Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


IN the early days the mail was carried between the different offices in the outlying districts by post-boys on horseback.

On the leading or post roads this work was done by the stage-coach, a shrill blast from the horn which the driver carried giving notice of its approach. The coaches engaged by the Government for this purpose bore the name, "Royal Mail," and most of them had the British coat-of-arms emblazoned on their sides. The post-offices were confined mostly to the towns and villages. These being few and far between, many of the people in the country districts had to go miles for their mail. As, however, there were but few newspapers sent through the mails at that time, and comparatively few letters written, it was not necessary to go to the office very often. When anyone in a neighborhood called at the office for their mail, they generally got the mail for the whole neighborhood.

Postal rates were very high in the early days, the charge at one time being according to the distance sent, the cost of sending a letter to a far-off place often amounted to as much as half a dollar. Fifty years ago it cost seven cents to send a letter anywhere in Canada, and a York shilling or more to the Old Country. You may depend upon it, when people had to pay so much for sending a letter by snail, they did not write or trouble the mails more than they could help. Letters were frequently sent by travellers from one place to another. Again, people living long distances apart made a practice of visiting each other periodically, and in that way kept track of each other, or word was brought to them of their friends by others. The writer was told that in one place in the country, where the post-office was in a private house, if the post-boy left mail for any of the neighbors a flag was hung up to notify them.

The Newspapers.

Group of old newspapers

Although the printing press was invented centuries ago, it is only within the last one hundred years or less that the spread of the newspaper has become universal. Now there is scarcely a home among intelligent people that the daily or weekly paper does not enter. This has been due to many favorable causes—popular education, the railways, cheap postage, improvements in the printing press, etc. Popular education has given everyone a chance to learn to read and write, and in fact education has been made compulsory. The railways furnish quick and cheap means of transportation. The telegraph flashes news from remote parts, cheap postage has made it possible for the poorest in the land to have all the reading matter they want sent to them at a trifling cost, and the improvements in the printing press have reduced the cost of printing wonderfully. In the early days any paper or magazine that came into the house was treasured, read and re-read, and then given to the neighbors to read. The first post-offices being few and scattered, and the postal rates high, the newspaper was usually distributed by the publisher, who sent a man around on horseback to deliver the paper to the subscribers. Oftentimes a box was nailed to a post or the fence near the road, into which the paper was dropped. To save expense, sometimes six or seven neighbors would club together and subscribe for a paper, the subscriber living on the main road receiving it first, and who, after reading it, passed it on to one of the others. Sometimes it was left with persons along the route appointed as agents.

Postage Stamps and Envelopes.

Those of us living at the present day often wonder why it is that we enjoy so many privileges that our fore- fathers did not possess. We do not claim superior intelligence. The only explanation we can offer is that they lived in the conservative period of the world's history, when changes by many were considered wrong and of the devil, while we live in a period when progress of any kind is welcomed. Sixty years ago, even, the people in Canada did not have stamps and envelopes. They wrote their letters on one side (sometimes three sides) of a sheet of letter paper, folded the paper, then wrote the address on the unwritten side and fastened it with sealing wax. People did not write so many letters in those days—in fact, there were any number of people who could not even write their own names, as shewn by the number of marks that are to be seen attached to such documents as wills, deeds, etc. Then, again, it cost considerable to send a letter by mail. We are indebted to Rowland lull, of England, for introducing cheap postage. His attention was called to the matter by seeing a servant girl take a letter from the postman, carefully look it over, and then return it, on the plea of not being able to pay the postage. The letter was from a brother of hers in a distant place. By the postmark, and certain other marks on the outside of the letter, she knew where her brother was and how he was situated. Rowland Hill, in spite of her protest, paid the postage and handed her the letter. After the postman had departed she told Mr. Hill of the understanding between her brother and herself. This incident led to the establishment of the postal system of England on a new basis and the issuing of the first postage stamps, in January, 1840, a penny carrying a letter to any part of the British Isles. This system was soon adopted by all the colonies, as well as other countries, the first postage stamp being issued in Canada, in 1851.

The Quill Pens.

Steel pens are a comparatively modern invention. It is not much more than seventy-five years or so since they were introduced. Previous to that time the writing was all done with the quill pen made from the quills or large feathers taken from the wing of the goose. People usually kept a bundle of these on hand for use in making pens. Sometimes they would be taken out when plucking the geese, but usually they were gathered when the geese shed their feathers, the quills being found scattered around the yard. They were then boiled in water to remove the oil and make them hard and pliable.

All that was necessary in making a quill pen was a good sharp pen-knife, in fact this was how the name pen-knife originated. Many persons in the olden time were quite expert penmen and some of them who had always been accustomed to use quill pens preferred to still use them even after the invention of the steel pen. Until quite recently, points made from quills were kept for sale in some of the stationery stores. The ink the old folks used was made at home in various ways. One kind was made by boiling the inner bark of the soft maple in water and adding a little copperas to the solution. Nut galls and copperas were also frequently made use of for making ink. These old-fashioned, home-made inks were good and durable, the writing in some of the old letters and documents written a century ag& being as distinct to-day as when first written. Before the days of blotting paper it was customary, especially among students and professional men, to keep a box of fine sand* on the desk before them, to dust on the paper after it had been written on, so as to dry up the ink quickly. The ink-well always had small holes in it for inserting the quill pens in when not in use. It may not be inappropriate here to introduce the words of a famous riddle on the


In youth exalted, high in air,
Or bathing in the waters fair,
Nature to form me took delight,
And clad my body all in white.
My person tell and slender waist,
On either side with fringes graced,
'Till me that tyrant, man, espied
And dragged me from my mother's side
No wonder now I look so thin
The tyrant stripped me to the skin,-
My skin he flayed, and hair he cropped,
And head and feet my body lopped,
And with a heart more hard than stone
He picked the marrow from my bone!
To vex me more he took a freak
To split my tongue and make me speak
Riddle me this before next week.

The Old Currency.

The first official currency in Upper Canada was the Halifax currency (i s. d.), the decimal system not being adopted till 1858. In the United States the decimal system was authorized by the Federal Government in 1793. Previous to that time there was what was called the Colonial currency, each State having a money system of its own, adopted when it was a colony of Great Britain. It was some time after the authorization of the Federal currency, or dollars and cents, however, that its use became universal, the old currency to which the people were accustomed being still employed to a greater or less extent in ordinary transactions. A person travelling from Boston to New York a century and a quarter ago was obliged to compute in the currency of the different States through which he passed. Among the people of Canada living along the border, as well as among the emigrants from the United States settled in other parts of the province, the New York currency (N.Y.C.) was used considerably in the fore part of the century and in some places until the middle of the century. The dollar was also made use of quite frequently, it being customary to reckon so many York shillings (12˝ cents) to the dollar. The penny of the New. York currency was equivalent to our present cent, but the name "copper" was generally used then instead of cent. It was not until 1820 that the Halifax, or Provincial currency, became at all general, private and store accounts being mostly kept in New York currency previous to that time, public and school accounts only in Halifax currency. In Halifax currency the pound was equivalent to $4.00 and the shilling to 20 cents. In New York currency the pound was equivalent to $2.50, and the shilling to 12˝ cents. Much of the trading in the early days was done by barter, i.e., by exchanging farm produce for store goods. Logs were exchanged for shingles, and lumber and whiskey for grain, for money was generally in scant circulation. Previous to Confederation there was no silver coinage in Canada. The silver in circulation was British and foreign (British mostly). The British coins most common were the six-pence and shilling pieces. Considerable United States silver was also in circulation. There were also a few Mexican, Spanish and French coins. The present Canadian cent was preceded by the Canadian Bank penny and half-penny tokens, usually called "coppers," as well as the British penny and halfpenny piece.

Account Book

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.