P.E.I's Confederation context

A new exhibit entitled 1864: The Year We Celebrate offers a peek into what it was like to be living at that time on Prince Edward Island

Sally Cole scole@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 25, 2014

Dressed in period costume, Charlotte Thompson shows a typical rug-hooking project that women in 1864 would have worked on. The dress on the mannequin, on the left, is a small version of everyday clothing worn by women in the 1860s. Underwear, shown on the clothesline, was made of wool and very itchy. The pieces are part of 1864: The Year We Celebrate exhibition, currently on display at Eptek Centre in Summerside.


Dressed in period costume, Charlotte Thompson smiles as she looks up from her handwork to welcome visitors to 1864: The Year We Celebrate.

The new exhibit at Eptek Centre in Summerside is a chance to take a step back in time as it illustrates various aspects of life for Prince Edward Islanders in the year of the historic Charlottetown Conference — everything from fashion and farming to industries and education.

“I’m dressed in my Sunday best,” says the interpretive guide, who is looking the part in what is called a walking dress, complete with voile under sleeves and a crocheted lace collar.

“But, as far as everyday wear, the women of the time would have worn this,” she adds, lifting the layers of a dress on a nearby mannequin. “There’s the hoop skirt, the petticoat and the skirt on top.”

While the crinkly cotton pieces are pretty to look at, 1864 fashions are also challenging to wear.

“There are so many layers. And fitting through doorways with a hoop skirt is not the easiest. But you get used to it,” laughs Thompson, an Acadia University student who is wearing this historic costume all summer.

“Another concern? Underwear is so itchy. It’s so unlike the soft garments we use today.”

In another section of the exhibit, various P.E.I. industries like farming and furniture making are represented.

Sitting on a Victorian ladies chair, with low arms to accommodate her hoop skirt, interpretive guide, Ellen Arsenault, is busy explaining different pieces of period furniture to visitors.

The first is a twig chair, designed by the Mi’kmaq.

“Everything that was aboriginal was sought after by people during the Victorian era. It was commonly used in a house

like William Henry Pope’s,” says the

University of New Brunswick student, pointing to a photo of Ardgowan, the house that was owned by the Father of Confederation, which still stands in Charlottetown.

“Twig chairs like this one would have been used in his garden.”

There’s also a handcrafted Butcher chair, made in a factory that operated on the corner of Kent and Hillsborough streets in Charlottetown, now the site of Maritime Christian Bookstore.

“In 1864, they were making very fine furniture on P.E.I. They were also doing country-style furniture, such as this Wilt Windsor chair,” says Arsenault.

In another corner, artifacts and display cards explain what living conditions were like leading up to the Charlottetown Conference.

“Many Islanders in the 1860s, and their delegates to the 1864 conference, were feeling quite prosperous and self-sufficient. Components of the exhibit illustrate this feeling of prosperity by highlighting ship-building and trade and their self-sufficiency by looking at agriculture and local manufacturing,” says site director Paula Kenny, adding curator Boyde Beck has mined the P.E.I. Museum’s Provincial Collection for treasured artifacts related to this period.

They include inventions by Islanders, marine paintings of ships built along the coast and some carefully preserved

military uniforms.

Kenny is pleased with the collection that Beck has come up with.

“I think it’s one of the few places that you can come to on P.E.I. where you can find out the context for the Charlottetown Conference. You can do that by looking at the artifacts as well as in conversation with our student guides.”

Standing next to an old teacher’s desk, one of those guides, Amy Gerus, is discussing education, another important issue of the time. Behind her hangs, appropriately, a print of the Robert Harris painting, The Meeting of the School Trustees.

“The free education act of 1851 was unique for the time that everyone could get an education, not just the rich people who could afford to send their children to school. So we really had a literate community in the 1860s, which was very special.”


If you are going

What: 1864: The Year We Celebrate.

When and where: Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., Tuesdays to Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until early October at Eptek Centre in Summerside.