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Special Tactile Tour: Upper Canada Village

Editor's Note: Penny Leclare lives in Ottawa, Ontario. The tactile tour she experienced at Upper Canada Village was a pilot program for visitors with vision loss. She and her intervener attended on October 14, 2006.

Picture: Penny trying on a white hoop skirt dress

It was cold and rainy when Nancy and I left my home for Morrisburg's Upper Canada Village, a heritage park that recreates life in the 1860's, to participate in a special tactile tour. Five people with vision loss attended this unique event. On that particular day the village was closed to the public, but during open season over 40 buildings including mills, trade shops, farms, churches, homes, factories and even a one-room schoolhouse can be experienced.

Our tactile tour took us to three buildings where we explored clothing worn in the period from 1830 to 1870. My first experience was at the costume building, which contains replica dresses from the 1800's that Upper Canada Village employees wear when it is open to the public--150,000 visitors per year. Though the original dresses were one piece, the replicas are two pieces for ease in fitting staff. In this way, tops and skirts can be mixed and matched for size, if an employee's frame differs from that of a 19th century woman--rather slim and small-waisted.

We were able to feel a rack of dresses. Some had pleated skirts or bodices with either long or short sleeves. Several had braided material down the sleeves, at the neck or around the cuffs. Ordinary daytime dresses were long with quite full skirts, the hems of which were reinforced to protect it from tearing and to strengthen it so it wouldn't need to be washed often--these long-skirted dresses would get dirty in the streets. I also felt several different buttons made from bone, wood, stone, metal, and some covered with fabric.

We then undressed manikins! A gentleman with his bow tie and long day-coat with a slit up the back, so he could get on a horse. His vest was wool in front but cotton otherwise, and his suspenders were buttoned to wide-legged button-down pants. I felt the man's top hat, higher than I expected, but another hat was half as high. The shoes were made with tacks going from the outer sole inward and the inside was very hard. The toe was squared and the shoe went up like a low boot.

Then I undressed a lady. She wore a wool cape, with scalloped edging, that tied with a broach. Under this was a dress that flared out because of all the hoops from the waist to almost touching the floor. She also had petticoats on and several coverings under the corset. She had on nine layers of clothing, which was usual for a lady at that time.

My favourite part of the day was trying on one of the hoops and a dress. You can't imagine how much this particular hoop restricts movement. I felt like my lower half was in a cage. To walk, you have to move slowly, the hoop swinging side to side (now I understand why finishing schools taught ladies to walk with books on their head!). Imagine being inside this bell. You can't get very close to anything, which is why men of high class held doors open for ladies--the women couldn't grasp the doorknob!

Our next building was Crysler Hall. This reconstructed residence was originally built by John Pliny Crysler, a timber merchant. Our guide gave us tactile drawings of the building and provided explanations as we followed her. She also gave us tactile drawings of various types of clothing, which we could then explore wearing gloves.

We touched a wedding dress or very fancy gown, which had so much material that I had my hands apart, arms stretched out, on my knees, but still only covering half of it!

Women wore purses around the waist, tied with strings, inside the dress. To reach the purse, they put their hand through a slit in the dress that wasn't noticeable due to the vast amount of dress material. The purses were made of cloth with embroidery or other decorations.

Our last stop was a dressmaker's shop, where we met a lady who makes replica dresses by hand, as did the people of the Village of Upper Canada in the 1800's. She showed us a dress she had made of silk, with ruffles around the waist, midway down, and also near the bottom. Around each ruffle was a band of ribbon with beads sewn in. A tailor's thimble was used to push the needle through fabric and irons were heated on the fire. Irons weighed anywhere from ten to 40 pounds, with the bigger ones used for the heavier wool fabric of men's clothing or coats.

When we left Upper Canada Village in the early evening, it didn't feel like we'd been there over four hours. This was the first tactile tour the heritage park had provided and I am glad to have been a part of it. I hope the experience encourages staff and management to plan more of these tours so that others who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted can appreciate Canadian history through touch.