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/

Student Museum Musings – Introducing Sarah

By Sarah P., Summer Student

Hi, I’m Sarah! You’re probably thinking, haven’t I already read about a Sarah at Oshawa Museum? Well, I am the other Sarah who will be working at the museum this summer. I am attending school right now completing my B.A. in History and a minor in Anthropology. I am really excited to be a part of this team as I have always loved history from a young age, and now I have the great opportunity to work with artefacts! My hope is to pursue a career in archiving or public history in general after I am finished university, counting the days honestly. For a while now, I have been doing volunteer work involving education and transcribing, which I really enjoyed! I love hearing historical accounts as it provides an opportunity to hear people’s personal history. I am very excited to be a part of the inventory and archiving project of the collection in the attic of Robinson House with our curator Melissa and Sara, a fellow summer student.

A black, plastic, folding camera, with a handle on top and a round lens with silver metal surrounding it.
008.1.85: Drepy plastic folding camera

I wanted to highlight some of the awesome artefacts we have at Oshawa Museum that are some of my current favourites. I have always enjoyed photography ever since I was in high school and was in awe of the museum’s extensive camera collection.  It’s amazing! I particularly loved seeing the Drepy Camera made by Pierrat, as I have never seen a camera like that before in person. I couldn’t help thinking, good luck taking a selfie with this camera! Another interesting find was a special chamber pot. It was interesting to learn that the fabric on top of the lid was to silence the sound of going to the loo. I am not so sure the fabric was the most sanitary thing, but it sure was interesting! I am eager to learn more about museums and archiving while working at the Oshawa Museum with such a knowledgeable team. I look forward to writing again about the numerous discoveries I make while being immersed in this fantastic historical environment!

970.48.8abc, Chamber Pot, Royal Semi-Porcelain: AJ Wilkinson

A recent acquisition: The Canadian Red Cross Collection

By Kes Murray, Registrar

This past week, we had the pleasure of welcoming a large collection of items from the Canadian Red Cross, Durham Branch, into our collection. This new acquisition is quite vast, with objects ranging from uniforms to annual reports. And, of course, going through our newest acquisition lead me down a Red Cross history spiral…

A grey/blue uniform consisting of a knee length skirt, jacket, and bonnet style hat. The hat and jacket feature a Red Cross patch
Women’s Red Cross uniform, unknown year 022.1.1-3

The Red Cross was founded in 1859 by Henry Dunant. Dunant witnessed a battle between the French and Austrian armies in Northern Italy. Here he saw many soldiers wounded. With medics unable to cope with the volume of patients, he set up a temporary hospital. Three years later, Dunant wrote a novel proposing his idea of countries establishing a neutral and independent group of helpers that could provide care during times of conflicts. This sparked the creation of the Red Cross movement.

Here in Canada, the Red Cross movement began with the North West Resistance of 1885. Certain individuals familiar with the Red Cross movement in Europe used the Red Cross flag to act as independent medics. It was not until 1896 that Toronto surgeon and militia member Dr. George Sterling Ryerson gained permission to establish a branch of the British Red Cross in Canada.

A white pin, featuring a red cross and the year 1940
1940 Red Cross pin 022.1.4

In its early years, the Canadian Red Cross only worked during wartime. However, a turning point came at the end of the First World War.

During the war, the Canadian Red Cross had increased substantially with funding and volunteers, so much so that Canadian Red Cross leaders did not want to see the organization disappear until another war broke out. So, the Canadian Red Cross expanded their mandate to include the phrase “in times of peace.” This allowed the Red Cross to be involved in many peacetime public health and welfare work. Finally in 1927, rather than being a branch of the British Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross officially became an independent Red Cross society.

All the photographs you see in this post are some of my favourite items in our new collection. The uniform was particularly exciting to unbox and photograph. It is a woman’s uniform, most likely made of wool and handmade. It is a most unique item as we do not have anything like the uniform in our collection.

During my research, I also learned that May 8 is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. This day celebrates the creation of the Red Cross movement. It seems rather fortunate, then, that I get to share with you all our newest acquisition.


Sources consulted:

https://www.redcross.ca/about-us/about-the-canadian-red-cross/historical-highlights/getting-started-1896-1913

https://www.redcross.ca/about-us/about-the-canadian-red-cross/historical-highlights/the-interwar-years-1919-1939

https://www.redcross.ca/blog/2018/5/a-reason-to-smile-world-red-cross-day

Sons of Temperance Insignia

By Melissa Cole, Curator

The Temperance movement heavily criticized excessive alcohol use, promoted abstinence, and pressured the government to completely prohibit the use of alcohol. The trend of temperance caught on in the middle of the nineteenth century, and its effects were felt in many countries around the world.  Reverend Robert Dick of Toronto arranged to form an organized Temperance movement in Oshawa. After little debate, The Sons of Temperance attained their 35th Chapter with the addition of the Oshawa Division on November 6, 1849.

Oshawa’s Sons of Temperance Hall

The Oshawa Division held their meeting at the Commercial Hotel at the corner of Centre and King Streets and later moved their meetings to the Simcoe St. Methodist (United) Church.  The group discussed many issues on the topic of temperance.  The issue of most importance was that of creating sweeping reforms that would eliminate “local groggeries” and bar rooms.  The group had a very talented orator named Edward Carswell who would travel through the United States and Canada speaking on the topic of abstinence and the evils of drink. The Oshawa Division gave the movement a strong and passionate speaker as well as a gathering place for Ontario’s annual Sons of Temperance meeting.  Any decisions that were reached and toasts that were made were all celebrated with a glass of cold water in this alcohol free environment.

The Sons of Temperance created a constitution, the primary article of which was Article 2 which stated that “No brother shall make, sell or use as a beverage, any Spirituous or Malt Liquors, Wine or Cider.”  Should a brother violate Article 2 of the constitution that brother will be investigated and a “trial” will occur and presiding over this “trial” will be a panel of 5 brothers.  Should the charge be sustained, the brother may be expelled from the organization. 

The organization had a strict set of rules and expectations for anyone who wanted to become a member. Their constitution stated that the candidate must be at least 18 years of age, be nominated by someone within the brotherhood, and have good moral character.  He must also have a proper way of earning a living and therefore have visible means of support.  Although the constitution stated that the age of maturity into this fellowship was 18, a number of their members were younger than that.  The youngest member of No. 35, the Oshawa Division, was 14 years of age.

The brotherhood provided support for each other in their constitution in case of any misfortune.  The constitution provided benefits to the family in the amount of no less than 15 dollars if a brother should die; should the wife pass away then the benefit is no less than 10 dollars towards their funeral costs.  Should a brother become ill with a sickness or disability he was entitled to no less than one dollar a week, however, if it can be proven that the sickness/disability was due to improper conduct then the brother forfeits his benefit.

In our collection, we have a wooden object that can be described as Triangular in shape, open in the middle and in the centre of that is a wooden star. There are words written on the three sides of the triangle: in white on side one is ‘PURITY;’ on another side in blue is written ‘FIDELITY;’ and, the third side features the word ‘LOVE’ written in red. 

What do these three words represent?  The Sons of Temperance held passionate moral views about the evils of excessive drinking.  Their slogan was “Love, Purity, Fidelity.”  The group had a strong international voice on the issues of temperance and survived into the new century with a large following and legislation that aided them in their quest for purity.  This particular artefact is an example of moral views that were held by the Sons of Temperance in Oshawa. 


Watch Melissa’s video podcast about the Sons of Temperance Insignia

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