Once again we had the amazing opportunity to travel back in time and learn about the beginnings of Canada. This time we visited Toronto’s first free school and the first post office.
Our first stop was at the school, and I was baffled by the beauty of the building, particularly the details around the door.
This is the plaque outside the school, explaining some of its history:
The school opened as the first free school in Toronto. The neighborhood where it is located was mainly conformed by Irish immigrants, who had fled Ireland during difficult times in which the potato crops — sometimes the only thing some families could afford to eat– had been ravished by a fungus. Starvation was claiming lives in their country, and they came to Canada to find better luck.
Upon arrival at the Ward Street School we were greeted by the “teacher”:
She was fabulous in her role of an 1800’s teacher. When she first came out to meet us, though, she wasn’t acting or “in character”… and that’s when I found her the funniest. Remember the movie Little Orphan Annie? Well, she was just like Carol Burnett in the role of the drunk director of the orphanage. And I say that in the most lovingly way possible. I love that character.
Anyway, our deceivingly sober teacher told us her story: Mrs. Henderson was the first woman teacher allowed to work at this school, and even though she had four children of her own to care for, she was allowed to receive only half of the pay the male teachers had received before her. This was almost 200 years ago, and to this day in many areas and industries (yes, even in a first-world country like Canada) women find themselves being paid less than their male counterparts. How much have we really advanced in two centuries?
But I digress.
The children were expected to behave like 1800’s students, and the rules were clear: They had to be quiet, well-seated and paying attention at all times. We were explained that all children of that era went to school and had to work, usually helping their parents with farming. They were often tired.
The girls were given white pinafores to wear, just like girls did back then. Apparently, the white pinafores were easy to wash and of lightweight material that dried fast, which made them practical for everyday use.
Mrs. Henderson walked out of the room and when she came back, their official 1858 school day began.
All the kids were SO quiet and still! Mrs. Henderson was stern and serious, very proper and uptight. Questions were asked and answers were given with lots of “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am”.
Before beginning the representation, the teacher asked for a volunteer: A student who would be used as example of a punishment as it would have been. Guess who raised her hand to be the chatty-girl of the class? *sigh*
After the teacher’s signal, Anna blurted out to her friend “So, what’s your favorite color?”
“Miss Anna! Are you speaking in class?!”
“You know that talking is not permitted! And well, seeming as you won’t be quiet, come and sit by the corner and hold up this sign”
Here’s Anna holding the sign that reads I will not stop talking. Ha! She had a great time getting in trouble.
Then, her friend got in “trouble” for slouching in her seat. Her punishment for poor posture? To stand on her tip-toes and press her nose to the chalkboard!
We were explained that it was very likely that the teacher would just continue with her class and forget all about the tippy-toed student. Ouch!
Here are some of the things they had in the schoolhouse/museum.
I guess this is what they used to wash their hands:
And here’s what they used for writing. It isn’t exactly chalk, but more of a compressed stone-like gadget:
After leaving the schoolhouse we headed to Toronto’s firs post office:
Inside, the kids received a short lesson on the early beginnings of Toronto. They were shown a letter written in the 1800’s by a teenage girl to her brother, who was back in England.
From far away the letter looked almost like a grid, because in order to save paper — which was extremely expensive– she had written both vertically and horizontally! It was such a fine, small, thin cursive print that it was extremely difficult to decipher. The lady giving us the class explained that it had taken them several years to figure out what the letter said! How the brother understood it is beyond me.
Go on, I challenge you to pick out even one word:
After that, the kids had a chance to write their own letter… ye ol’ days-style– with a goose feather!
Anna chose to write a letter to her dad. She even wrote it in cursive! It came out beautiful.
They had to be veeeery careful, because the ink runs very easily and splotches are common. They were instructed to gently blot their letters once they were done, in order to remove the excess ink and prevent a potential mess.
It was a great day and a wonderful learning experience. In the end, the laughter and the new friends made were our favorite part!