The Story of Robertson Davies and Fletcher’s Castoria

Canadian author Robertson Davies was born in the small Southern Ontario town of Thamesville, and was educated at Upper Canada College, Queen’s University, and Balliol College, Oxford. While at Queen’s between 1932 and 1935, he was an avid contributor to the Queen’s Journal, and based the setting of his first novels, the Salterton Trilogy, on the university and the city of Kingston. He later became founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, and his many novels and plays– in particular his most famous novel, Fifth Business– solidified his role as a great Canadian writer. His unique sense of humour emerges not only in his novels, but also in his essays and plays, and especially the ghost stories he would tell each Christmas at Massey College!

Photo courtesy of Queen’s University Archives

What could Robertson Davies have to do with patent medicine Fletcher’s Castoria? The answer lies in the third book of his Deptford trilogy, World of Wonders, which recounts the life of Paul Dempster, a Canadian boy who grows from an outcast child into a celebrated magician. Throughout his harrowing life, Paul takes on (or is given) numerous aliases. The first of these is Cass Fletcher, after an advertisement for Fletcher’s Castoria, a laxative for children. These ads were ubiquitous in the 1910s and 20s, and many remain visible in faded paint on the sides of buildings today.

Fletcher’s Castoria Bottle – Museum of Health Care
Fletcher’s Castoria Bottle – Museum of Health Care 996001050

But what of Robertson Davies? Today, his personal collection of over 5000 books is housed in the W. D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections at Queen’s University– shelved in the same order that they were in his home!

To learn about these artifacts and more, visit our online collection catalogue by clicking the button below.

Shaelyn Ryan <br>(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)
Shaelyn Ryan
(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)

Shaelyn Ryan is a recent graduate of Queen’s University, having completed her Bachelor’s degree in History in 2021, and is returning to Queen’s in the fall to pursue a Master’s degree in History. Either as a Summer Student or Work-Study Student through Queen’s University, Shaelyn has helped catalogue and research many of the museum’s collection of artefacts as a Collections Technician (since 2018). 

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