Student Museum Musings – The Holt Renfrew Fox Stole

By Lauren R., Summer Student

While helping to create the The Vintage Catwalk exhibit, I had the unique experience to assist with the installation of three artefact cases, one of which was our ethics case. The case is a conversation point to inform and discuss the use of animal furs to make fashion wear in the past. The case also acts as a talking point for the impacts that furs had on the people who worked with them. One of the pieces included in the display is a 4-foot-long silver fox stole, circa 1905, face, feet and tail all still attached. One of the most interesting things about this piece though, aside from is striking colour and alarming size, is the tag that is stitched into the underside of it. It reads Holt Renfrew Co. Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg. In my opinion there are two fantastic facets to the pelt. The first is company that produced the piece. The second is the type of fur that was used to create the stole.

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The reason that the tag on the pelt is so interesting is because the company who produced it is still active today; this affords the visitors a link between the past and the present. The Holt Renfrew fashion house has a rich history. It was established in 1837 and began as a millinery shop. The company quickly gained recognition as they began providing product for renowned customers, one of which was Queen Victoria. A little less than a 100 years later, in 1930, the company was forging ties and creating exclusive deals with top fashion houses across Europe. In 1986 the company was brought under new ownership having been purchased by W. Galen Weston and the Hon. Hilary M. Weston, who are still in possession of the company today. Since then Holt Renfrew has been considered one of the top purveyors of luxury goods in Canada. The company has flagship stores in Toronto, Quebec and Vancouver. This once tiny millinery company now has sales that exceed $1 million a year and is managed by a group known as Selfridges Group Limited.

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As mentioned before, not only is the stole’s manufacturer of interest, the fur used to make the stole has a rich history. As mentioned before the stole is made from an animal known as the silver fox; this is a variation of the red fox breed (Vulpes vulpes).  More accurately, it is the melanistic version of the animal. This mutation of the red fox has a coat colour that varies from a deep bluish grey to an ash grey.  They also have darker black markings than their red counterparts. In addition, the silver fox is more cautious than their red cousins. It is estimated that 8% of Canada’s red fox population consists of the grey fox variant.

Due to their rarity and striking colouring, the silver fox has been hunted through history as a material for luxury good making. Silver fox fur products have been worn by nobles in Russia, China and Western Europe. The furs were once considered so valuable by New English fur-traders that the price of one silver fox pelt could be equivalent to that of 40 beaver furs. The value of the pelt also depends on the weights of the pelt (often more than one pound, the price increases with the weight).  The colouring of the fur can affect the price as well.

Since the fur business was so lucrative, it is no surprise that people soon began breeding foxes for their coats. The earliest fox-farm appeared in Prince Edward Island in 1895 and was started by Sir Charles Daton and Robert Oulton after they had found a pair of orphaned foxes and ‘adopted’ them. The industry was soon booming, and by 1913 there were 277 fox-farms in PEI, and the number soon grew to 448 by 1923. By the 1920s, the fox stole had become incredibly popular and when purchasing one, a person could expect to pay between $350 – $1000. There was also the option to buy shares in breeding pairs or to purchase the breeding pair. A pair of breeding foxes could cost between $18,000 and $35,000.

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The area of fox-farming eventually expanded into Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and some parts of the prairies. Today the fur-farming industry contributes $78 million to Canada’s economy annually. In addition to this, 75% of the furs produced in Canada come from fur-farming. Canada has an international reputation for producing quality fur products, providing pine martin, mink, raccoon, fox and lynx to the fashion industry. Today the two most popular types of fur are mink (a classic staple in the fashion world) and fox (a fur that changes popularity with the fashion tastes of the time). While the fox stole talked about here is one piece, some of the mink stoles can be two pieces long; a full-length fox coat can take between 10 – 24 foxes to make, and a full-length mink coat can take 60 minks to produce.

Though the use of furs for fashion purposes is now the source of much ethical debate, I believe it is still important to address the history with an informed eye.  Looking at both the glamorous and the grotesque helps us to understand where we as a collective have come from and to inform our actions and decisions for the future, to aid us in learning, growing, becoming better.

ArteFACTS: The Walking Wheel

By Melissa Cole, Curator

One of our featured artefacts for Celebrating 60: Sixty Years of Collecting is our Walking Wheel, or Great Wheel, an earlier types of spinning wheel. The fiber is held in the left hand and the wheel slowly turned with the right. This wheel is thus good for using the long-draw spinning technique, which requires only one active hand most of the time, thus freeing a hand to turn the wheel. The great wheel is usually used to spin wool, and can only be used with fiber preparations that are suited to long-draw spinning.

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The walking wheel is approximately five feet in height.   The large drive wheel turns the much smaller spindle assembly, with the spindle revolving many times for each turn of the drive wheel. The yarn is spun at an angle off the tip of the spindle, and is then stored on the spindle.   To begin spinning on a great wheel, first a leader (a length of waste yarn) is tied onto the base of the spindle and spiraled up to the tip. Then the spinner overlaps a handful of fiber with the leader, holding both gently together with the left hand, and begin to slowly turn the drive wheel clockwise with the right hand, while simultaneously walking backward and drawing the fiber in the left hand away from the spindle at an angle. The left hand must control the tension on the wool to produce an even result. Once a sufficient amount of yarn has been made, the spinner turns the wheel backward a short distance to unwind the spiral on the spindle, then turns it clockwise again, and winds the newly made yarn onto the spindle, finishing the wind-on by spiraling back out to the tip again to make another draw.

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This particular artifact arrived at the museum in the late 1960s.  It originally belonged to Mrs. David Fleming who used this wheel for over 70 years of her life while she lived in a cabin north of Cobourg.   In the summer of 2011 Mrs. Fleming’s great grand-daughter came to see the walking wheel that her great grandmother had used.  While at the museum that day she provided me with a photograph of Mrs. David Fleming pictured beside her walking wheel and a poem that was written by Mrs. David Fleming on April 14, 1914 in Cobourg, Ontario.

I’m putting you away, my dear old wheel,
With an aching pain in my heart,
And in spite of all that I can do,
The tears from my eyes will start.

We’ve been friends for over 60 years,
Day by day I’ve walked by your side,
Drawing the threads of fleecy wool,
With a happy, contented pride.

And you and I together have made,
The yarn for mitts and hose,
Which kept hands and feet of my children warm,
Protected from frost and snows.

The years roll on with ceaseless tread,
And no change have they brought to you,
And I, dear old wheel, have grown old and gray,
And far from as good as new.

The bloom of youth has left my cheek,
And my step is less sprightly than then,
For I am some years past the mark
Of my three score and ten.

When I am gone, who will love you, my wheel,
As I so long have done,
And who will walk by your side and spin,
The wool as I have done?

Some ruthless hand may break and burn,
And put you out of the way,
And the thought makes me sigh with an ache in my heart,
As I put you away today.

The hum and buzz of you, dear old wheel,
Has been music in my ears.

~ Mrs. David Fleming, 1914

ArteFACTS: About the Meat Juice Press

By Melissa Cole, Curator

In the Oshawa Museum’s collection, we have a unique artifact that I am sure many culinary historians would like to try out if they haven’t already: a Meat Juice Press.  Back in the late 1800s this item was considered a must-have for many affluent households.  The reason being that during the 1800s meat juice was used as a concentrated form of nourishment for the ill.  This particular style of meat press would have been used to extract juice from beef, boiled mutton, tongue or boned turkey.  This one is heavily embossed.  On one side it reads “LANDERS, FRARY & CLARK NEW BRITAIN, Connecticut U.S.A.” and on the other side it is embossed “COLUMBIA MEAT JUICE PRESS MADE IN U.S.A. 1”

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Columbia was an early brand name used by Landers, Frary & Clark. The company was founded in 1882, when Landers and Smith Co. acquired Frary & Clark, a well-known manufacturer of housewares and hardware.

This particular press measures 7 1/2″ Tall, 4 1/4″ wide (not counting the handle of the masher). It is comprised of four cast iron pieces that can be separated.  The press, pressing handle and a frame that has embossed lettering on both sides and the fluted cup which contains a spout for pouring the extracted juices.

This household item would most likely have been used to make “beef tea.”  If you open a book about 19th century dietary remedies it would be hard to find one that does not mention beef tea. It was a type of broth – made with beef and water – given to patients to drink if they were suffering from digestive problems, fever or weakness. People believed that the tea was nutritious and easy on the stomach, which would help patients to return to their former fortitude.

The benefits of making and drinking beef tea were featured in numerous cookbooks in the 1800s.  The following information was taken from an 1887 cookbook:

The liquid obtained contains all the nourishing qualities of the flesh and none of the indigestible structure, and it is much more palatable than ordinary soup or beef tea and is decidedly more nutritious.

Don’t confuse Beef Tea with today’s beef broth.  Beef tea and beef broth are very different. Beef tea, is almost like a distilled essence of beef, (similar to the French l’essence de boeuf) very intense, and powerful nutrition when someone is sick and ailing.  It would be particularly useful after surgery, especially with blood loss, because of the iron in it.  Two recipes were found on the Royal College of Physicians of London England’s website and explains how to make beef tea.

Start by browning half a pound of super-lean, flavorful beef (something like eye of round or blade steak, trimmed of fat and connective tissue), cut it into small cubes and place them into clean mason jar with a lid.  This jar would then be placed into another large pot of water.  Loosely cover the large pot containing the jar and allow it to simmer for 2-4 hours.  It will concentrate into a distilled form of liquid beef.  After 2-4 hours, place the beef cubes into the meat press, the screw on the press would be raised and the pressing handle removed from the cup and the meet placed in the cup and the press handle placed back on top.  The screw of the press would be lowered and pressing the meat. Keep the liquid that is pressed from the beef, along with the liquid that remained in the jar after simmering and mix them together to create beef tea.  When it cools the liquid solidifies into a thick gelatin.

Below is another image taken from The Pharmacopoeia of the London Hospital.  This was in a guide created to aid staff and students of the hospital in the art of prescribing.  It covered how to take notes on patients, prescribing for children and diets for patients.  Beef tea was featured heavily in the meal plans.

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Beef tea would have also been given to soldiers serving overseas.  Florence Nightingale detailed the average daily issue of special dietary items for the War Office.  Top of that list was 25 gallons of beef tea. 80 lb of meat would have been used to make this tea.

Beef tea can be served either in its raw state or gently cooked.  Don’t confuse Beef tea with todays beef broth.  Beef tea was richer and thicker than our traditional beef broth today and contained much for nourishment in comparison to the water downed broth purchased in stores today.  Today’s Bovril, which is the trademarked name of that thick, salty meat extract, developed in the 1870s in Canada by a Scotsman named John Lawson Johnson. The product was originally called “Johnston’s Fluid Beef” and its creation stemmed from beef tea but in a simpler easier to use form.

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Digging Up The Past – Archaeology Day 2016

This post was originally shared last year, but we thought it was worth sharing again for Archaeology Day 2016!

Archaeology is an important part of the interpretation at the Oshawa Museum.  Our Grandview Gallery in Robinson House helps tell the story of the Lake Ontario Iroquois, a group of First Nations who called this area home over 500 years ago. For far too long, the history of Oshawa began with Benjamin Wilson, an American who settled here in 1790 with his family, and so on and so forth.  By saying our history begins with Wilson, we are completely omitting the Lake Ontario Iroquois, who were settled with 10-15 longhouses, who hunted, who fished, and who farmed for a period of over 70 years.  Archaeology and the evidence it has given us helps us challenge the ‘traditional story,’ and we do so on every tour, through our interpretation and through the artifacts we have on display that were discovered during the excavation of the Grandview site in 1992.

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Inside the Grandview Discovery Gallery

Fun fact: there were over 11,000 artifacts unearthed during that salvage dig excavation, and all 11,000 are part of our collection at the Oshawa Museum.  Not all 11,000 are on display of course, but you can view exceptional examples when you visit!

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Tools on display from the Grandview Archaeological excavation

There were two Aboriginal villages discovered through archaeological excavations; theMacLeod Site at Rossland and Thornton was discovered in the late 1960s, and the Grandview Site, around Grandview and Taunton, was discovered in 1992.  Both sites provide valuable information about the lives of the Lake Ontario Iroquois and have helped us at the Oshawa Museum shift how we tell the history of our City.

When people think about archaeology, ancient ruins, Egypt, Greece, Maya, or early First Nation settlements is what frequently comes to mind.  At the Oshawa Museum, we are fortunate to have two collections from late-historic archaeological sites: the Farewell Cemetery Collection and the Henry House Collection.  These two sites date to the mid to late 1800s and they provide information about Victorian lives and culture. Artifacts from the Henry House excavation will be on display in Henry House.

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Coffin handle found during the removal and excavation of the Farewell Cemetery

Curator Melissa Cole gives information on the Farewell Cemetery excavation in her June 2015 Podcast.

Archaeology is a fascinating field, and Archaeology Day is an event where we get to celebrate and showcase the amazing history that has been unearthed here in Oshawa!


Archaeology Day 2016 is happening on October 15 from 12-3pm.  Proud partners for this year’s event are Trent University Durham and Scugog Shores Museum who will be joining us with interactive displays, engaging activities, lectures, and sharing in their knowledge of and passion for the field of Archaeology.

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Student Museum Musings – Digitization Surprises

By Jodie L., Summer Student

As I was working on the Henry House Digitization I came across a decorative bowl that I hadn’t given much thought to other than how heavy the thing actually was. But as I was cropping the photo, I had zoomed in on the picture because something looked slightly off. What I had thought were only rose designs were actually Dragons and roses. I was surprised that this old looking antique decorative bowl that had probably belonged a nice old lady, had these super cool looking dragons on it. This isn’t something that I had expected when I started working on the artifacts in Henry House but it did make it way more interesting as well as really wanting to know the story behind this dragon bowl.

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