John Dickie and his Rebellion Boxes

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

In early 2011, the Oshawa Historical Society welcomed Darryl Withrow as the speaker for their monthly Speaker Series, who conveyed the fascinating story of the 1837 Rebellion Boxes.  He brought along examples of his replicas, and Melissa Cole, OCM Curator, brought to the meeting the two boxes which are a part of our collection.  Both boxes feature inscriptions pertaining to a John Dickie.  During the summer of 2011, I was asked to research John Dickie, learn more about who he was and what he meant, if anything, to Oshawa’s history.

I spent time poking around on various internet sites, on and in our very own archives, and the small discoveries I made about the Dickie Family and Oshawa’s past were exciting!

First, a short history of the Rebellion of 1837.  The 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada was, simply put, a result of the discontent between the farmers, labourers and tradesmen against the elitist system of aristocratic Toryism.  This feeling of discontentment came to a head when on December 4, 1837 a premature call to rebel was given.  Between December 5 and 8, a group of about 1,000 rebels gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto, and although this Loyalist militia quickly won initial small skirmishes in the city, the British forces were ultimately successful.  As a result, hundreds of men were arrested, some were sent to Australia as punishment, and two men, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were executed as a result of their involvement in the Rebellion.

While imprisoned in the Toronto Jail, facing charges of high treason, many men crafted small, wooden boxes and inscribed messages to loved ones.  The messages carried many tones, be it political, religious or sentimental, many lamenting the deaths of Lount and Matthews.  The boxes range in size, were made by skilled craftsmen, and the majority are made of a hard wood and are dated.

John Dickie, 1787-1872
John Dickie, 1787-1872

Now, how does this relate to John Dickie?  Who was he?  He was born in Scotland on March 15, 1787, and in 1807, he was married to Jean Dick.  If that name rings a bell, especially to anyone familiar with the Henry House parlour, it should; the parlour features a needlepoint created by Jean in 1801 when she was 14.  In 1821, they immigrated to Upper Canada with four children, and another four children were later born in Port Hope and Oshawa.

John Dickie was a farmer and, according to Samuel Pedlar, a silk weaver.  Pedlar claimed that Dickie had land “in the bush on lot 8, third concession of Whitby” in 1821 and later “cleared a portion of lot 8 on the second concession” in 1824.   Jean died September 12, 1846 and John died January 23, 1872.  They are buried in Union Cemetery, Section F, grave 143.

John Dickie's headstone, Union Cemetery, Section F
John Dickie’s headstone, Union Cemetery, Section F

When I delved into Dickie’s family tree, a connection between John Dickie, box maker, and John Dickie, Oshawa pioneer became evident.  John and Jean had a sizable family of eight children.  As described by Pedlar:

“This couple left quite a large family consisting of the late Mrs. Amsberry (Margaret), Mrs. Samuel Dearborn (Mary)…, the late Mrs. J.D. Hoitt (Elizabeth), the late John Dickie Jr., … Mrs. Mark Currie (Agnes)… the Late Mrs. Stephen Hoitt (Helen), Robert Dickie, and William Dickie.”

71-D-327.15ab - Rebellion Box from John Dickie to JD Houtt
71-D-327.15ab – Rebellion Box from John Dickie to JD Houtt

Mrs. J.D. Hoitt was Jean and John’s third daughter, Elizabeth (1816-1867), whose husband was a man named James D. Hoitt.  One of the Rebellion Boxes in the museum’s collection was inscribed “James D. Houtt From John Dickie, August 1, 1838.” Despite the discrepancy with the name spelling (in my research, I’ve seen Hoitt spelled a number of ways) this connection seemed too strong to ignore.  Marriage records show that Elizabeth and James were married on November 26, 1840, but it is very likely that the families knew each other for a time prior to their marriage.

971.7.16ab - Rebellion Box from George Lamb to Mrs. John Dickie
971.7.16ab – Rebellion Box from George Lamb to Mrs. John Dickie

The second box in our collection is engraved: “Presented to Mrs. John Dickie, From George Lamb.”  This box was intended for Jean Dickie (Mrs. John Dickie Sr.), and not the wife of John Dickie Jr.  My research strongly indicates that John Dickie Jr. (1818-1892) was married three times: to Lucinda Wheeler in 1843, Rebecca Fowke after 1851, and Catherine Ryder in 1863.  As there would have been no other Mrs. John Dickie in the late 1830s, this box was indeed intended for Jean Dickie.

I also relied on Chris Raible, John C. Carter and Darryl Withrow’s book, From Hands Now Striving to Be Free: Boxes Crafted By 1837 Rebellion Prisoners, as a source of information on the boxes.  Their inventory included three other boxes attributed to John Dickie, one crafted by Alvaro Ladd to John Dickie, and two made by John Dickie for his children.  The Alvaro Ladd box provided little additional knowledge on Dickie, but the other two were enlightening.

The two other boxes were engraved as follows:

“To Ln Dickie From her father Jn Dickie, June 30th, 1838.  Beauty is a flower that fades, soon it falls in times cold shade.  Virtue is a flower more gay, that never dries nor fades away.  May freedom smile & bring us peace, and all oppression & trouble cease.”

“A present to William Dickie from his father in Toronto Augt. 11, 1838.  May vengeance draw his sword in rath, and justice smile to see it done.  And smite the traitors for the death of Matthews, Lount & Anderson.  Beauty is a flower that fades, soon it falls in times cold shade, virtue is a flower more gay, that never faded nor dies away.”

While I was unable to ascertain who exactly ‘Ln’ (possibly a short form for Elizabeth or Helen?) was referring to, the provenance associated with the William Dickie box helped connect the box to Oshawa’s John Dickie.  Raible et al notes that William Dickie’s box belongs to the Britton’s, descendants of William Dickie’s sister, and that last name is found in Mary Dickie’s (Mrs. Samuel Dearborn) family tree.

What has fascinated me the most about this research project is the fact that these artefacts contain key information about a man’s life, information not seemingly found elsewhere.  Little information was known about Dickie to Raible, Carter and Withrow, and a trip to the Archives of Ontario to review Rebellion of 1837 papers and jail registers was a fruitless effort, finding no information recorded about John Dickie.  His death notice in the Ontario Reformer was short, and his tombstone in Union Cemetery contains only dates.  On the one hand, being in arrested in jail on charges of high treason could be a chapter of someone’s history that they may want downplayed. However, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount, who executed as punishment for their involvement in the rebellion, were looked at as martyrs, and the contemporary view of the rebels, taking actions to achieve responsible government, has led to their being seen as heroes.  Indeed, Dickie’s boxes to his children speak of justice, virtue, freedom and overcoming oppression, implying he possibly felt his involvement in the Rebellion would have been just.  If he did not create three little boxes and dedicate them to James Houtt, ‘Ln’ Dickie and William Dickie, the fact that John Dickie participated in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion would have been lost in history.

To view a Podcast about our Rebellion Boxes, click here:

The making of flash back photographs

By Kelley, Winter Term Co-op Student

In life we recognize the big picture when it comes to change. We know the museums were once lived in by families, but we never realize all of the little things that are changing. People are usually fixated on tasks, things that need to get done, and places where they need to be. While looking through the archive photographs of Oshawa’s past I came across several pictures of people who have contributed to the museum, people who have enjoyed the lake, the houses before renovations and renovations in progress.

Guy House, then and now
Guy House, then and now

My task was essentially to take the old and emerge it with the new. The idea was to take a past photograph and present photograph of the same scenery and show the changes by using a bit of each photo and making it into one photograph using an editing software called Adobe Photoshop. Whether it was construction or a couple canoeing on the lake, my job in a sense was showing what once was and showing that how things are today was not always the way it is, because everything has a beginning.

In order to complete this final photograph I first had to take a look through the historical photos of the museums and close by locations. The old photographs all appeared familiar to me, the locations became apparent right away along with the old features that have now been modified. It was almost ghostly seeing people on the lakeshore in the older photographs. I’m at the lake almost every day but who knows where those people’s lives took them.

Once I had finished collecting pictures of locations I could match, I went to each location of the historical photograph displayed and tried to match the angel and direction of the photographer who took the photo. Doing so involved constant looking back and forth from the photograph and the camera lens.

A day at the lake
A day at the lake

After taking the new photographs of the old photographs I then could start emerging them together on Photoshop.  When I opened Photoshop I placed in the new photograph and put it to the appropriate size, I then placed in the old photograph in a new layer which overlapped the new photograph.  For those who have never used Photoshop, a layer allows you to make changes to the photo in that layer without affecting any other photos that you have opened which are in their own separate layers. You can rearrange layers to bring some layers forward and other layers backward.

Matching the photographs was tricky. I had to constantly resize and rotate until everything lined up.  I then could go in and take away parts of the old photograph using the lasso tool. The lasso tool is used for selecting an area of the photograph in your layer. When I used the lasso tool to select the areas which I did not want showing in my final product, I pressed delete which crops out the selected area allowing the backward layer to show threw.

For most of my photos I deleted areas all around a house leaving only the old house left to then place it into position to fit into the new scenery. Taking that as an example, when the house was the only thing left I would then again resize it to match the size of the present picture house. When resizing it is important to hold down on the shift button on your keyboard and then with your mouse move the corner of your photo to enlarge or to make the photo smaller in size. Doing this will ensure that the photograph stays natural to size and the photograph does not appear stretched or elongated making the quality very poor.

So to recap, the old photograph was placed over the new photograph, the old photographs scenery was taken out using the lasso tool which caused the old photographed house visible and now the new photograph scenery visible, the old photographed house was placed over top of the new photographed house and resized using the shift button to perfectly a line the old photograph and the new photograph.

Henry House, 1960 and 2013
Henry House, 1960 and 2013

Now that everything is in place and the old and new photos are emerged creating a realistic and identical appeal of a unified final piece there are many final options. One of the options is to adjust the brightness, levels, contrast etc of your layers. To adjust your layer, you would click image on the top bar, which will then have a list of other options, from there you will see the option of adjustments, once you click on adjustments there will be yet another list giving the options to change the brightness, levels, contrast etc of your photograph placed in the layer you have currently selected. Changing something such as brightness will make your over all photograph look like one unified photograph. For example, if your 1st layer was very dark and your 2nd layer was very light, then it will look like it’s been copied and pasted. If you change your 1st layer to appear lighter, then both layers will be light so it looks like it fits together a lot better.

Another option is to add a border. One way to make a boarder is to click on your rectangle tool which is on the side bar, and to fill it with a colour of your choice. Once you have customized your options, you will click and drag your rectangle till it fits the width of your layer. After this step, you would then click on rectangle marquee tool, also shown on the side bar, and with that tool select the rectangle that you have just made. Once you have selected your rectangle, right click copy and then right click paste. Doing so will duplicate your rectangle which you can then move to the top width to have an even measurement. Do this 2 more times to get the other 2 sides of your layer.

An option which I selectively chose to do was to add text. To add text, all you have to do is click on the horizontal type tool which is shaped like a T on the side bar and to then click on the area in which you’d like to type. You have many options to change the text, size and placement. If you don’t like the options you chose, all you would have to do is double click what you have typed and then change your options to your liking.

When I had finished my final product and added my last touches of borders, contrast and text I was then ready to click save as, and to select to save my photograph as a JPEG. If I was to save as a Photoshop file, my edited photograph would open in Photoshop every time I would go to view the photo. Saving as a JPEG makes it so that when I double click my photo to view it, it would open in Microsoft Office picture manager so I can view and share it at any time.

Verna Conant; she was originally walking into Robinson House in the mid-1960s, but here she is, walking into Robinson House today
Verna Conant; she was originally walking into Robinson House in the mid-1960s, but here she is, walking into Robinson House today

Making the flash back photos over all was really fun. I was able to use Adobe Photoshop which I really enjoy using to create a way for people to look into the past while also acknowledging the present. I was able to add my own style of a scrapbook feel while also making realistic sceneries. There was a lot of hard work, revising and feedback that went into making the flash back photographs. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed making them.

St. Andrews United Church Quilt

One of the quilts featured in our exhibition; Common Threads: Stories from the OCM Quilt Collection, is the St. Andrews United Church Quilt.  Recently our curator, Melissa Cole received this lovely poem that goes along with this quilt.

This poem was written by Betty Warnica (nee Moore) who was Christened and married at St. Andrews United Church in Oshawa.

From the Oshawa Community Museum Quilt Collection, 997.2.1
From the Oshawa Community Museum Quilt Collection, 997.2.1

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.”
John Keats


So it is with this signature quilt
Lovingly stitched in 1983 by
dedicated Christian hands,
Honouring the sesqui-centennial of
St. Andrew’s United Church,
71 Simcoe St. S. Oshawa, Ontario.
Here is the flag of St. Andrew
The white cross bearing the names
of clergy having served the church
Since its doors were opened to the community
one hundred and fifty years earlier.
The blue background bears the names
Of many members of the congregation
during the years 1833-1983
With the closing of St. Andrew’s
Possibly the oldest church in Oshawa,
In December of 1996, this small piece
of its life was given to the care
of the Oshawa Historical Society.

Around Henry House – Our Paintings in the Study

By Lisa Terech: Youth Engagement/Programs and Digitization Assistant

Throughout the summer, I have been slowly, but surely, working my way through Henry House, photographing and cataloging the artifacts on display in this heritage house.  The room being exhibited as Thomas Henry’s study was my second last room to complete, with some of my favourite artifacts on display; it is great to catalogue artifacts that you love and have great interest in.

Room furnished as a Victorian Study. Green walls, window behind a table. There is a bookcase/bureau in the left corner and a stovepipe
The Henry House Study

Hanging on the walls are three pieces of artwork: portraits of Thomas Henry, Lurenda Henry, and Buena Vista.

Framed painting of a man, wearing a white dress shirt and black waist coat and over
A973.13.1 – Elder Thomas Henry

Thomas and Lurenda are on opposite walls, or, as I’ll joke on tour, staring into each other’s eyes!  I love the portrait of Thomas.  He looks so stately, dignified, and, dare I say, handsome!  The portrait of Lurenda always receives strong reactions from visitors on tour.  She looks to be a very formidable woman from the image.  It was painted in Toronto by HC Meyers, and it appears to have been created based on a photograph.  When our visitors react to Lurenda, I am always careful to remind them that, firstly, it is based from a photograph, and early photograph techniques made smiling rather labour intensive.  I also remind them that Lurenda was rather sick, especially as she was older, and, last but not least, this woman was step-mother to 5 boys, who had 6 boys and 4 girls of her own!  If you had 15 children, you would look formidable as well!

framed painting of a woman, dressed in black and wearing a frilled bonnet/hat
70-L-140 – Lurenda Henry

I removed the portrait of Lurenda from the wall to photograph it, and when I did, I was able to get a closer look at this image that I have seen almost daily for 3 years.  I couldn’t help but notice how striking her eyes are.  Maybe it’s the work of a skilled artist, but you cannot deny there is wisdom and warmth behind those eyes.

A framed painting of a grand two storey house. There is a white fence with an open gate in front of the house.
Buena Vista, the Conant Homestead, by ES Shrapnel

The final painting we have hanging on the wall is of Buena Vista, the homestead to the Conant family.  The home was built c. 1873 by Thomas Conant, best known as the author of Life in Canada and Upper Canada Sketches, detailing the history of his family and a history of the Oshawa area.  The home was located at 1050 Simcoe Street South, the southwest corner of Wentworth and Simcoe Streets.  Premier Gordon Conant was born in this home in 1885, and Thomas Conant housed over 6,000 books in his personal library.  The house, however, was demolished in 1985 to make way for a housing complex.  The complex today is known as Conant Place.

The painting was completed by ES Shrapnel in 1899, the same artists who illustrated Thomas Conant’s Upper Canada Sketches.  Shrapnel (1845 – 1920) was born in England, and eventually settled in Canada, teaching at the Ontario Ladies’ College (Trafalgar Castle) before moving to British Columbia in the late 1880s.   While the painting is, admittedly, outside of the interpretation period of Henry House (set in the 1860s/1870s), the image is one way of honouring another prestigious home, vestiges of Oshawa’s days gone by.

Information from the Oshawa Community Archives, and information on Shrapnel from and

From Exploding Cigars to Whoopie Cushions! Novelty Items

By: Melissa Cole, Oshawa Community Museum Curator

So what does a Joy Buzzer, Whoopee Cushion, chattering teeth and the old “fly in the ice cube” have in common……they are novelty items.  Throughout history people have loved to play practical jokes on each other.  From one of the earliest being the exploding cigar to the Whoopee cushion, which is still funny today.  Novelty items became a lucrative business in the 19th and still are today.

Recently the museum received a large donation of items that belonged to Gladys Muriel Mowbray (Adelaide McLaughlin’s sister).  This collection contained over 50 items that included a wedding dress, jewellery, shoes, hats and many personal items including a few novelty items that were practical jokes.  At first I thought the one was a tin that resembled others that were already in the collection held at the OCM so I inspected the items further and realized they were novelty items.  This is something that I do not come across often in a donation to a local museum.   I wanted to find out a bit more about the two novelty items that were donated and discover more about the history of practical jokes in general.

The first novelty item is called Adams Salted Mixed Nuts also known as the “snake nut can”.

013.3.12 - an 'innocent' can of Adam's Salted Mixed Nuts
013.3.12 – an ‘innocent’ can of Adam’s Salted Mixed Nuts

The “snake nut can” is a practical joke device that closely resembles a can of nuts but contains a wire spring covered in cloth or vinyl, some are even printed like snake skin but not this particular one, which  leaps out of the can and startles the unsuspecting victim.  This could have been me….. I was very thankful to the donor who actually informed me of what the tin contained before I proceeded to open the tin of “Salted Mixed Nuts”.  The reason I always open the tins when a donation comes in is because quite often they are filled with little treasures that even the donor may not be aware of.

013.3.12 - not so innocent!
013.3.12 – not so innocent!

The “snake nut can” was invented by Soren Sorenson Adams, was known as Sam Adams, the king of Professional Pranksters,  of the S.S. Adams Co. circa 1915.  Adams’ wife Emily had been complaining about the jam jar, saying that it wasn’t properly closed or that it was sticky.  Adams was inspired by her nagging, then invented a spring snake – coil of wire wrapped in a cloth skin and compressed the two-foot snake into a little jam jar so that it would jump out when the lid was removed.  The snake jam jar then evolved into the snake nut can.  In 1928, S.S. Adams created the Joy Buzzer, and in later years also sold the squirting nickel and fake plastic ice cubes with bugs in them.  He was considered the industry leader in the field of practical jokes after creating over 650 novelty joke items.    He actively managed his company until the time he passed away in the 1963 at the age of 84.

The second item was a New Shaving Kit – with the headline WHAT EVERY MAN WANTS – NO BRUSH NO LATHER NO ELECTRICTY.

013.3.11 - The New Shaving Kit
013.3.11 – The New Shaving Kit

Around the edge of the lid are line drawings of assorted razors but inside the box is a fake pocket knife, a few sticks of wood and wood shavings.   It has a 1939 copyright date by H. Fish love & Co. of Chicago. Stamped lightly on the front is; Souvenir of Wichita, Kansas. The back of the box is a mailer label with a place for To and From and it could be mailed anywhere in the U.S.A. for only 3c.  The Howard Fishlove company was known for their fake vomit called “Whoops” the company manufactured 60, 000 units per year.

Practical jokes and novelty items have been making people laugh since the 19th century I am sure these two novelty items highlighted here have brought back memories for many.   


Demaris, Kirk (2006). Life of The Party: A Visual History of the S.S. Adams Company. Neptune, NJ: S.S. Adams Co.

Newgarden, Mark (2004). Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item. New York: Abrams.

Rauscher, William (2002). S.S. Adams: High Priest of Pranks and Merchant of Magic. Oxford, CT: David E. Haversat.

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