Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Montreal Masquerades


"It was one of the most beautiful sights I ever beheld. The place was hung with the gayest flags... It was indeed a fairy scene to look upon. The skating was wonderful and the dresses gorgeous." - Reverend Ashton Oxenden

The popularity of ice skating in the 1860's in Montreal, Québec was almost explosive. Although many pleasure skaters would skate on rinks and ponds, figure skating became a popular pastime among the city's well-to-do and it was those very people who pooled money together to build the Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond Street in the year 1862.

The Victoria Skating Rink was quite the facility for its time: a two hundred and fifty foot long by one hundred feet wide red brick building with high ceilings and a viewing gallery that could seat seven hundred. Six pendant stars lit with gas illuminated the ice surface and bandstand after the light of day ceased to stream in from the rink's fifty large windows. Skating enthusiasts were drawn to the rink like moths to a flame. Five o'clock teas served at the rink were popular social events but they paled in comparison to the spectacle of the rink's lavish Victorian carnivals on ice known as 'masquerades', where hundreds dressed as historic figures such as Marie Antoinette and Henry VIII and as pirates, princesses and paupers.

By the final decade of the nineteenth century, these masquerades on ice were so much in vogue in Montreal that the Victoria Rink was hosting two almost every week during the winter months. Visiting from England in 1870, Prince Arthur even took to the ice during one of the masquerades dressed as "a Cavalier of the time of Charles II."

Engraving courtesy the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

Many of the get-up's of the carnival skaters in Montreal would have been the same kind of costumes you would expect from trick or treaters! The February 15, 1890 issue of "The Montreal Herald" listed clowns, Zulu warriors, matadors, gypsies among the costumes and other accounts even included a skating devil. Peasant costumes were unusually popular choices. Lady Dufferin noted that at similar carnivals in Ottawa during the same era, "ladies' costumes had of necessity short petticoats, so there was every variety of peasant - Dolly Vardens, Watteaus, etc. etc. - and very pretty they were."

The Montreal masquerades were of such popularity that the famous Notman photographic firm completed a composite picture of one of the masquerades, which at the time would have been quite an undertaking. On February 8, 1889, the "Montreal Daily Star" described one of the masquerades thusly: "What a dazzling sight it is; no wonder the aisles and galleries are filled with spectators to such an extent that the marvellous elasticity of the human body is demonstrated to a nicety. All eyes are attracted to the shifting, changing scene upon the sparkling ice... Here is the tall sunflower bending her graceful form to elude the half-naked savage, who, with swarthy visage and glittering nose ring, lifts his cruel spear to smite his prey". As we get a sense of from this colourful description, the masquerades weren't just social get-togethers on the ice but also served as a Tableau vivant to the spectators... in a way, a very primitive ice show.


It was partially the rise in popularity of snowshoeing that led to the demise of the masquerades. The pursuit became so popular in Montreal around the turn of the century that indoor races were held on the Victoria Skating Rink's ice, drawing massive crowds. That said, figure skating still remained quite popular at the rink but in a more structured form. Early competitions were staged that allowed both men and women to compete. The site fell out of vogue as decades passed and by 1906 was sold when the owners didn't want to foot the bill to do necessary repairs. When the Earl Grey Skating Club relocated to the Montreal Arena on St. Catherine Street and Wood Avenue in Westmount, the site fell out of favour and into disrepair until it was ultimately demolished. Today, the site of the Montreal masquerades may be tended by a parking garage attendant instead of a skate guard, but by preserving skating history the visions of these carnivals still live on.

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