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Of all the materials relating to Sir John A. Macdonald in the holdings of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), those that are "ephemeral" are perhaps the most intriguing. These items are not parliamentary documents or portraits, legal papers or photographs, but objects that were originally intended to be useful for only a short time. Many are small things that Macdonald held onto for unknowable personal reasons, his keepsakes and souvenirs of times past. Other items are those that his fellow Canadians produced or kept to remember him by, employing his name or likeness to pay tribute to, or make commercial use of, his stature.
Among his own personal items, there is a printed card inviting him to the funeral of a friend's daughter in 1838, with a reminder from the friend that he should arrive early because he was a pallbearer. At another time, the Macdonalds had templates of their dining room table printed up, and LAC has one with handwritten notes surrounding the table diagram showing who was to sit where. Also preserved in the LAC collection are "cabinet cards"-photographic portrait prints mounted on stiff cardboard, with the subject's signature-and the sheet music for pieces like "The Sir John A. Macdonald Waltz" and "The Loyal Opposition Gallop."
One item that for a long time was very private is the diary kept by Macdonald's second wife, Lady Agnes Macdonald, who made the first entry of her married life on the day the Canadian provinces were united in Confederation, July 1, 1867. She continued to write regularly for the next two years, providing rich details of her family life and the whirl of Ottawa's high society in the Victorian era. Like the many watercolours she painted, her diary allows us to see the early days of Canada from the unique perspective of a woman at the centre of influence.
Macdonald lived to an old age and when he died, medals were issued in his honour; one supporter also saved the special train ticket issued to allow designated mourners to attend the "Old Chieftain's" funeral. Long after his death, Macdonald's image continued to be used on a wide range of items. Some, such as the ribbons that commemorate the unveiling of a statue in his memory, or stamps issued on special anniversaries, are formal and dignified. Others are purely commercial, using his image to market everything from soda pop and pickled relish to tobacco, beer and corsets. One advertising poster features a formal portrait by the illustrator John Wilson Bengough, modified for marketing purposes to show a bar of brand-name soap in Macdonald's hand. Another copy of this poster has the soap in Macdonald's hand painted over and replaced with a book-perhaps the work of someone who thought the image was in poor taste.
Unlike political documents and books, these "ephemeral" items were not expected to be kept or to be seen by more than a few people. These rare traces of the life and times of Macdonald are all the more extraordinary and valuable because they have survived, allowing us to look upon a bygone era from a different and often surprising point of view.
Visit the Gallery of Ephemera to see more from the LAC collection.