Canadiana in my collection captures something of the interests, values, and passions of their creators and owners, from the Egyptian fantasies of a Victorian typesetter to a lovesick teenager’s tribute to a young love. The things I collect are often small, usually inexpensive, and easy to overlook, but a little research transforms them from trinkets into artifacts, witnesses to the real lives of real people.

Forrest Pass is a curator at Library and Archives Canada. His work on aspects of Canadian material culture has appeared in Water History, Dress, the Journal of Sport History, and the Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism. His personal collection of eclectic Canadiana is on display in an ever-shrinking home office in Gatineau, Quebec. Admission by appointment or by chance.


[1] “Mowat’s Welcome,” The Globe (September 17, 1884), 11.

[2] “Poetry that will Please the Women,” Oakland Tribune (August 23, 1902), 13.

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