Reflections from a Summer Student

By Grace A., Summer Student

I spent the majority of my summer at the Oshawa Museum researching the city’s early Jewish community. As Jennifer Weymark shared in her post, this project aligns with the greater plan to compile the stories that have not yet been told in our local histories. As she wrote, there has been a summer student (that’s me) sifting through census records, newspaper articles and other primary source documents, trying to piece it all together. In the beginning, I delved into the 1921 Census of Canada, looking for families in Oshawa who identified as Hebrew. I recorded names, birthdates, countries of origin, dates of immigration, language, and occupation. Using this information, I went to the Oshawa City Directory from the same year to get a little more personal. I found out which houses they lived in and the businesses they may have owned. I have to admit, I felt a little invasive. Everything I looked through was public record, but I couldn’t help but wonder what they would think and whether they would have approved of me playing private investigator.

The idea of informed consent was developed in the medical and biomedical community during the 1950s. While the concept has evolved over time, it’s rooted in the belief that there should be a process of communication between the physician and patient. To simplify it, the patient has to be fully aware of what they’re getting into before they receive treatment. Conversations about research ethics over the last few decades have been influenced by the basic notion of informed consent. For example, Karen L. Potts and Leslie Brown talk about informed consent in their essay titled “Becoming an Anti-Oppressive Researcher.” In their words, informed consent “highlights our commitment to the community, our relationships to it, the data, and the process.” These processes become complicated when you’re researching past communities. Most of the time, there is no opportunity to have an open dialogue between the researcher and subject in historical studies.

Ontario Jewish Archives, 1976-6-8

This summer, I learned that in the absence of this relationship there are still ways that museums can commit themselves to anti-oppressive research. On this project, we had many conversations about the archive. This is a particularly important consideration for a research project about the early Jewish community in Oshawa. During the time periods we studied, Jewish people in Canada faced anti-Semitism and experienced a great deal of adversity as a result of colonial violence. This considered, we have to be aware of how these structures are embedded in archived material. The Ontario Jewish Archives was immensely helpful both as a source of reliable information and a partner on this project. The photograph above is from their collection, and shows a group of Oshawa children and a Rabbi at a Cheder class from 1925. “Cheder Class” was one of many photographs from the OJA’s collection which helped to visualize the history of the early Jewish community.


Sources

Research As Resistance, Second Edition: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Approaches, edited by Leslie Brown, and Susan Strega, Canadian Scholars, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.queensu.ca/lib/queen-ebooks/detail.action?docID=6282047.

Here’s to the Happy Couple

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.

Toronto Star, June 19, 1925

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.

Canadian Jewish Review, July 6, 1928.

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.


Sources

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.

Changing the Narrative – The Early Jewish Community in Oshawa

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The Oshawa Museum is working on an exciting new project to celebrate Oshawa’s 100th Anniversary of becoming a city in 2024, a book on the history of Oshawa with a focus on research and stories that expand the traditional narrative.  The book will highlight aspects of our community that previous local history books did not.  It will be a book of unwritten stories, and it will help to tell a more accurate and inclusive history of our community. To that end, one of the focuses in the new book will be the arrival of the early Jewish community.  We are working with the Ontario Jewish Archives to research the Jewish families who arrived in Canada, when they arrived, where they settled, and the wonderful impact they made on those communities.  We have a summer student sifting through census records, newspaper articles, and other primary source documents, piecing together the story from a data perspective. The focus will also be on the cultural traditions celebrated by members of the Jewish community, and for this focus we are reaching out to the members of the local Jewish community for their help.

Oshawa Hebrew Congregation, 2021

For many years, the Oshawa Museum has highlighted and celebrated the Christmas traditions in our community, but this year we are looking to do something different. As a part of our research, we are working on a video project that will examine the family traditions of Hanukkah within the local community.

The aim is that the video will become a partnership between the Museum and members of the local Jewish community. The video’s vision is that it will highlight the history of the Jewish community in Oshawa and then turn to focusing on the holiday traditions that help make Hanukkah such a special time.

If you, or someone you know, would be interested in partnering with us and share your special family Hanukkah traditions, please reach out to us through email at archivist@oshawamuseum.org.