The OM has developed a number of virtual exhibitions throughout the years – you can find them listed under the ‘Online Resources‘ tab at the top of our blog. Last summer, we were excited to launch Discover Historic Oshawa, an interactive mapping site, plotting places of interest in our community. Adding places of interest, both historic and current, has been ongoing, and we’re up to 40 listings and growing!
We also envision this website to dovetail with feature exhibitions and happenings at the Museum. Our 2021 exhibit, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa, is an excellent example of this. This exhibit shares the stories of those who arrived in Oshawa as displaced persons and post-WWII immigrants, many hundreds of whom resettled in Oshawa due to economic and social factors. They positively contributed to the city as both an industrial hub and as the proud beneficiary of a rich cultural landscape.
To complement the exhibition, we’re adding listings to Discover Historic Oshawa that have important connections to our Eastern European immigrants, like churches, community halls, and even the Michael Starr Building in downtown Oshawa. Opened in 1983, this building was named for Oshawa’s Michael Starr, a Member of Parliament from 1952-1968 who became the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to be appointed to the federal Cabinet. He is remembered for his work in furthering the cause of ethnic groups and minorities, assisting and advocating for those who arrived as displaced persons after WWII, especially in the Oshawa area.
I have to make a very special thanks to our two 2020 summer students, Adam and Mia. Adam was instrumental in getting this site up and running and writing a number of our initial listings on the site, and Mia’s research and writing on landmarks relating to Leaving Home, Finding Home have been fantastic additions to the site.
With the changing seasons also comes the changing of exhibits here at the Oshawa Museum. Uniquely Oshawa – an exhibit I’ve been working on together with curator Melissa and intern Dylan – is almost ready to be revealed in Robinson House. As the name suggests, this exhibit features many of the museum’s most inimitable and remarkable artefacts and the stories that go alongside them. From baseball to bread, Oshawa has innumerable objects and anecdotes to share.
This is the second exhibit I’ve worked on while at the museum, but it has been a very different experience from that of my first and main project. As I’ve shared in many of my previous blog posts, I’ve been working on the research and design for the exhibit Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa: Displaced Persons and Stories of Immigration for the last two and a half years. The research began in 2016 as an oral history project and has taken many different turns since. Due to the unexpected postponement of the exhibit from spring of this year (coinciding with the first wave of the pandemic) to spring of next year (2021), many new opportunities for research have come up. Most recently, I’ve been continuing to dig deeper into the history of the Polish, Greek, and Italian immigration to Oshawa, connecting with individuals from each community in order to share their stories.
Both exhibit experiences have truly given me invaluable experience and have made me realize that, while I love all areas of museum work, exhibitions may indeed be my favourite. This has been a very aptly-timed realization, since I have just begun my master’s program in museum studies at the University of Toronto. Discussing museums, even day-in and day-out, really cannot compare to getting to work with the artefacts themselves!
There are so many little things you start to notice when installing an exhibit that you otherwise simply wouldn’t have. For instance, you begin to second-guess if something is actually, in fact, maybe, just slightly crooked… Or, that, no, that placement is not quite right. I spent a fair amount of time debating the placement of three beautiful pieces of Smith Potteries, and then stepping back, and asking for a second and then a third opinion… I definitely think it was worth it, however.
The delicately painted black illustrations stand out beautifully against these two lamps and one vase of a deep red colour – they seem to come together to narrate a story all on their own. I see it as one of conflict and of homecoming. When you look at them, do you see the same kind of narrative? Or maybe you’re seeing another story emerging from their display… Or maybe you’re simply admiring their artistry!
In any case, I hope (and am pretty confident!) that you will enjoy Uniquely Oshawa and the exhibit coming next spring. Looking forward to seeing you when you make your trip down to the museum!
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.
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.
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.
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.
When arriving back at the Oshawa Museum this summer, I entered into the midst of construction of our newest exhibit, The Vintage Catwalk. Surrounded by a dizzying array of patterns and colours, one artefact easily stood out in my vision. Morbidly fascinated, I stared at the Emerald Green ball grown only a few feet from me. It was vibrant, captivating, beautiful and oh so deadly. I knew what it was in an instant as the vibrant colour betrayed its poisonous nature to me – a killer dress or, as some would call it, an arsenic dress. Many of you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a lover of the macabre artefacts that grace the Museum’s exhibit space, so it should be no surprise when I present this one to you as well.
The history of fashion has been riddled with dangerous and deadly materials, dyes and procedures. There were aniline dyed socks that caused swelling in the wearer’s feet and lesions and bladder cancer in the men who made them. Celluloid combs that were used to decorate hair could explode when heated. Lead make-up caused ladies’ wrists to deteriorate until they could not raise their hands. And Hatters suffered from paranoia, trembling, cardiorespiratory problems and early death caused by mercury poisoning – the very substance used to give the lasting shine and smooth texture to fur hats.
But nothing in this hazardous history was as dangerous as the brilliant green dyes that bathed Victorian London. One variation of the pigment was created in 1814 in the German town of Schweinfurt by the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company. Brilliant and jewel-like, the chemists dubbed their new creation ‘emerald green.’ Along with this shade there were many others being made, ranging in a variety of green hues, all of which used arsenic as their base.
Due to the recent introduction of gaslight into homes, party goers and home owners were scouring for bright fabrics to stand out at events and in the house. While the candle light of the past hid the drab colour that came from natural dyes, gaslight only made the material look more miserable. The population flocked to the new and stunning green shades on the market; where there were once muddled browns and muted yellows now were shinning and jewel like hues to enchanted the eye. Soon arsenic products infested homes all over Britain. Wallpaper, carpets, clothing, shoes, gloves, accessory boxes, and fake flower wreaths were all brushed with the toxic substance. More importantly still, the dye was brushing off on people. It was a brush of death for many.
The wallpaper in nurseries and bedrooms could lead to the death of the inhabitants as the gaslight atomized the arsenic into the air. Those who wore the green-tinted dresses and accessories experienced hair loss, nausea, green-tinted hands and blisters, all from the slow absorption of the arsenic through their sweating skin leaching the toxic dyes from the unsealed fabric into a person’s skin. While these side-effects seem atrocious, they were nothing to what the workers in the fabric factories faced. Things like anemia, headaches, sores, scabs, discolored hands and nails, nausea and lesions (to name a few) plagued the people who made them and transformed them into consumable goods.
In the 1860s, at the height of its popularity, there was a sudden revolt against the use of the colouring agent when a 19-year-old factory worker in London died horrifically from arsenic poisoning. This event sent the public into a fear frenzy. Soon countries like Scandinavia, Germany and France (who had been doing their own investigations of the products) banned the substance outright. Britain placed restrictions on the use of arsenic in products but in the end, there was no formal ban, and the true change came from informed consumers.
The legacy of arsenic can still be seen in the arsenic-phobic attitude that is prevalent in fashion houses like Chanel. It is said that Coco Chanel’s infamous black and white colour palette was influenced by an aversion to ‘natural colours,’ like green. To this day some seamstresses in the Chanel fashion house believe that green is a colour of ‘bad luck.’
While these fascinating fashion fixtures are fabulous to behold one must always remember their fatal nature. Arsenic can still be found in artefacts today, though in much smaller amounts than when they were made, like the dress we have on display, or the dress owned by the Ryerson school of fashion, which was displayed at the Bata Shoe Museum as part of their Fashion Victims exhibition.