Dalnavert Museum: Clues to our past

Posted January 21, 2016 | Author Alexis McEwen

There is no mystery here: the Dalnavert Museum, the former home of a prominent Winnipeg family built in 1895, is a dramatic and striking restoration. Saved from a sure demise by the Manitoba Historical Society in 1969, the house and its contents are a clue into what life was like in the late Victorian era. Let’s take a look at the who, the what, and the where of this piece of history located right in downtown Winnipeg.


Sir Hugh John

As the only living son of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Hugh lived much of his life as the “Old Chieftain’s Son”. As a reluctant politician, Sir Hugh served in both federal and provincial politics, and briefly as the Premier of Manitoba. He was never comfortable in the political arena and was much happier as the city’s police magistrate, a position that earned him respect on his own right. As a compassionate and impartial judge, he would often help young accused who passed through his court get back on their feet by providing them shelter in Dalnavert’s basement. One lawyer said he would pass judgement with such courtesy that the prisoner would thank him for it.

Lady Gertie

Affectionately called “Little Fellow” by her husband, Gertie enjoyed an active social life and she took great pleasure in planning events both at home and in public. She was adept at the Victorian trend of flower arranging and was responsible for the home’s décor. She coordinated the running of the household with the cook, often using the speaking tube that connected her private washroom with the kitchen to communicate with staff.

Miss Daisy

Daisy was not your typical society girl – while she attended finishing school in England, enjoyed music, and attended many social events – she was also avid fencer and enjoyed pistol shooting. Daisy was especially close with her paternal grandparents, once remarking she would rather be in hell with John A. Macdonald than in heaven without him.

Young Jack

The only male heir to the Macdonald name was 11 when the family moved into Dalnavert. He was a promising student who collected stamps and was a member of the rowing club. Unfortunately, due to complications from diabetes, Jack passed away at the age of 21 in 1905.

The Staff

The cook was the senior staff member of the household, responsible for the marketing, the meal planning, and the majority of the cooking, often working from 6 am to 9 pm. The maid was the more junior staff member, putting in 16 hour days opening the house, cleaning, doing the laundry, and attending to the family. While the staff were paid less than labourers, they were provided with room and board – in one of the finest houses of the time.


The stove

The kitchen was the engine of the house, and fueling it all was the stove – the height of modernity at the time. The stove was wood or coal fired and featured a temperature gauge, a huge improvement over simply sticking your arm in to see how hot it was. The stove even has a built in waffle iron, and like most things from the Victorian era, it was highly decorative, leaving imprints of hearts, diamonds, and circles in the waffles.

The ceramic bowl

One of the very few pieces in the home today that actually belonged to the Macdonald family is the Asian ceramic bowl found on the sideboard in the dining room. The Asian aesthetic was one of the inspirations for the Art Nouveau style, which is well represented in this room.

The stereoscope

Photographs had opened up a world of knowledge for people living in the Victorian era, and the stereoscope let people view them in 3D. This handheld photo viewer would have been a source of great entertainment, complimenting the Edison phonograph – or the live music of a piano or harp for the old ladies who shook their heads at such newfangled nonsense.

The pickle castor

While the cook would have prepared pickles in a stoneware crock, they were served in a lovely glass jar, or castor, complete with a pickle-sized pair of silver-plated tongs. Thanks to this decorative piece, all etiquette rules (and there were a lot) could be observed when pickles were on the menu.

Nerve Food

Many medical advances were made in the Victorian age, and while some treatments were helpful, others made claims that were probably too good to be true. Nerve Food claimed to strengthen the nerves, purify the blood and treat anemia, loss of appetite, and the “run down conditions of the system”. Many household medicine cabinets likely featured treatments containing cocaine, heroin, or arsenic!


Exterior of Dalnavert Museum House in Winnipeg

Dalnavert’s architect called it the perfect family home. Built for a cost of $10,500 on Carlton Street just steps from Broadway, the home featured cold and hot running water and was the 16th home in Winnipeg to have electricity.

The home was meticulously restored in the early 1970s (Daisy’s son even helped in the efforts) after being converted into a rooming house when Gertie moved out in 1930. Detailed woodwork was installed, intricate door hinges were stripped of layers of paint, and remnants of wallpaper were recreated and custom ordered from Europe. Even the light bulbs in the house are similar to the ones that would have been used at the time. Although the house wasn’t the most grand house in Winnipeg at the time it was built, today it is one of the few properties in Western Canada that has been restored to such detail.


Dalnavert Museum is open year round, Wednesdays to Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. Take a guided tour or explore the house and the people who lived there with a self-guided audio tour.

Be transported back in time and use the clues you’ve uncovered here to picture the staff by the stove in the kitchen, young Jack with the stereoscope in the parlour, Lady Gertie with her ceramic bowl in the solarium, or Sir Hugh with the pickle castor in the dining room.

Graphics created by Eric Admiraal, Production & Design Coordinator.

About The Author

I'm Alexis, Communications Manager for Travel Manitoba. I write about all kinds of awesome things that happen in Manitoba. And when I'm not writing about awesome things, I do my best to get out and experience them with my husband and two young sons.

Communications Manager