Pearls and Pebbles


Pearls and Pebbles

Pearls and Pebbles, Catherine Parr Traill, 1894, William Briggs

Pearls and Pebbles; Or Notes from an Old Naturalist by Catherine Parr Traill (1802-1899) was published by William Briggs in 1894. The publisher’s edition in The Ryerson Press collection is unique in that the production values remain in remarkable condition, considering the book is nearly 125 years old. The cover has a linen base with silver embossed type and an image depicting “the flowers rather than the thorns that had strewn her path”.

The cover image may have been created by Mary Agnes Chamberlain, an artist and niece of Catherine Parr Traill, and daughter of Susanna Moodie. She also illustrated Catherine Parr Traill’s Studies in Plant Life, 1885.

Pearls and Pebbles is a collection of diary excerpts, poems and depictions of flora and fauna in and around the towns and villages of Peterborough, Belleville, and Lakefield, Ontario during the 1800s. Small vignettes of life show a remarkable sensitivity to nature during a lifetime that must have been an arduous and difficult way of life in rural Ontario in the 1800s. There are numerous depictions from her diaries of simple events such as this story of nesting birds:

“Some two years ago a great event happened to a pair of my yellow birds, which ended in a serious disappointment. One warm May morning, as my daughter and I sat sewing on the veranda, a little passing puff of wind blew away some snips of the white material that we had been busy with and carried them among the grass just below the syringa bush, where the foundation of a nest had just been laid by the female bird. Her bright eyes quickly caught sight of the scraps of muslin, and down she came from her perch in the bush and carried off the prize to her nest, coming back and diligently picking up all the bits she could see. Noticing that she was so well pleased with this new building material, we added some more scraps and some tufts of cotton wool to the supply. Charmed with her good fortune, and grown bolder, the pretty creature ventured nearer to us and took all the scraps we chose to scatter for her on the grass.”

The work of building went on so rapidly that in the course of two hours she had constructed a most delicate and dainty looking snow-white nest, and the pair took possession of this novel-looking house with festal song. But ah me! their joy was destined to be of but short duration.

“The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft a-gley,”

and in the present case so it proved with our pair of little architects.

A heavy thunder-shower came on at noon of the next day. I leave my readers to imagine the result. The fairy-like palace, like all castles in the air, had collapsed, and, “like the baseless fabric of a vision, left but a wreck behind.” However, our brave little birdie cried, “Never say die!” and set to work once more, made wiser by experience, building a more substantial nest in a lilac bush close by; but with a feminine weakness for finery she paid many visits to the frail ruin, selecting such of the more substantial materials among the rags as she found likely to prove useful in binding the walls of the new nest together, but not sufficient to weaken the more suitable articles which she wisely adopted for her work.

The new nest was an excellent specimen of skill, and the bits so judiciously woven in this time proved highly ornamental. I fancied the little builder felt proud of her work when it was finished, and we gave it unqualified praise.

The ruined tenement excited the admiration of a cat-bird. She also had a taste for pretty soft bits of muslin and gay scraps of colored prints; so her ladyship set to work very diligently to repair the now dilapidated nest with the addition of dried fibrous roots, and grass, moss and all sorts of trash, which, with the rags, were, soon wrought up into a substantial nest which formed the receptacle for five bluish-green eggs. But misfortune seemed to cling to the coveted nest, for an accident, which might have ended fatally to the cat-bird, befel her one day. When about to leave the nest her legs became entangled in some loose strings which she had woven among the other materials, and, unable to free herself, she fell down head foremost into the midst of a rosebush, very stout and spiny, out of which she could not extricate herself, but lay fluttering and uttering the most doleful cries, more like the yells of an enraged cat than a bird.

The unusual outcry brought me to the rescue, and at my near approach she ceased her cries, and I truly believe the poor captive looked to me for help. I quickly perceived the cause of her disquiet, and with my scissors soon set her free. With a joyful cry she flew away, and, what seemed to me a remarkable proof of sagacity in the bird, she forsook the nest, never again venturing back to it, though it contained the five blue eggs. She evidently felt it better to forsake them unhatched than run any risk of danger to herself or her little brood. This, at any rate, was my own conclusion on the subject, though it may not have been that of the cat-bird.

While sitting on the eggs, and while the young ones are yet unfledged and helpless, the mother-bird becomes bold and excitable. If anyone approaches too near to her nursery, she flies round the nest with outspread wings uttering strange angry cries, as if resenting the impertinent attempt to pry into her family affairs, and should the intruder venture closer she would no doubt punish him with strokes of her bill and wings.

The cat-bird belongs to the same family as the southern mocking-bird, and by many persons has been known by the name of “False Mocking-bird.”

It is a common idea that the note of the cat-bird is most discordant, like the mewing of an angry cat; but this is, I think, a mistake. The true song of the cat-bird is rich, full and melodious, more like that of the English thrush. In point of fact, this bird is the best songster among the summer visitants in Canada.

I have fully satisfied myself that the harsh, wild squalling cry attributed to the parent birds is that of the young birds when the mother has forsaken them, leaving them to shift for themselves, and, like weaned children, the call is for food and companionship. This is my own observation from watching the birds.

The following is a list of the many publications of Catherine Parr Traill.

  • The Tell Tale – 1818
  • Disobedience – 1819
  • Reformation – 1819
  • Nursery Fables – 1821
  • Little Downy – 1822
  • The Flower-Basket – 1825
  • Prejudice Reproved – 1826
  • The Young Emigrants – 1826
  • The Juvenile Forget-Me-Not – 1827
  • The Keepsake Guineas – 1828
  • Amendment – 1828
  • Sketches from Nature – 1830
  • Sketch Book of a Young Naturalist – 1831
  • Narratives of Nature – 1831
  • The Backwoods of Canada – 1836
  • Canadian Crusoes – 1852
  • The Female Emigrant’s Guide – 1854
  • Lady Mary and Her Nurse – 1856
  • Canadian Wild Flowers – 1868
  • Studies of Plant Life in Canada, or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain – 1885
  • Pearls and Pebbles – 1894
  • Cot and Cradle Stories – 1895


After the death of her husband, Thomas, in 1859 Catherine Parr Traill purchased a cottage in 1862 with funds from her publications and named it Westove, after her husband’s old home in the Orkneys and after their first home in the bush on the shores of the Otonabee River, near Peterborough, Ontario. The house still stands on Smith Street in Lakefield, Ontario. An historical plaque marks the location.



Polly Cow’s Island

Another entry tells the story of how Catherine Parr Traill received a patent for Polly Cow’s Island in the Otonabee River:

In 1893, hearing of the likelihood of the sale of the little island in Stony Lake where a poor Indian girl was buried, Mrs. Traill wrote to the Department at Ottawa to ask that it should be granted to her. It was not but a tiny island, and her anxiety to preserve the Indian girl’s grave from desecration induced her to take this step. Mr. Sandford Fleming kindly interested himself in her behalf, and the request was granted.

Catherine Parr Traill, 1886

Catherine Parr Traill, circa 1886.

The downtown campus of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario is named after Catherine Parr Traill. Catharine Parr Traill College is the University’s main college for graduate studies. This remarkable author and naturalist, died in 1899 at Lakefield, Ontario.



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Artist At War


Charles Comfort

Artist At War, The Ryerson Press, 1956

Charles Comfort (1900-1994) was one of Canada’s outstanding artists. He was Vice President of the Royal Canadian Academy and a former President of The Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. Comfort was also a member of The Ontario Society of Artists, the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto and he was a founding member of the Federation of the Canadian Artists. In 1936, Charles Comfort obtained a studio next to A.Y.Jackson in the Studio Building, a location made famous by Tom Thompson and members of the Group of Seven. In 1937, Comfort was commissioned to design the exterior frieze of the Toronto Stock Exchange building and several of Comfort’s murals hang in what is now The Design Exchange building. Comfort was appointed Associate Professor at the University of Toronto to teach historical painting techniques and he remained there for 25 years. Comfort served as an official war artist in World War II. Artist At War reflects his response to what he witnessed overseas during the Italian Campaign of 1943-1944.

Comfort is represented in the National Gallery of Canada and in most of the principal art galleries in Canada. In the 1950s, Comfort was commissioned to paint a mural for the interior of the new Banff National Park railway car, one of 18 artists selected by Canadian Pacific Railway to create murals for their new Canadian Transcontinental Railway Service.

In the introduction of Artist At War, Comfort writes: “This is an account of my personal experiences during an episode of the Second World War. I have undertaken to write these rambling, discontinuous impressions because I was profoundly stirred by all that I saw and felt…

“I was not a combat soldier, although I had been trained as such, but a war artist, assigned the task of producing some visual record of the part played by officers and men of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division during the Italian campaign of 1943-1944, an appointment which offered me opportunities for observation, not only of many of the actions, but of many interesting phases of life in Italy at the time.”

With these words, Charles Comfort set out the tone of his tour of duty as War Artist during World War II. The illustrations in Artist At War depict Comfort’s response to war. Included in the list of illustrations of this publication are the following paintings and drawings by Charles Comfort.

The Hitler Line

Canadian Troops aboard Transport Volendam, S.S. California on left Philippeville, North Africa. Cape de Fer and Stora Bay , in background

American L.C.I. Transporting Canadian Troops from Philippeville, Algeria, to Taranto, Italy. Mount Etna, Sicily, in background

“Stand Easy” Following Crash Action

Canadian Field Guns near Orton

Piazza Plebiscito, Ortona

Piazza San Francisco di Assisi. Wrecked Church of Santa Maria Della Grazie, Ortona

Battle Scene –(Fantasy)—Villa Grande Road

Rocca San Giovanni, looking north

Aquino, Italy, Route 6 at Cassino

Destroyed Panzertrum on the Adolf Hitler Line

Artist At War, was published by The Ryerson Press in 1956. “I am proud to have served with so gallant and unforgettable a company, to have been eyewitness to their fine achievement, their suffering and their brave sacrifice in the cause of liberty,” he writes. “With respect and gratitude, I pay my small tribute to those who did not return, as well as to those who survived.”


His painting, The Hitler Line, hangs in the Canadian War Museum. Charles Comfort was director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1960-1965 and was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972.





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Turf Smoke and Riel

Turf Smoke

Turf Smoke by John Coulter, 1945.

Turf Smoke, 1945, is the only novel written by John Coulter. Coulter was born in Ireland in 1888 and moved to Canada in 1936. Coulter is best known for his playwriting and as a radio broadcaster for both the BBC and the CBC. Also included in the Ryerson Archive is John Coulter’s The Blossoming Thorn, 1946, a book of verse; Churchill, 1944, a biography of the British Prime Minister; and Riel, an epic Canadian play in two parts and thirty scenes. John Coulter died in 1980. His papers are held at McMaster University.

The dust cover design, interior sketches and layout of Turf Smoke are by A.J. Casson. The copy in the Ryerson Archive is signed by the author.

The following excerpt is taken from the jacket flap copy of Turf Smoke“John Coulter is one of Canada’s best-known and best-loved writers. As a poet, a prize-winning playwright and a radio personality he is widely acclaimed. He came out of Ireland some years ago, and has so closely identified himself with the life of Canada that he is already one of our best spokesmen and interpreters.”


Riel by John Coulter, 1962

The premiere of the epic play Riel was performed in Toronto in 1950 by The New Play Society and was directed by Donald Harron, with Mavor Moore playing the part of Riel. It had a successful stage revival at Regina in 1960. It has been broadcast by the CBC and, in 1961, a two-part CBC adaptation was directed by George McCowan, with Bruno Gerussi taking the part of Riel.

From the back flap copy: Mr. Coulter feels Riel to be “the most theatrical character in Canadian history, and probably in American history as well. He rides the political conscience of the nation after nearly three-quarters of a century, and is manifestly on his way to becoming the tragic hero at the heart of the Canadian myth”.



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A Place of Honour


Ryerson Press logo designed by Thoreau MacDonald

The Ryerson Collection will soon be relocated to a final place of honour.

When the McGraw-Hill Book Company of Canada bought The Ryerson Press in December of 1969, a collection of Ryerson Press publications was set aside and moved from the Wesley Building, 299 Queen Street West, to McGraw-Hill’s premises in Scarborough.

The Executive of McGraw-Hill at the time – John Macmillan, William Darnell, Barbara Byam, Rachel Mansfield chief among them , recognized the intrinsic value of the 3000 or so titles that came to McGraw-Hill during the move.

While the publishing community at large was appalled at the sale of The House to McGraw-Hill, both the staff and the executive of McGraw-Hill knew that they were not about to squander the legacy that came with the venerable company they had just bought. In fact, the first thing McGraw-Hill did was to adopt the Ryerson name to become McGraw-Hill Ryerson. This name change was in deference to the 141-year history of not only the name of Egerton Ryerson and all he had accomplished, but to the many men and women who worked for The Ryerson Press and who were now making the move to McGraw-Hill.

McGraw-Hill Ryerson, traditionally an educational publisher, adopted the entire Ryerson Education Department which had recently been created by The Ryerson Press to service the needs of teachers and educators across Canada. McGraw-Hill also created a Trade Book arm which allowed them to continue to showcase The Ryerson Press trade titles and to continue to support the contracts of the many Ryerson Press authors they assumed.

Another way McGraw-Hill Ryerson acknowledged the legacy of The Ryerson Press was to commission a set of 14 teak and veneer, glass-encased bookcases. These bookcases immediately held prominence, adorning either side of the Executive Suite for decades at the 330 Progress Avenue location. These attractive bookcases with their display of rare and distinguished titles dating as far back 1862, from many of the country’s prominent authors, writers and thinkers of the 19th and 20th century, added a sense of history to the Ryerson Collection. It gave these titles the respect and the distinction they deserved.

The Ryerson Collection has made the move several times since 1970 with great care taken to maintain the integrity of the craftsmanship of the cabinets and their valuable contents. And it will soon be relocated to another place of honour.

It is hoped that the Ryerson Collection will once again take its place in the annals of Canadian Literary history, eloquently displayed for all to see and enjoy.




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Ryerson of Upper Canada

Ryerson of Upper Canada

Ryerson of Upper Canada by Clara Thomas, 1969

Ryerson of Upper Canada, by Clara Thomas, was published in 1969. It was one of the last publications printed and bound by the The Ryerson Press before the company was sold to McGraw-Hill in 1970. It remains a fitting tribute to the man who started the publishing entity that bore his name for over 140 years.

Dr. Thomas, 1919-2013, was Professor of English at York University from 1961 until her retirement in 1984. She began her teaching career at Glendon College and moved to the Keele Street campus in 1966. Clara Thomas was a firm supporter of CanLit. In fact, The Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections are named in her honour. Her efforts were also instrumental in securing the papers and letters of Margaret Laurence at York. Not only a distinguished author, Dr. Thomas was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and received honorary Degrees from York, Trent and Brock Universities. Clara Thomas also wrote Canadian Novelists, 1920-45, and Margaret Laurence, a biographical and critical monograph.

Ryerson of Upper Canada, edited by Frank Flemington, is a well-researched account of the early life of Egerton Ryerson as itinerant saddle-bag preacher, editor of the Christian Guardian, adversary of Bishop John Strachan and the British Establishment of the day and eventually Supervisor of Education for Upper Canada in 1844.

This biography depicts a time of great change and upheaval in the land — a time that was ripe for a person with great leadership qualities, strength of conviction, and the ability to adapt to the demands of a growing population, despite dissenting voices.

Ryerson was a preacher, teacher and a politician. He did not turn away from controversy. Everything he set out to accomplish was performed with the greater good of the population in mind. He came to know these people as a young preacher in the Yonge Street and York connexion. His editorials in the Christian Guardian established him, in the eyes of his Methodist brethren, as the one person who could stand up to the established Anglican bishop, John Strachan, for example, and argue for freedom of religious expression.

Ryerson’s many trips to England and Europe in the mid 1800s to study and report on the various educational models employed there prepared him for reform of the education system in Upper Canada. The passing of the School Bills in 1846 and 1871 allowed for the establishment of twenty-one School Districts as well as proper teacher training facilities and defined responsibilities for both student and teacher alike. Ryerson’s design for the one-room schoolhouse was adopted and became the model for Upper Canada and ;after the entire Province of Ontario. In his message to the people of these School Districts, Ryerson said: “It becomes us especially to leave to those who are growing up around us, and those who succeed us, the legacy — the priceless legacy of institutions and means of education suitable to the wants, competition and progress of their age and Country.” 

The principles of education Ryerson espoused in 1846 have lasted for over 150 years.

Sadly, while Ryerson espoused free and compulsory education, this did not extend to the aboriginal peoples of Canada. This led ultimately to the establishment of the Residential School System in this country with devastating results that are still felt to this day.









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The Ryerson Collection



The Ryerson Collection in the Whitby offices of McGraw-Hill Education Canada


How very strange it is to think that a collection of publications from some 150 years ago could be so intriguing.

Out of the public view for decades with only the occasional remark by a few inquisitive people — those who happen to be invited into the Library for a meeting, or who happen to be passing through the halls and are drawn to the elegant display, wondering where these books came from or even why they are in this location in the first place. Too bad that more of the history of this fine collection is not known more widely.

The 3000 titles shown here date as far back as 1862 and represent a slice of Canadian publishing history. Individually, many of these books are available in digital form on-line. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I first  began looking them up. If you thought about actually going about creating a physical collection of even a small portion of the Ryerson Press output over their 150-year history, it would take a lifetime. Just ask one of the many rare book collectors who make it their business to deal in such antiquity. And there are some real gems here.

And here it is. If you browse through the shelves one by one, you easily come across titles that are not only beautifully printed and bound, many in their original first edition jackets, but you quickly realize that each one represents its own place in the evolution of publishing in Canada.


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A Summer in Prairie-Land



A Summer in Prairie Land, 1885

It’s about the journey. And the people. And the incredible landscape that opens up the farther North and West you travel.

A Summer in Prairie-Land was published in 1882. It is an account of an expedition led by Alexander Sutherland, a Methodist minister who was charged with visiting Mission outposts in The Great North-West and reporting on the future needs of these missions in the expanding territory.

In 1880, there were two basic routes to The Great North-West. One route was to travel from Toronto via the Great Lakes as far as Duluth at the far end of Lake Superior, then westward via the Northern Pacific Railway. If time was limited, one could travel by rail via Chicago and St. Paul and on to Brainerd or Glyndon, Minnesota. From Glyndon, one would travel north via the St.Paul and Manitoba Railway and enter Canada at Emerson, Manitoba or from Brainerd, stay on the Northern Pacific Railway and continue west through the Dakotas and Montana and enter Canada about 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountains.

The expedition travelled from Toronto to Duluth and on to Brainerd, Minnesota and then onto Bismarck, North Dakota via the Northern Pacific Railway. A steamer would then take the expedition up the Missouri River from Fort Benton and into Canada arriving eventually at Fort McLeod, Alberta. The mission party left on June 17th and returned October 3, 1880. They spent 15 weeks travelling some 6000 miles, 1300 of which by horse and wagon, 700 by open boat and the rest by rail and steamer.


First religious service at Whitefish Lake, 1885

Buffalo sightings

The group reported several accounts of spotting buffalo along the Missouri River. And in one sighting they also encountered a  “group of four Indians” who were obviously not having much luck with their hunting. They disappeared behind the timber, but soon reappeared on the river bank. All seemed to have good horses, but only one carried a rifle. They called several times to those on board, but no-one understood their tongueas we approach them one of them lifts up a small kettle, and puts his hand to his mouth, which we at once interpret as a mute request for some tea; while another poor fellow stands motionless with his hands clasped in a pathetic fashion over his stomach, as if indicating a sense of “goneness” in that region. This led some of us to the conclusion that…we would reward them with presents of food. But even as we were speculating on this point the boat swept on, leaving the noble hunters to the cheap if not always comforting reflection that “virtue is its own reward.”

Further on up the river the passengers on board estimate seeing upwards of 10 000 buffalo sighted along the river banks and as many as ten times that number within a short distance of them.

The foothills of the Rockies

Some 50 miles from Fort Benton, the scenery, during the past few days, has been more impressive. The bluffs are more lofty, and come closer to the river, rising, in many places, perpendicularly from the water’s edge to a height of two or three hundred feet. The sand clay which farther down the river were soft and friable, have been in many places hardened into stone; but the softer portions having been washed away, the cliffs have assumed all kinds of shapes – sometimes majestic, sometimes grotesque, and always impressive. Here is an ancient castle with towers and battlements; there a fortress with frowning ramparts; yonder, a massive cathedral with double tower and graceful pinnacles. Once these were shapeless masses of rock and clay, but nature has been busy with chisel and graving tool, hewing them into pillars, sharpening them into spires, rounding them into domes; while here and there she has hewn out a group of colossal human figures, who sit in majestic silence on their lofty pedestal, while the symbol of advancing civilization stems the current of the river below.


Buffalo skin lodge and Red River Carts, 1885

On reaching Fort McLeod, Alberta

McLeod is situated at the confluence of Willow Creek and Old Man’s River, the latter a powerful stream with a rapid current. There is an unlimited amount of excellent water and good pasturage; but in other respects the site did not strike me as being well chosen for a military post. It lies low by the river’s bank, and commands no view whatsoever of the surrounding country. In this respect it is in marked contrast with most of the American posts that we saw which were generally placed so as to command an extensive outlook. As we were now on the north side of Old Man’s River, and McLeod is on the south side, we had to be ferried in a boat, a task that occupied less than three minutes, and for which we paid the modest sum of fifty cents apiece each way. One wonders why, with a large police force doing little or nothing, a bridge has not been built, or a rope ferry constructed; but echo only answers, Why? (I have since been informed that a rope ferry was constructed, but washed away by a freshet, and has not been replaced)

Questions Answered

Alexander Sutherland’s report on his journey posed a number of questions which he answered with not only his own musings but also with representations of the many speculators he encountered along the way. Many of these questions are still valid today.

What is your impression of the country as a whole?

It is a country of enormous extent. This can only be realized by one who has travelled through it. It is a country of great fertility. One only needs to travel through it noting the quality of the soil, the luxuriant growth of grass and vetches, and the fields of grain and vegetables where cultivation has been tried, to be convinced of that fact.

What about the climate?

The climate is much better than has oft been reported. As a rule the rainy seasons are well defined. The winters are cold; the snowfalls are less than in Minnesota, Dakota, and Montana and I am inclined to believe the climate is better, on the whole, than in the states and territories just mentioned.

Why then do we receive so many unfavourable reports about the country?

Chiefly because of the sources from which these reports come. Often they originate with Americans who are interested in the sale of lands in Dakota and elsewhere. These men are to be found on almost every train carrying emigrants to the North-West and they are by no means particular as to the statements they make if they can induce Canadians to settle under the Stars and Stripes. They represent the North-West as a region so cold that nothing will ripen, and so unhealthy that nothing can live; and not unfrequently Canadians are deterred by these disinterested (?) representations from entering the country at all, and report back to their friends that the North-West is not fit to live in.

Would you advise me to pull up stakes and go to the North-West?

That depends on circumstances. If you are doing fairly well where you are, stay there; it is not worth your while to move for the sake of moving, or for the bare chance of doing a little better than you are doing now. Don’t go with the idea of speculating; there are too many speculators there now. And don’t go out with the idea that you can pick up a living without working – there are no livings to pick up. But if you are beginning your life and want a chance to become the owner of your own broad acres, owing no man anything, you can find as good an opportunity in the North-West as in any land beneath the sun.

What will be the future of the North-West?

That will depend largely upon three things: 1. The class of emigrants. 2. The character of the government. 3. The activity of the churches.


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