A Visit to Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site


I always wanted to visit the 19th-century house of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, located at the corner of Notre-Dame and Berri streets, in Old Montréal. I thought the holidays would be a great opportunity to push ahead with this forever-postponed plan and—what is more—get to admire the decor of a typical Victorian Christmas.

Well, I should have written houses as there are actually two properties (built in 1837) sharing an adjoining coachway. The Cartier family who, at first, lived in the East House from 1848 to 1855, later moved to the West House, and would settle there from 1862 to 1871.

Some may ask: "Who is this George-Étienne Cartier?" A French Canadian born in 1814 in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Cartier was one of the Fathers of Confederation. A lawyer, businessman, and politician, he was Premier of Canada East (more or less, today's Province of Quebec) from 1858 to 1862, and Minister of Militia and Defence from 1867 to 1873, under the government of Conservative John A. Macdonald. Cartier died in 1873 in London, England. He was buried in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montréal.

The East House has never been renovated because of multiple successive tenants, public works on Berri Street, and a fire. The main and second floors feature the temporary exhibition—on women's fashion and crinolines at the moment—and the permanent exhibition—on Cartier's accomplishments. The West House has been renovated so as to restore it to its genuine Victorian architectural form. Although the beautiful pieces of furniture are not original to the house, they do depict what the home looked like at the time.

If you were to enter the house from the original main door, you would stand in front of the staircase on the left side of the corridor that takes you to the butler's pantry at the back of the house. On the right side of the corridor are the formal living room and dining room. Looking through the window, you can figure out where the stable was because of the outside wall's brick colours. Upstairs are Lady Cartier's bedroom, her two daughters' bedroom, and a boudoir where the women would receive the immediate family or work on sewing.

I was hardly the one to have the Christmas spirit in the family. Indeed, I learned a lot during my visit. For instance, that the Christmas tree appeared in England—later in Canada—thanks to Prince Consort Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who was German. In his native country, a Christmas tree decorated with candles and gifts was a tradition.

While in the dining room, we were told that the stove and its pipe were only used in winter for extra heating. It was removed during the summer—nowadays, in our houses, it's the air conditioner we put away! The table, nicely set and displaying the traditional turkey, served on Christmas Eve if you were French Canadian or on Christmas Day, if you were English Canadian, led our guide to point out the differences between a French and an English service.

He also showed us some images of Santa Claus through the years using a lanterna magica—an early type of projector. I was particularly interested by the one from 1875—a recession year. A surprisingly thin Santa Claus, dressed in blue, stood close to a stunted tree. The one from 1870 was definitely local: he was wearing snowshoes!

Did you know that Christmas cards were hand-painted and very expensive? A card could cost as much as 4 pounds, a servant's-month salary.

These houses are certainly worth a visit. I will return during the course of the year to see the decor in a new light. If you prefer to discover the Victorian Christmas of the Cartiers' houses, you may add that on your list for next year.