From left, Evan Tigchelaar, Gillian Forth and Sara Wilmshurst. Photo by Susan Bubak
From left, Evan Tigchelaar, Gillian Forth and Sara Wilmshurst. Photo by Susan Bubak

Many of us assume that the people of the past were more conservative than we are today. Not so, as Sara Wilmshurst discovered when she started researching the programs of the Curtain Call plays shown at College Royal over the years.

“I found one from the 1960s that was called Where There’s a Pill, There’s a Way,” she says. “It was about the birth control pill. At that time, the plays were written by the students, and I was surprised by how risqué they were. There was some subversive stuff.” Today’s Curtain Call plays are professionally published, but they are still acted and directed by students.

Wilmshurst is one of six students in a master’s history course taught by Prof. Catharine Wilson. The students were assigned to use the archives to prepare display cases for the library, illustrating the 90-year history of College Royal. The display, titled “Out of the Archives: 90 Years of College Royal Students, Community and Fun,” will be launched March 10 at 1:30 p.m.

The displays – one by each student – trace the history of College Royal from the first event in 1925, which was hosted by the Ontario Agricultural College and focused on livestock. The other colleges joined in over the next few years. Student Mallory Horrill’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) display includes the skeleton of a small dog with veins and arteries surrounding the bones. Early OVC events at College Royal included live surgery demos; the teddy bear surgery is still done today.

Student Evan Tigchelaar says his research uncovered some popular events from the past that would be verboten nowadays, such as the beer-chugging contest. Others reflect historical ideas about gender roles: one cake-baking contest had each male student who entered prepare and bake a cake under the supervision of his “sweetie.” The judges would taste the final product and choose the winner.

Another student, Gillian Forth, pointed out that today’s College Royal fashion show focuses on fun and entertainment, but originally the clothes worn in the show were designed and sewn by the students who modelled them. Forth discovered a little personal history in the process of researching her display. She was going through OVC yearbooks and found a photograph of her mother (an OVC grad) setting up a display at College Royal.

Forth was also impressed by the tiara worn by the College Royal Queen in days gone by. It’s now on display at the Guelph Civic Museum. The queen competition is another event that has gone by the wayside; today a celebrant is chosen, and both men and women can enter.

Madeleine Tyber, a student at Wilfrid Laurier University, had never attended College Royal. As she completed her research, she says, she was “struck by the enormity of the event. I wouldn’t have expected so many different activities to be taking place. It started out as a half-day event for the Agricultural College but has become so much more.”

Creating the display turned out to be more challenging and time-consuming than the students anticipated when they were given the assignment. Tyber says: “I was initially excited that we’d be doing this instead of a paper, then I discovered it is actually more work than a paper. But the benefits have been huge: learning to work with the archives and primary documents is something many students don’t get to do.”

Tigchelaar adds that the experience of working together has been positive, too. “There has been a lot of teamwork involved in this project.” The students also appreciated the help and support of the archives and library staff (Forth says they were “amazing”), and the College Royal committee, who provided them with some funding for essential supplies such as acid-free paper.

Forth adds that she hopes U of G students, faculty and staff will visit the display and get a new perspective on a familiar event. “This is a real part of Guelph history that we’re uncovering and sharing.”