The Wedding Dress: A Family Heirloom

By Kes Murray, Registrar

A few month ago, our curator, Melissa, came to me with a research request. She said she had a dress that no one could figure out. No one knew what year it was created or worn in. Some decades were suggested, but nothing concrete could be put with the dress. It was a cream coloured satin dress, supposedly a wedding dress, as that was what it appeared to be. But that was all. As an enthusiast of historic fashions, I was fascinated with this mystery and took on the challenge.

The research itself took some weeks of pouring over wedding dress books and other museums’ online collections. I hit gold on the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection. I came across an almost identical dress. The dress was a 1931-1933 wedding ensemble, created by Best & Co, made of silk, cotton, and wax. It had the same cut on the bodice, and was even in a similar colour. I now knew that our wedding dress was from the 1930s.

My research ended with a fairly good idea of 1930s wedding dresses.

1937 Wedding Ensemble and neck detail (020.8.1 & 020.8.2)

Fashions from the 1930s were a continuation and a contrast to 1920s fashions. In the 1920s, women fashions were quite distinct, with their boxy, figureless silhouettes. Towards the end of the 1920s, silhouettes began to hug the body, emphasizing the curves of the hips. This would flow into the 1930s, with silhouettes hugging the body, emphasizing the natural shape of women’s bodies.

The contrast to 1920s fashions is that of glamour. Many fashion historians call 1930s women’s fashions a more mature, elegant and feminine silhouette when compared to 1920s fashions. The 1930s is the golden era of Hollywood and the ‘silver screen,’ with influential actresses such as Greta Garbo, Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford wearing memorable fashions, and many imitations were made and sold world-wide. New fabrics were used, such as velvet, wool crêpes, silk satins, lames, and many other artificial or “knock off” luxurious fabrics made clothing more elegant looking.

Advertisement in Oshawa Daily Times, featuring an illustrated woman wearing a simple slip dress
Advertisement in Oshawa Daily Times, May 12, 1931 (A012.2.10)

As for wedding dresses, as with typical 1930s fashion, they were designed to complement the sculptural female body. They draped along the body but had been cut and sewn in certain areas as to emphasize the natural shape. Our wedding dress has a bias cut beneath the bust, which means it has been cut on an angle. This allows the dress to emphasize the bust and to flow down along the hips. It is made of satin or some sort of silk imitation. As well, the dress comes with a floral necklace, which is secured along the collar with a series of clasps. All together, the dress creates a rather elegant image. After all my research had accomplished, it seemed that it may have been in vain, as Melissa found the original information that came in with the dress.

Family Heirlooms

In her book, The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions, Edwina Ehrman wrote something that stood out to me. She says: “Wedding dresses were prolonged by tailoring…also passed down within families.” In our dress, I noticed that the dress had been altered. The bust line had been shortened. This got me curious about the things our families keep and pass down. Perhaps the original wearer of the wedding dress gave it to a family member who had it tailored? Of all the possibilities that ran through my head, I kept coming back to my own family and our wedding dresses.

My grandmother’s wedding dress fifty years later. My grandmother, Donna Jean, on her wedding day, with her parents Marion and Harold Lang, December 1957, in St. Mary’s, Ontario.

Some years ago, my grandmother gave me her wedding dress. When I got it, I immediately tried it on. It fit but just barely. If I were to get married in her dress, there are definitely some things that would need adjusting.

Another family wedding dress is that of my great-aunt’s. On June 5, 1954, my great-uncle Ron married Birthe Simonsen. The same dress that Birthe wore was given to my great aunt Shirley when she married on August 20, 1955. Then, the dress was given to Shirley’s daughter Chris when she married on July 2, 1983. I was fascinated and continue to be fascinated by the amount of women in my family who have worn the same wedding dress throughout so many years.

My great aunt Shirley on her wedding day, August 20, 1955. My grandmother, Donna Jean, is on the far right. My great aunt Shirley’s daughter, Chris, in her mother’s wedding dress.

Why do we keep family wedding dresses? While so many reasons come to mind, I can only think of the significance we place on the person who wore the dress. Wearing their dress would be a way to remember them and share a special day with someone who may not be here anymore. As I am sure is the case for many heirloom dresses, after each year or decade, they become more special and highlight that piece of family history.

Special thank you to my family members who helped with the family research: Chris Henderson, Meggen Janes, Suzanne Janes, and Donna Jean Lang.


Sources Consulted

Ehrman, E. (2011). The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing.

https://www.fashionhistorymuseum.com/tying-the-knot-exhibit

Fiell, C. (2021). 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook. Welbeck Publishing Group.

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/109791?when=A.D.+1900-present&ft=wedding&offset=80&rpp=40&pos=106

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/old-new-borrowed-blue

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-victoria-connection

Having Fun with Toys or Becoming a Miniature Adult: Victorian Era Children’s Toys

By Sarah P., Summer Student

I have always been fascinated with artefacts from a young age. Now that I am surrounded by them at the Oshawa Museum, I thought it would be valuable to highlight objects that have intrigued me. On my first day on the job, I was shown a portion of the museum’s collection of toys from the Victorian Era. These incredible artefacts led me on a journey to explore children’s toys of this time.  My intention was to gain some perspective of what it was like to be a child during this era. During the Victorian Period, which was from 1837 to 1901, young adolescents were finally being acknowledged as individuals who had to be properly considered, unlike previous generations. Even with greater recognition from society concerning youth, there was still the widely held expectation that children would labour on family farms and conduct chores in their home. Unlike today, where most youth have time for playing, Victorian Era children did not experience a substantial amount of time for levity. In the Victorian Era, society began to recognize the importance of fostering both the mental and physical success of youth, and they realized that could be achieved through playing with toys.

Sepia photograph of a young girl holding a doll. She is standing behind a chair, and there is another doll placed on the chair
Sepia photograph of Edith Lura Sudgen, holding a doll while another doll is placed in a chair, c. 1895. Oshawa Museum archival collection, A971.32.53

The toys that were in the possession of these children were created with the intention of molding them into adults. This sense of preparation through play was evident in the gendered nature of these playthings. The toys aimed towards young females included dollhouses and dolls. These helped girls practice the skills of mothering by playing house using their dollhouse and caring for their doll as if it was a baby. They also played with items that replicated domestic objects, such as miniature sewing machines and irons. Young girls were playing with these objects for fun, not understanding they reinforced their future roles of wife and mother.

Toys for young boys were focused on cultivating traits of leadership, imagination, and inquisitiveness. There was an expectation placed upon young males to be adept in science and engineering. These playthings reinforced these subjects so that they would pursue these fields when they grew up. Some of the objects that were commonly endorsed for boys to play with were toy soldiers and trains. Toy soldiers in particular were intended to inspire young boys to be interested in the military, learn to follow orders, and to be intrigued in becoming a soldier later in life. Just like young girls, society was influencing these boys through their toys to foster traits that were perceived as the male ideal.

I believe children inherently want to play, and the Victorian Era brought forth the vast variety of toys that we have to this day. One Victorian Era toy that particularly caught my interest was the stereoscope, which reminded me of the viewfinder that I had when I was young. The stereoscope uses a card with two almost identical images that, when viewed by the stereoscope, allows the viewer to see an almost 3D image of the picture. I remember being so fascinated by the images I saw in my viewfinder when I was young. I think it is amazing that I shared this sense of wonder with young children from the Victorian Era who looked at images on their stereoscope. If you want to see a stereoscope, feel free to come to Oshawa Museum where we have one on display in Henry House!

Stereoscope made of wood and metal. The metal components are where the viewer's eyes would be, and the wooden components are where the stereoview card would sit, and the handle for holding the stereoscope.
Stereoscope made out of wood and metal; Oshawa Museum collection, 963.14.1abc

Sources Consulted:

Oshawa Museum Facebook Livestream – January 2022 Sunday Funday LIVE: Toys: https://fb.watch/eA6UmP1mac/

Boston Children’s Museum Article: https://bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/victorian-era-play-1837-1901

Boston Children’s Museum Photo, Dollhouse furniture, Late Empire c.1875: https://bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/victorian-era-play-1837-1901

Egham Museum Photo, Victorian toy soldiers: http://eghammuseum.org/toy-soldiers-just-childs-play/

Oshawa – The Manchester of Canada

By Sara H., Summer Student

Even though I have lived in Oshawa my entire life, there is still so much I have to learn about the city!  Working at Parkwood and the McLaughlin Branch of the Oshawa Public Library has given me a great starting point to learn about some of the significant people and industries that made up our city.  The Oshawa Museum has allowed me to continue this research and given me new ways to discover more about Oshawa. For example, Oshawa was once known as the “Manchester of Canada” due to the many industries that set up shop here and helped Oshawa thrive.  We all know about General Motors Canada and the legacy of the McLaughlin family, but what about the other industries that made up the “Manchester of Canada?”  Well look no further than this blog post as I have rounded up some information on these industries from the museum’s Discover Historic Oshawa site!  

Ontario Malleable Iron was established in 1872 by William and John Cowan.  Both men previously worked at the Ontario Malleable Iron Co., and had a great deal of skill and experience from previously running a variety of small businesses.  John served as the first president of the company until his death in 1915 when William succeeded him.  The company was sold to Grinnel Co. of Canada Ltd in 1929, and unfortunately closed in 1977 after a lengthy labour dispute.  The site was acquired by Knob Hill Farms, a Canadian grocery chain, which operated a store there from 1981 until they closed in 2000. 

Black and white photograph of a large industrial brick building. There is a road in front of it with lots of wooden electrical poles and wires running alongside
Exterior of the Ontario Malleable Iron Co., Buildings No. 5 and 7 from Front St.; Oshawa Museum archival collection (A996.1.7)

Smith Potteries was the largest maker of hand-made pottery in Canada, and operated in Oshawa from 1925 to 1949.  They produced a range of hand-painted products such as vases, bowls, and other souvenirs.  The company was very successful and the quality of their white ware pottery put them in competition with other countries such as China, Japan, and Germany.  Herbert C. Smith owned and operated the business from 1925-1938, and installed a gas station at the front of the store to attract motorists and tourists wanting to purchase souvenirs.  Smith Sporting Goods, another business operated by the Smith family, opened on the property and was in business until 1968. 

Our curator has previously written about Smith Potteries: ArteFACTS – Oshawa’s Smith Potteries

Cooper-Smith Co. was located at 19 Celina Street and changed ownership quite a bit before the company was created.  It was once owned by James Odgers Guy, yes, the same Guy from Guy House at the museum, who ran a “flour and feed” store there.  Elgin Cooper bought the property from James Guy in 1905 and turned it into a larger store that sold grain, as well as seeds, oats, and other types of feed.  The company was known for a specialized seed for homing pigeons that gave them increased stamina, and their garden seeds.  The company was forced into receivership and closed in July 1982, but reopened in August 1982 under new owners who were still a part of the Smith family.  Unfortunately, in January 1988 the property was destroyed by a fire. 

A large iron scale, standing in front of square shelves
Cooper-Smith Scale; Oshawa Museum Collection (011.16.1)

Pedlar People Limited was opened by Henry Pedlar in 1861 as a kitchenware shop.  George Pedlar, his son, inherited the company after his father’s death and established a metal stamping plant.  By 1894 the company was the “largest sheet metal factory in the British Empire.”   During the Second World War, Pedlar People was contracted to make a variety of military munitions and materials such as autocannon and artillery shells, army huts and munition shelters.  The company received high praise from the Canadian government and wartime authorities due to their service and quality of products made.  In 1976, the company was bought by a Toronto firm who opened Pedlar Storage Products in the Stevenson Industrial Park.  The Simcoe Street plant was demolished in 1981 to make way for a new shopping centre, and Pedlar Storage Products closed in 1982. 

Williams Piano Factory was started by Richard Williams in Toronto in 1849.  In 1888, the Williams firm purchased the former factory of Joseph Hall Works in Oshawa and began renovations to the building to make it suitable to manufacture pianos.  In 1890 the factory began producing pianos and organs, and the company constructed their first church organ that was sent to Brighton and consisted of more than 100 pipes!  It took ten weeks to three months to make one piano, but each piano was constructed to the “highest degree of excellence in every detail of workmanship”.  The company was globally known as a manufacturer of quality products, but due to the depression and increased mass production of the radio, they closed due to lack of demand.  However, the factory building remained and many other businesses occupied the premises, and the building was even a barracks during the war years.  The factory was demolished in 1970 to make way for the Durham Region Police Headquarters and the Oshawa Times building.  

A brown upright piano with a three pedals and a stool. There is a sign above the piano that reads 'New Scale Williams Pianos, Oshawa, Canada'
Williams Piano, 1903, in Guy House; Oshawa Museum Collection

If you want to find out more information on any of these sites, or find out more information about what used to be in Oshawa, please feel free to visit either of the museum’s websites in the “For More Information” section, or take a look at the Library’s History Pin site! 


For More Information:

Discover Historic Oshawa – Oshawa Museum

Industry in Oshawa – Oshawa Museum

History Pin: Oshawa Street Scenes – Oshawa Public Library


Sources Consulted:

Ontario Malleable Iron – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/ontario-malleable-iron/

Smith Potteries – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/smith-potteries/

Cooper Smith Co. – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/cooper-smith-co/

Pedlar People Ltd. – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/pedlar-people-limited/

Pedlar People Ltd. From Industry in Oshawa – https://industryinoshawa.wordpress.com/foundries/pedlar-people-ltd/

Williams Piano Company – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/williams-piano-company/   

Pteridomania: The Victorian Craze for Ferns

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Walking through our Henry House is like walking back into the mid-1800s. From the furniture, to the decorations, our Henry House is a good example of a Victorian home, right down to the tiniest detail. Walking through, you may notice that a lot of the decorations and motifs are floral. This is because the Victorians loved their plants! During the Victorian era, Botany became one of the most popular scientific fields within English society, due in part to colonialization and expansion of European countries into the Americas, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, and also from the scientific endeavour to collect and classify the natural world.

When thinking of the Victorian era and flowers, you may think of a few things, such as the Victorian language of flower dictionaries that grew in popularity, the emphasis on gardening and landscaping during this period, the popular pastime of collecting and pressing flowers, or the boom in greenhouses and hothouses. No aspect of life was exempt from the craze of flowers.

However, one unique plant captured this Victorian plant craze to a new extreme. This plant was that of the fern. This craze was so intense that it created its own name, called Pteridomania, meaning fern fever.

A bright room with pink wallpaper. There is a large wooden couch, and two framed items on the wall. There is a fern on a pedestal in the room as well.
Parlour, Henry House, with a fern in the corner.

How did this start?

Ferns have a long mysterious history before the Victorian era. It has long been used for medicinal purposes, commonly used for treating asthma, hair loss, kidney complaints, and worms. However, the real mystery was that of how ferns reproduced. None knew how they grew, thus myths spread that ferns has magical properties, and eating the fern seed could make one invisible.  

Throughout the 1700s, minor scientific developments happened in the study of ferns. The largest challenge to this study was the survival rate. England only had about fifty native species, but many botanist wanted the exotic ferns. Transporting ferns from Australia, for example, was extremely difficult, as ferns would not survive the harsh conditions of the trip. Just about 2% of ferns survived the journey.

However, this all changed with the invention of the Wardian case. In 1829, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a doctor and an amateur naturalist, invented the Wardian case. Ward had a keen interest in ferns but faced difficulties when growing them in foggy, damp, and polluted London, England. One night in 1829, he placed the chrysalis of a moth in a sealed glass bottle with moss at the bottom. To his surprise, he noticed some days later that a seedling fern had started growing inside. We can then think of the Wardian case as a precursor to that of our modern terrariums. They acted as a protective case and also as a microenvironment.

A view into a room from a doorway. There is a window with drapery and a fern in the centre
Dining Room, Henry House, with fern in the window.

Together, Ward and friend George Loddiges, also a botanist, began experimenting with larger Wardian cases. By 1831, they had grown thirty fern species in the Wardian cases. Overall, the Wardian case allowed plants from all over the world to be brought to England and survive.

Along with new inventions, literature added to this growing fern craze. In 1840, Edward Newman wrote A History of British Ferns. In this book, Newman praised Ward for his work and wrote that only those with “good taste” would attempt growing ferns. This right here started the fern craze.

People began collecting and hunting for ferns. Different species came from all over the world. Greenhouses and ferneries were created, where one could walk through and enjoy different fern species, along with other plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees. And of course, fern motifs could be found on everything from buildings, to ceramics, to clothing.

Our own collection here at the museum contains some of this fern craze. I was delighted when I found some clothing with fern motifs and Victorian era photography with individuals wearing clothing with fern themes.

However, this fern craze came with some costs. As the rage for ferns continued, prices increased. It became more difficult to find new species of ferns, and fern hunters would put themselves into dangerous situations just to find that new fern, like climbing mountains or venturing into unknown environments. Many injuries happened. Soon, some ferns, like the Killarney fern, became nearly extinct due to this craze.

A black jar with gold lid; it has a fern motif and features the word 'Oshawa'
Oshawa souvenir, with fern decoration, made by Oshawa’s Smith Potteries (020.7.1)

Pteridomania ended in the early 1900s. But, if you come to our Henry House, you can still see the fern craze in action.


Sources consulted:

Books

  • Bailey, M. & Bailey, A. (2021). The Hidden Histories of House Plants. Hardie Grant Books.
  • Favretti, R. J., & Favretti, J. P. (1997). Landscapes and gardens for historic buildings: A handbook for reproducing and creating authentic landscape settings. Rowman Altamira.
  • Shteir, A. B. (1997). Gender and” modern” botany in Victorian England. Osiris12, 29-38.
  • Whittingham, S. (2009). The Victorian Fern Craze. Shire.

Websites

The Red Cross and Knitting for the War Effort

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

In May, our Registrar, Kes, wrote about a donation of materials from the Red Cross Society, Durham Branch. Along with the artefacts she highlighted in her blog post, the donation also contained several booklets produced by the Red Cross containing knitting patterns. As many might know, I am an avid knitter and love any mention of historic knitting (I’ll leave links at the end of other blogs I’ve written). I was very excited when Kes let me know that the booklets were scanned and digitized, eager to look at the patterns from decades ago. 

Four booklets were included in this donation: 

  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Selected Civilian Knitting Instructions for Women and Children (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory) (A022.23.10)
  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Knitting Instructions for the Armed Forces (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory) (A022.23.11)
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 1 For the Services, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, Revised Edition, November 1940 (A022.23.12)
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 2 Knitted Comforts for Women, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, November 1940 (A022.23.13)

These booklets were made available by the Red Cross, free of charge, to those who wanted copies. 

For those on the Homefront during the two world wars, there were many ways they contributed to the war effort. Knitting was one such way to contribute. During World War I, patterns from the Red Cross or other sources appeared in local newspapers; a pattern from the Red Cross, for example, was published in the Port Perry Star, while the pattern which appeared in the Ontario Reformer did not list a particular source. The pamphlets in our collection, which included directions for women and children – civilians – reflected a change in the nature of World War II. As stated by the Red Cross, “By the time of the Second World War… warfare had changed: battlefront and Homefront blurred, and civilian lives were routinely endangered.”1 These booklets for civilians reflect the change in the Red Cross’s mandate, expanding beyond attending to the needs of soldiers and military personnel exclusively.

The quality of the knitted goods had to reach high standards, and pieces might have been rejected or, more often, fixed by other Red Cross volunteers had it not been up to the standards. This might sound harsh, but think about it. When you have a pebble in your shoe, or maybe the seam of your sock isn’t sitting where you want it to, it can be irritating. Imagine wearing knit socks, and there were knots along the sock’s sole, or the toes haven’t been seamed correctly. Soldiers foot health was of great importance, which is why the Red Cross set out such high standards. Novice knitters, fear not. As the Globe and Mail reported in 1941, “The weaving (grafting) of the tip of the toe is a pitfall into which so many kindhearted, anxious-to-do-their bit, loyal knitters stumble; but the Red Cross workers have told me to tell you that if, when you come to the place which invariably trips you up, you will slip the twenty stitches remaining you’re your two needles onto a strand of wool, take the socks to the Red Cross – they will be delighted to finish them for you.”2 

Knitters would send their finished pieces to the Red Cross’s offices on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Here, volunteers would inspect the pieces, such as socks, mittens, scarfs, and sweaters, before sending them to the soldiers overseas. If pieces didn’t reach the high quality standard the Red Cross needed, volunteers could set about fixing the items. One volunteer, Mrs. Gibbett, was interviewed about the work of re-knitting items, and about socks, she commented “I hate to think of the poor boy’s feet after wearing a pair of those [socks with knots along the bottom under the heel and toes]. I rip them back and knit it up again.” Her job was described as ‘Unexciting,’ and even Mrs. Gibbett herself said “It’s not a very attractive job, but it’s got to be done. We can’t let all that wool go to waste, you know.”3

The Whitby Gazette & Chronicle reported in 1940 that the Whitby Red Cross branch was well into their knitting initiatives, and that between October 1939 and March 1940, they had knitted over 1000 pairs of socks for the active services.4 Whitby also boasted an instructions committee, headed by Mrs. E Bowman “who gave daily instructions in the making of all knitted garments and correct any mistakes which will not pass instruction.”

For the Oshawa Museum’s Stories from the Homefront project, many shared memories of life in Oshawa during WWII and how they contributed, including participating in salvaging drives, growing their own food in Victory Gardens, donating blood at Red Cross blood donor clinics, and knitting for the forces. Murray McKay remembered “We took up knitting in school. We used to make scarves. Each class would spend one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon,” and Jeannette Mark Nugent recalled, “It was mostly socks that I would knit, perhaps mitts. They were for the servicemen overseas. Sometimes we would put a note in the socks to the servicemen along with our name and address. Although I never received any letters, some friends I knew did hear from servicemen thanking them for the socks.” 

It was estimated that some 750,000 people on the homefront (the majority of which were likely women) produced more than 50 million garments during the Second World War.5 Locally, sewing and knitting groups had 1200 women who made nearly 50,000 articles towards the war effort.6 There were likely knitters of every skill level pitching in to do their bit. Knitting for the forces was just one way that those on the homefront supported the war efforts during the First and Second World Wars.


Here are a few other posts I have written, for those wanting more info on historic knitting:


References

  1. Canadian Red Cross WWII Civilian Knitting Instructions, https://www.redcross.ca/history/artifacts/wwii-civilian-knitting-instructions
  2. IR McK,”This and That,” The Globe and Mail, Oct 3, 1940, pg. 9
  3. “Reknits Others’ Knitting, Woman’s Job Is Unexciting,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 1, 1944, pg. 10.
  4. “Thousand Pairs of Socks Knitted by Whitby Red Cross,” The Gazette and Chronicle, March 6, 1940, page 1.
  5. That stat came from the Canadian War Museum: https://www.warmuseum.ca/blog/an-army-of-knitters-in-support-of-the-war-effort/
  6. Oshawa Historical Society, Stories from the Homefront, 2004, page ####

Additional Research:

https://www.redcross.ca/blog/2021/4/knitting-through-covid-19-and-through-red-cross-history

https://thediscoverblog.com/tag/canadian-red-cross/

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