Monday, February 9, 2009

What to pack?

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

If you visit the Moore Museum, in Mooretown, Ontario, you might see this exhibit:

“Log Cabin - When you step into the Courtney log cabin, you step into the home of a settler in the late 1800's. The handmade quilts, kettle for dipping candles and the garden outside are all evidence of the settlers' self-sufficiency.”

However the Courtney family lived, it seems unlikely that this sparsely furnished cabin is representative of the home of Thomas Sutherland’s (1772-1850) family. According to Winning Pendergast, the Sutherlands brought fine furniture, china, silver, and paintings with them, as well as “a respectable library.” One 1847 visitor described them as having “a very good house.” And another account affirms they had a well-stocked cellar. That the settlers could own such things—rather than exclusively rough-hewn objects—is confirmed by John Cunningham Geikie’s Mooretown novel, Life in the Woods: A True Story of the Canadian Bush (1871). In the following scene, he describes the unpacking done by a newly arrived family:

“When we had begun to move the luggage, what boxes on boxes had to be lifted! We all lent a hand, but it was hard work. There was the piano, and the eight-day clock, in a box like a coffin, and carpets, and a huge wardrobe, packed full of I don't know what, large enough to have done for a travelling show, and boxes of books, and crockery, and tables, and a great carpenter's chest, not to speak of barrels of oatmeal, and flour, and salt, and one of split peas. I think the books were the heaviest, except that awful wardrobe and the chest of drawers, which were all packed full of something. But they paid over and over for all the trouble and weight, proving the greatest possible blessing. If we had not brought them we would have turned half- savages, I suppose, for there were none to buy nearer than eighty or ninety miles, and, besides, we would not have had money to buy them. We had a whole set of Sir Walter Scott's charming stories, which did us a world of good, both by helping us to spend the winter evenings pleasantly, by the great amount of instruction in history and antiquarian lore they contained, and by showing my young sisters, especially, that all the world were not like the rude people about us. They got a taste for elegance and refinement from them that kept them ladies in their feelings while they had only the life of servants.”

The set of Scott’s books is a nice touch; there is a family story that Scott frequented TS’s shop. (Though Sutherland’s shop was not the military outfitters Scott commissioned to make a kilt for George IV—that was George Hunter’s firm.) We do know that in 1827 Scott paid a dividend on an outstanding bill to a Thomas Sutherland for some service or goods rendered. This could be the Aberdeen bookseller identified only as “Mr. Sutherland” in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott—there was a Thomas Sutherland who was a book agent in Aberdeen. However, he does not seem to appear until the 1830s, making it a greater likelihood that Mr. Sutherland is one of the John Sutherlands who operated in the Aberdeen book trade from the first decade of the century onward. Which leaves us with the possibility that the family legend is true: that Scott bought wares from Sutherland, while Sutherland bought books by Scott.

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