By Grace A., Summer Student
As a student at the Oshawa Museum, you will inevitably fall into the “rabbit hole” of newspapers. To be fair- I was warned. Before working at the museum, I didn’t know that most cities maintained an archive of old publications, and anyone could go through them. There’s an endless number of pages. Newspapers are an ideal primary source for any historian trying to uncover societies of the past. While they can inform research for meaningful and critical historic projects, they are also great for getting your fill of drama. I think that anyone who binged Bridgerton will understand the allure of keeping tabs on the social elite. What everyone seemed to want to know:
- the decorations at Mrs. Smith’s dinner party,
- when Miss Susan Brown will be returning from visiting her friend in New York City,
- and, most importantly, who’s getting hitched.
Except instead of Lady Whistledown, gossip spread through the women’s section of the newspaper where people would pay to have their announcement in the social notes column. They probably wouldn’t have considered it to be “gossip” in the 1920s. It was simply the most convenient way to let everyone know what you were up to. For those of us who study the past, the detail that went into social notes is critical to connecting communities. By far, the most popular notes were wedding announcements.
This clipping is from the Toronto Star on Friday, June 19, 1925, celebrating the union of Hannah Engel and Max Ambrose. Hannah was the eldest daughter of the prominent Oshawa businessman, Hyman Engel. As mentioned in the announcement, the couple returned to Oshawa after getting married at the Bay Street Synagogue. However, it’s clear that the article focuses more on how the couple got married rather than where. The answer: in style.
The paper reported specifically how Hannah was “prettily gowned in white georgette with veil and coronet of orange blossoms, carrying a shower bouquet of Ophelia roses and lily of the valley.” Her bridesmaids were equally decorated with chiffon and roses.
In this announcement, the bride wore “a white satin period gown trimmed with Chantilly lace and rhinestones.” The focus on attire was meant to entice women readers; there was news for men (the hard-hitting stuff) and women’s news (dresses, flowers and guest lists). An unintended benefit of gendered news is that we can now get a glimpse at how Oshawa women leaned into wedding trends throughout the Roaring Twenties. The construction of womanhood changed with the times, allowing women to loosen their corsets – or forget them all together. Instead of elegance, women began to favour a style that exuded youthfulness and ease. Dresses got shorter and less form-fitting, a kind of rebellion.
These photographs commemorate the wedding of Gladys Muriel Mowbray and William Richard Agar in on November 20th, 1920. Gladys was the sister of Adelaide McLaughlin, Robert Samuel McLaughlin’s wife. Her dress was understated, a result of the austerity years which effected many people in Oshawa after the war. If Oshawa women were sporting dropped waistlines and bob haircuts, it was not until later. Again, this was likely a matter of cost. The latest fashions were still exclusive to those who could afford them. This changed towards the end of the 1920s, when ready-to-wear clothing became more accessible to working class women. The museum has Gladys’s dress in the collection, along with the necklace and shoes that she wore on the day.
As hemlines shifted, so did women’s perspective on marriage. While there was no alternative, many young women mourned the independence that they gained in the years prior to getting married. After earning their own wage and spending nights on the town, married life consisted of domestic responsibility. Their husband and children came first. This was difficult for girls who were coming of age in the 1920s, a time where the social scene was a place to redefine gender. Suddenly, going dancing with friends, to the movies, and to sporting events was once again out of reach.
If women in Oshawa had any thoughts about married life, you wouldn’t know it from reading the women’s columns of newspapers at the time. On the contrary, wedding announcements described a young woman who was excited about georgette fabric, Ophelia roses and building a home in Oshawa. And she probably was, for better or for worse.
Canadian Jewish Review (Toronto, ON), July 6, 1928.
Soland, Birgitte. Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Toronto Star (Toronto, ON), June 19, 1925.