Canada Hall

Ontario Town Life

Towns and cities rose rapidly in central Canada after Confederation. Each town had a unique character, but followed a particular pattern of shops mixed with residences and light industry. By 1885, almost 300 Canadian communities had populations of 1,000 or more. Most notable was the urbanization of southern Ontario, where numerous small towns had sprung up around the larger cities.

A street scene from a prosperous small town in Ontario, circa 1885, illustrates the trappings of fine Victorian living. The optimism and affluence visible in towns like this were due in part to a number of technological innovations. Increased mechanization in the manufacturing industry accelerated production and reduced the cost of many goods. In addition, the railroad, which had been recently completed, opened new domestic and foreign markets, so many imported luxury goods, like those seen in the shop windows, became available. Urban improvements, such as sewage disposal systems, running water, street lighting, sidewalks, and paved streets, raised the standard of living and enhanced municipal pride.


Nowhere was this pride more apparent than among the merchant elite. Included in this group were the town's most prosperous merchants, bankers, and entrepreneurs. Their wealth was used to finance projects that contributed to the town's prestige and the economic development of the region. While some towns became dominant, most remained modest-sized communities servicing the local area.

Millinery and Glass and Earthenware Shop

The goods displayed in the shop windows are indicative of fashion trends. In the glass and earthenware shop, there are several goods imported from Britain and Europe. A ruby-coloured water pitcher and tumbler with a moose design, a canoe-shaped glass sauce boat, a platter and plates showing species of fish, and a meat platter with an image of Niagara Falls are a few examples. Alongside the porcelain tea sets and formal dinnerware are everyday objects, namely a wash basin, a chamber pot, and a spittoon. Also included in the window are decorative items, such as a small period bust of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and a large white porcelain vase made to look like marble.

Next to the glass shop is a millinery and fancy dry goods store. The term "millinery" refers to women's hats, while "fancy dry goods" includes accessories such as lace, ribbons, feathers, gloves, fans, and parasols. At the time, women's clothing was characterized by bustles, frills, flounces, lace, beads, and other accoutrements. With these accessories, a woman's dress could weigh over ten pounds. Hats were often lavishly decorated with flowers, exotic bird feathers, and mounted animals. Machine-made lace and ribbons, and other imported goods were also available in small towns, thanks to improved distribution methods.

The Cabinetmaker's Shop

The cabinetmaker's shop is an example of progress in the manufacturing sector. There would have been a factory directly behind the store front. Steam-powered and belt-driven machines were operated by workers who specialized in producing one part of a piece of furniture. A chair could be handled by as many as six different workers before it was completed. With increased mechanization, the cabinetmaker became less of an artisan and more of a business and factory manager. He also sold furniture produced abroad and in larger urban centres, as well as smaller goods such as picture frames, mirrors, and carpets. The child's coffin in the shop window indicates that the cabinetmaker was often the local undertaker.

The machines used in manufacturing were dangerous because they had no built-in safety mechanism to protect the workers. Products used in manufacturing were often injurious to human health, and poor ventilation and unsanitary conditions compounded the problem. Low pay and long hours were the norm, and there was no compensation for days missed due to sickness or injury. Workers sometimes turned to organizations such as the Loyal Orange or Masonic lodges for support when they were unable to work for various reasons.