Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Canadian Homes in the 1890s

Music, refrigeration, carpeting, plumbing and rootbeer – it sounds like today’s home. Many of the comforts we consider newer were created over one hundred years ago.

Imagine the average middle-class Canadian home. The kids are in the kitchen getting root beer from the refrigerator and doing a quick check on the ice. Mom comes into the kitchen and cleans up coffee spilled earlier on her shiny new linoleum. The family settles into the living room with the dog at their feet, curled up on the carpet. Dad asks what music they would like to hear. He finds their selection and winds up the graphophone.

Modern comforts not so modern

The graphophone? The scenario sounded like a present-day picture of home, not something from history, but it is actually from the last years of the 1890s. Comforts we see as modern have been around more than 100 years.

The linoleum that Mom cleaned up was developed in England in 1863. Inlaid patterning for the flooring began in Scotland late in the 19th century and is still used today.

In various forms, carpeting has been around for hundreds of years. By 1860, broadloom was the fashion. Carpeting was produced in varying colours and assorted patterns of flowers and geometric shapes. And did they keep those carpets clean without a vacuum cleaner? Bissell Carpet Sweepers, of course, with bristle brushes and spring-dumping devices.

A choice of cooking equipment

Cooks had the choice of big iron woodstoves or smaller oil stoves with several burners and a small oven compartment. Today’s stoves are a cook’s delight, but there is something to be said for a toasty woodstove on an icy winter day.

Coffee drinkers were not limited to the basic coffee bean. The discriminating caffeine hunter could enjoy an array of flavourful blends, including Mocha and Java, Arabian Mocha – both at 40 cents per pound – and the reasonably priced Santos for 18 cents a pound. Tea drinkers had interesting selections also: blended black teas, Pekoe, green tea, China, and Ceylon teas were readily available.

Are you thinking that the bathroom of 1898 was a cold, uncomfortable out-house? Not so for those in cities, thanks to Sir John A. MacDonald. In early 1848, long before he became Prime Minister, Sir John A. managed to get a bill passed to create a waterworks company. Businesses and homes were able to have running water on request. (Though it was not installed in most homes until decades later.)

The comforts of the in-house bathroom

The sink, toilet and bathtub looked very similar to today’s bathroom facilities, with only a few variations. The toilet tank was constructed of hardwood and sat just behind the toilet as now, or was placed high on the wall for better water pressure. The most common bathtub was a claw-foot cast-iron model. A slipper tub, similar to the claw-foot but with a high back at one end, was also in vogue. Both tub types were enameled and sleek, and today both are in fashionable demand once again.

Hot water was provided by a small water heater right at the bathtub. The gas would be lit and warm water would be ready in just a few minutes for the waiting bather. Ahh, the pure comfort of modern living.

And what about the graphophone that gave the whole scene away? It was invented in 1887 for the purpose of business dictation. Instead, the graphophone (also called a gramophone) became popular as a home entertainment system. Sound was produced by a needle and emitted through a cone-shaped horn. Waltzes, marches, polkas and all sorts of recordings were available for the music lover. The disks were called records and records were used later on… what else? The phonograph.

Good inventions are hard to beat, even those from over a century ago.


1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue, reproduced by Chelsea House Publishers, 1968, New York

Buckskin to Broadloom, Kingston Grows up, by Alvin Armstrong. Published by The Kingston Whig-Standard, 1973, Kingston, Ontario.

The full article originally appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard, November 2001.  © Susanna McLeod

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