I’ve decided to forgo our Fan-tastic Friday post this week to bring you a post about a very important piece of Canadian history. My coworker and I discovered this friendly (albeit somewhat creepy) guy in one of our education kits yesterday and I decided that with Festival du Voyageur kicking off today, it would be a perfect time to share some information about the voyageurs!
You may be wondering “What’s a voyageur?”
From the 1600’s to the 1850’s Canada’s largest industry was the fur trade. The furs had to be transported long distances from where they were trapped, to where they would be sold. This transportation happened over water. The voyageurs (which is French for traveler) were the people who took these voyages by canoe to transport the furs. The voyageurs were mostly French Canadian men. The men had to be able to paddle a canoe and carry at least 2 bundles of fur at time over several miles, each of these bundles weighing 41kg (90lbs!). Some would carry even more than 2 bundles at a time, and injuries including hernias were a common hazard for voyageurs.
Voyageurs traveled by foot across land, and by canoes made of birch wood stretched over a white cedar frame, there were two common sizes of canoe, one was 7.6m long and the other being 11m long. Their journeys were long and arduous and fraught with peril. Few voyageurs knew how to swim, and drowning was not uncommon. Black flies and mosquitoes were kept at bay by sleeping by a smudge fire which often caused eye, sinus and respiratory problems. Along with the injuries caused by carrying great amounts of weight across land, these things made life difficult as well as dangerous for the voyageur.
Voyageurs were expected to work at least 14 hours per day, waking at 2 or 3AM and setting off without eating breakfast. They ate two meals a day, and had to carry food with them as there was no time for hunting or gathering on their journey. Meals often consisted of a small piece of pemmican or biscuit while rowing. The men would stop briefly for a pipe each hour and in this way “pipes” were used to measure distances traveled. When night came they pulled ashore and turned over the canoes to use as shelter while they slept.
“Many voyageurs had long hair, which served as protection from the mosquitoes which beset all those who voyaged. Voyageurs dressed themselves with a shirt, a felt hat or red toque, a pair of deer skin leggings which reached from the ankles to above the knees, and held by a string secured to the belt about the waist, and pair of deer skin moccasins. They sometimes wore breeches or the breech cloth of the Indians, a winter coat with a hood (capot) and a sash. At the annual meetings at Grand Portage (later Fort William), they liked to look their best, wearing their cleanest shirt and feathers on their felt hats.” http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/nwc/history/08.htm
Singing was a favoured way to pass the long hours spent in the canoes and travelling over the land. A La Claire Fontaine was a favourite song. There are many tales of the voyageurs singing, and the folk songs have remained popular in parts of Canada. Most of you probably know the song Alouette. It was believed that singing helped the voyageurs paddle the canoes faster and helped them keep rhythm.
As I mentioned above today is the opening of Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur, and I hope that if you are close enough, that you’ll go check it out! There is a lot to learn, and see and participate in at the festival. What a great way to celebrate our Canadian history! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little “voyage” through time with me.
Citations and Further Reading:
The last real post I gave you was about maternity in the 1800’s. I have more maternity posts coming at some point, but in the meantime I thought I’d share one of my favourite subjects with you.
Up until the 1920’s young boys and girls were dressed alike. Babies in the 1800’s for the most part wore white cotton dresses. These were usually trimmed with lace, embroidery, and sometimes cutwork or frills, or they could be left plain. White cotton dresses made a lot of sense, they were easily sewn at home, fairly cost effective and were unisex. Couples back then tended to have a lot of children, and not all made it past infancy. Plain (or fancy) white dresses could be used again and again with each child that came along, requiring little more than washing and mending. Often these infant dresses were very long (think Christening gown), as baby had no ability to walk yet.
As toddlerhood approached the children would be “shortcoated” and usually gain some more colourful, shorter dresses to wear. These dresses were shorter to give the child more mobility as they learned to walk. The brighter or darker colours were often used for boy’s dresses, while girls wore pastels (light blue was considered very feminine) although pink and white were considered unisex. Boys dresses were often made of thicker fabrics and included design features like belts and metal buttons, these helped distinguish them from girls dresses. Boys dresses were also often made in the style of sailor or soldier outfits of the time as this was considered quite fashionable. For your viewing pleasure I have included photos of a soldier style dress in our collection. The first photo is of my son wearing a replica of the dress for our Historic Fashion Review, and the second photo is the original garment on a toddler sized mannequin.
When did boys begin to wear pants?
When boys transitioned to their first pair of pants it was called breeching. Boys were often breeched at age 7, but this was not a set age. It was up to the discretion of the boy’s parents to decide when he was ready to go from a dress to pants like his father. Breeching was an exciting time for a young boy, and often would include a special haircut (maybe even his first!) and sometimes a gift of a toy sword to symbolize his transition from boyhood.
Why did boys wear dresses?
Some have speculated that it might have been for easier potty training, and at the time it wasn’t considered a strange thing to wear a dress. In other words, why wouldn’t they have worn dresses? There was no real reason to put a small child in pants. Up until the 1920’s it was completely normal. Male children didn’t feel emasculated because every other young male was wearing a dress as well. Around war time (just before the 1920’s) life began to change for everyone and the gender roles became more defined at even younger ages and it would appear that trend has continued with the specialization of children’s clothing and toys. The fashion industry and media have helped convince us that only certain colours and styles may be worn by males. Obviously if we look back in time we can see that this is not true. There are even some cultures today where men still wear dresses or skirts. I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind for most people is the kilt from Scotland, men in India also wear a garment that could be considered a dress from a North American perspective. So as you can see the cut and colour of clothing do not necessarily “make the man”.
Here’s some citations and further reading for you, and I highly recommend the Smithsonian article:
I hope to photograph some more of the little boys dresses in our collection at a later date to post. In the meantime, I’d love to read your comments.