A Look Back at Christmas 1867

With Canada 150 around the corner, I’d like to travel back to December 1867 and share a few thoughts about what life was like in Prescott…50 years or so after our Town was first settled.

In 1867, Prescottonians

  • worked on the railroads, in shipbuilding and forwarding, in hotels and inns, in one of 3 breweries and 2 distilleries, and operated small businesses
  • attended meetings, talks and performances on the waterfront at Brady’s Hall, and crossed the St. Lawrence River by ferry (or by sleigh, in the winter) to attend weddings and large-scale theatrical productions in Ogdensburg
  • borrowed books and magazines from the Mechanics Institute, located on King Street (a forerunner of the Prescott Public Library)
  • might travel to Montreal or Toronto on the Grand Trunk Railway, or travelled with ease to Canada’s new capital, Ottawa, using the Ottawa and Prescott Railway
  • continued to use stagecoach service for local travel
  • collected mail daily from Prescott’s second postmaster, Dr. William Henry Brouse (Grenville South’s MP from 1872-78, and Senator from 1878 until his death in 1881)
  • and worshipped at St. Andrew’s, St. John’s, St. Mark’s, and St. Paul’s

At the time, the great railway man Walter Shanly, Esq., represented our area in the provincial legislature. He supported Confederation and by extension, we can say that the majority of citizens in Grenville County supported union but along with Shanly, voters may have had concerns about colonization or felt that commercial relations should be cultivated first among the provinces before a political alliance.

After Confederation, Walter Shanly was persuaded to run federally in Grenville South. He served 3 terms, winning elections in 1867, ‘85 and ’87. He was reserved as a political figure, but there is little doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald considered Shanly’s railway expertise a great asset and frequently sought his advice as both friend and ally.

In 1867, Prescottonians and Ogdensburgians carefully followed the news about Fenianism especially following the uprisings and executions in England and Ireland. Some wondered if there wouldn’t be another Fenian gathering in Ogdensburg and there was talk of a possible Fenian uprising in Montreal on Christmas Day, but observances in 1867 passed off quietly.


Another political issue on the minds of Canadians during the nation’s first years, was the fear of annexation to the United States. An anti-annexation cartoon from 1869 published in Grinchuckle – an offspring of Punch Canada – depicted “Uncle Sam” receiving the “boot” from the occupants of “Dominion House”, but Prescottonians crossed the St. Lawrence in great numbers in November and December 1867 taking in some fine holiday entertainment and/or participating in a friend’s or family member’s wedding.


“On Saturday night”, The Daily Journal (Ogdensburg) reported, “a large party came over from Prescott, and were well repaid for their time and trouble.” The ads for the production in question – BLACK CROOK – promised “a great, magical, spectacular drama…a palace of dew drops…and a corps de ballet performing the wonderful demon dance and a beautiful scarf dance”. One is reminded of the Chinese, Spanish, and Arabian dances of The Nutcracker ballet – a holiday favourite, but The Nutcracker we know today had yet to be composed by Tchaikovsky and the ballet had yet to be premiered in Russia.

In 1867, Prescottonians had access to all the fixings they needed to prepare the fashionable Christmas treats of the day, including fresh oysters, smoked fish, cured hams, pickles, chow chow, piccallily, jellied salads, cranberry sauce, fresh oranges, and Christmas desserts with all the nuts, candied peel, raisins, rum and brandy that such Victorian sweets required. This made the Holiday Season a particularly appealing time, as well, for weddings.

Genealogists have noted the frequency of Christmas weddings in Upper Canada, and there are several explanations, I think: availability of family to visit, particularly from rural areas with farms readied for the winter; less importance placed on Christmas celebrations and, therefore, better availability of churches and halls than today; and perhaps also the strong belief, especially among Methodists, that Christmas represented the beginning of the church calendar and new beginnings.


The 1855 year was a banner year for Prescottonians with 2 unions on Christmas Day and 3 between Christmas and New Year’s (one of these on New Year’s Eve). There may have been other weddings, but these were the ones announced in the Ogdensburg Sentinel and the St. Lawrence Republican. They involved Canadian families crossing the St. Lawrence River by ferry and celebrating at one of Ogdensburg’s fine hotels, including Baldwin House, Johnson’s Hotel, Oswegatchie House, St. Lawrence Hotel and the Washington Hotel. Incidentally, the UK made Christmas a legal holiday, in 1834, Canada West followed in 1849, but our American friends took a little longer, declaring Christmas a legal holiday in 1870.

A Do You Recall column in the Ogdensburg Advance (October 8, 1933) describes a colourful scene:

“…every hotel in Ogdensburg….had a gaily decorated painted bus with a pair of evenly matched high-stepping horses…at the O & LCRR depot a space was assigned for each bus and the name of the hotel displayed on a wooden sign.”

Popular gifts – for Christmas and for New Year’s – included watches, work boxes, backgammon boards, and checker and chess pieces for adults. Fur collars, muffs, gauntlets, silverware, Bohemian glass, and Parian marble vases were also promoted as possible gifts. Wax dolls, doll heads and bodies, puzzles, games of jacks, and tin and wooden toys of all kinds were among the top choices for children. Many continued to hang their gifts on the Christmas tree so for most shoppers, the smaller the gift the better!

The Prescott Twelve_1869.jpg

In December 1867, winter was well advanced, but the “ice bridge” across the St. Lawrence River was not quite ready for horse racing or sleigh riding. The Prescott Twelve played a couple of lacrosse matches, people of all ages skated and curled along the river banks, rinks selling season tickets were being newly developed advertising “fancy skating”, and there were “amusements” – as they were called –  including balls and quadrille parties (square dances).

Photos: http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/ & http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/


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