The more things change: a letter from December 1867

Veteran journalist Dorothy Grant finds fascinating stories of Halifax’s past during her historical research

A Christmas letter I discovered during my historical research shares a fascinating snapshot of the holidays in our city at the time of Confederation.

Elizabeth Lee wrote this entertaining and insightful letter in December 1867 to a cousin in New Brunswick. Lee lived in South End Halifax and provides a wonderful account of life in the city in the mid 1800s. In many ways, things haven’t changed much.

Most of us can identify with Lee when reading her admission that she must be getting older, “because Christmases come upon us far too quickly for my liking. Indeed, I must confess I have not even completed my shopping and dread the last-minute rush.”

It’s also funny that Lee shares frustration about shopping for her mother-in-law. “She seems to have everything she needs so I shall spend endless hours searching out a suitable gift for her,” Lee writes. “No doubt, she will be displeased with the gift, no matter what I eventually buy.” She then muses that if her husband John is willing to pay for it, her mother-in-law might possibly like a lovely velvet jewelry case.

Lee also talks about trying to keep gifts hidden from her children, tucking them away in the attic “in a place I hope will escape their prying eyes.

I suppose I tend to spend more than I should for them but children seem to ask for more and more each year.”

And as many Haligonians would agree, Lee thinks downtown parking and traffic are an ordeal. “I have been shopping in Granville Street but will have to postpone further visits there for a day or two as we had a frightful snow storm last night. Then, too, the streets in the business area are growing more congested each day and the mayor and council continue to ignore the outrageous situation.”

She shares how her husband John worries about the city’s future. “He says the matter must be attended to as the increasing number of horses and wagons in the vicinity makes it almost impossible for a respectable man to find a place near the stores to hitch his horse and wagon. John, of course, is most aware of this unhappy state for, as a store owner, he fears it discourages many shoppers from visiting Granville Street and sends them away to less congested areas.”

Uppity workers are another problem. “Apparently, the YMCA has been suggesting a 14-hour day is too long. They have even made mention of shortening a worker’s day to only 12 hours. Where will it end? One would think clerks should be most grateful for receiving every Sunday off and often having as long as a half-hour off for their noon meal. I really fear for all store keepers if this trend should be allowed to continue!”

She also worries about crime. “The Richmond School had been vandalized and the mayor is offering $100 reward for the youths responsible for the act.” As you might expect, permissive parents and delinquent youths are to blame. She marvels about how some parents let their sons out after 9 p.m. “I for one strongly disapprove of such lack of control.”

Food prices are another concern, even if the numbers aren’t relatable. “We will be having a turkey for our Christmas dinner this year. They are frightfully expensive at 12 cents a pound but John and the children do enjoy turkey and we feel serving it twice a year is really not extravagant. I suppose we might have had chicken as they are quite reasonable at 55 cents a pair but, I shall not feel guilty when I see the girls delighted faces as John carries the golden brown bird into the dining room on Christmas day.”

And of course, she worries about her 19-year-old daughter Melinda’s life choices. “Melinda can be most trying at times, suggesting I leave the two of them alone together in the parlor. Imagine what people would say if they heard of a young lady not officially engaged entertaining her gentleman friend alone! The next thing one knows she will be telling me a respectable girl should be allowed to be courted by a soldier or sailor.”

\Lee also shares that her husband is thinking of buying a house on Brunswick Street. “It is quite small, having only 10 rooms but there is hot and cold water in all parts of the house and in the kitchen is a high quality range with a new principle of heating hot water so one can have a bath any time of the day and night. It has a good view of the harbour and of course, Brunswick Street is one of the loveliest parts of Halifax. They are asking far too much, but John will bargain with them in the hope we can have it for $4,500.”

She wraps up by sharing plans for a Christmas Day skating excursion in Dartmouth, riding on the new “street railway” sleighs. “Wishing you and the children a most joyous Christmas and hoping Father Christmas will remember you kindly,” she signs off.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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