50 Years of the Robinson House Museum

Today, October 25, marks Robinson House’s 50th birthday of being a museum! To celebrate this anniversary, we’re looking back at the history of this home.

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Robinson House is the youngest of our three museum buildings, constructed in the mid-1850s for members of the Robinson Family.  For many years, it was believed that the construction was overseen by John Robinson, the patriarch, however, research in the early 2010s has proven this to be untrue.  In fact, John may have never stepped foot in the home which is his namesake, having moved to Iowa and re-settling there sometime in the 1850s.  The original inhabitants of Robinson House were John’s wife Ruth, their daughter Eunice, her husband Richard, and their family.

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Robinson House later was owned by Eunice’s brother Cornelius, arguably the Robinson with the strongest ties to the home and certainly well remembered by those in the community.  Douglas Mackie, a child living in Henry House in the 1910s, remembered Cornelius as such:

“The face and figure of Cornelius Robinson remain shadowy to me except for his long grey beard. But I do remember his lantern. He would walk from Robinson House, as it is called now, to our place in the evening, carrying this lantern. Our farm lanterns were ordinary everyday lanterns designed to shine light from all sides, but his was a beautiful red one, with one side shielded by a metal reflector, to light his way while walking.  He would talk and talk long after my brother and I were put to bed. Oddly enough, I can’t remember if he was married, had a family, or was a bachelor. If the thought ever crossed my young mind it seemed to me he lived alone.”

Dr. Hoig also paints a picture of this man, describing Cornelius as “a very dark man who wore earrings and lived in the white brick house where the road turns east along the water front.”

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Upon Cornelius’s death in 1921, the house was passed to his daughter, also named Eunice.  After a number of decades, the house sat vacant, a shadowy place for children who grew up around Oshawa-on-the-Lake.

“It was more of a mystery to the kids of the area. We would dare each other to go into the Robinson House, because in the winter months no one tended to live in the house. We would climb up to the main level. For some reason on the main level of the house there was a pile of leather cuttings. The kids used to dare one another to get pieces of leather to prove their entry into the house. You were really brave if you brought back a piece of leather!” ~Douglas Mackie

“It was a place we didn’t go near for fear it would fall on us, or a ghost would appear.” ~Darlene Williams

“Once we discovered an entry into the house, it became our playhouse. We swept out the old kitchen and it seems to me that there was an old bed. I remember telling my Mom about the fun we were having over there. She told me not to go on the bed in case it had bedbugs. That was enough to scare us for a while. ~Linda Cory Bazowsky

Eunice died in Toronto in 1963 and the City of Oshawa purchased the home the following year with the intention of demolishing the then-derelict house and improving the park land.  The Oshawa and District Historical Society saw potential in the building and put forth a number of proposals to save the building; the City transferred ownership to the ODHS in 1965 for the purpose of restoration and use as a museum.  The society already operated the Henry House Museum and saw potential in Robinson House as being a Centennial project.

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One of the largest stumbling blocks was fundraising for the restoration, however, this project was truly championed by Verna Conant who wrote letters, advocated, and truly spearheaded the fundraising initiatives.  A building permit was issued in 1967, and on October 25, 1969, the Robinson House Museum officially opened to the public.

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One of the earliest exhibits in the Robinson House Museum was the tavern. For decades, it was believed Robinson House was once an inn and tavern, and this exhibit reflected that believed myth.  While it makes an interesting story, Robinson House was never an inn or tavern.  Other long-time favourite exhibits were the Children’s Discovery Gallery, the General Store Exhibit, and the one-room Schoolhouse exhibit.

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Today, Robinson House is our exhibition space.  The upper storey is home to our permanent exhibit A Carrying Place: Oshawa’s Indigenous Story, while the bottom floor is used for feature exhibition space.  The Oshawa Museum celebrates the history of our city, and this history is certainly diverse! Past feature exhibits have included Tales from the Tracks: Oshawa Railway, Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death, Community Health in the 20th Century, Celebrating 60, and currently on display is The Vintage Catwalk.

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For the last 50 years, Robinson House has been an important part of the Museum, and the house itself is one of our most important (and arguably our largest) artefact. Happy birthday, Robinson House Museum!

The Deadly Dress and Other Fun Fashion Facts

By Lauren R., 2019 Summer Student

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bata Shoe Museum Fashion Victims Exhibition, 2015

Memories Revived by Museum Opening

Originally printed 24 May 1960

Nostalgic memories and pioneer history intermingled at the opening of the Oshawa & District Historical Society’s Henry House Museum last Saturday.

As the years rolled back in the peaceful aura of the Henry House, persons were heard to comment: “Why we had one of those in our home when I was young,” or, “that baby carriage, my mother wheeled me in one just like it, she said it handled beautifully.”

The pioneer days of which Henry House is representative, do not seem so long ago.

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Starr Cuts Ribbon

Labor Minister Michael Starr cut the ribbon that officially opened the Henry House museum.  He led the group of special guests who were the first to enter the museum to sign the register.

Among the official party who spoke prior to the opening of the museum were Mayor Lyman A. Gifford and TD Thomas, MPP.

Hon Brian Cathcart (sic), minister of travel and publicity for Ontario, gave a brief address prior to the opening.

He expressed the appreciation of Premier Frost and of the Ontario Provincial Government for the very great effort put forth by Mrs. Conant in the establishment of the museum.

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Verna Conant shaking hands with the Rt Hon Michael Starr as Hon Bryan Cathcart stands to the side, 21 May 1960

Museums Increasing

The minister at the Ontario government is encouraging the establishment of local museums in the province. More than 100 museums are already in existence.  A half dozen were opened last year and 25 or 30 will be opened this year.

He praised his staff member James Gooding, whom he said was very helpful, and who has provided much of the liaison work for the establishment of this museum.

The speaker stressed the importance of those present in impressing upon others the value of making contributions of their time and effort to help build a better province and a better Canada.

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The first exhibit at the Henry House Museum

To Change Displays

Articles on display in the museum will be changed periodically.  At present on display is a parlor, set up in the manner of the early residents of the district. Many of the articles in this room are heirlooms lent to the museum by the descendants of the Henrys.

Another room displays some of the implements used on the early farms in the community. Antique uniforms, weapons, books, and pictures are also on display.

The children who were on hand at the opening day, and also on Monday, seemed to thoroughly enjoy this step into the past.

Reflecting on 30 Years

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In February, I celebrated 30 years of working with the Oshawa Historical Society.  I like to use the word celebrating because I have enjoyed my years of service to the OHS.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with incredible staff, volunteers, board members and friends of history throughout the years. Things have changed in the last 30 years, and I am proud to have a small  part in making the Oshawa Museum the dynamic place it is today.

Recently I was thinking about my first few days working at the museum.  Jerry Conlin (now the Director of Municipal Law Enforcement and Licensing Services at the City of Oshawa) was the Director of the Museum, and I was hired as a Curatorial Assistant to look after the artefacts and help with exhibits.  In February 1989, Henry House was under renovation to correct some structural deficiencies. The house had been closed since November 1987 and staff and volunteers were looking forward to its re-opening on July 1, 1989.  All of the artefacts had been removed and the entire house seemed  to be full of dust, construction personnel and tools. During my first week of work, Jerry gave me a tour of Henry House so I could at least help in the preparations for re-staging the exhibits. I remember standing in in the front room (now the study)  listening to Jerry explain the work to me when suddenly part of the floor gave way, and I was up to my knees in floor boards. Not exactly the start to my career that I had envisioned!

The construction at Henry House continued for my first few months of work, and things soon became hectic as the July 1 deadline for the re-opening of Henry House loomed.  Once the construction finished, staff had to add the finishing touches, such as paint and flooring as well as re-establish the exhibits in the house.  This involved moving artefacts across Henry Street which at the time dissected the museum site.  I can remember staff moving Thomas Henry’s portrait across the street dodging the cars coming into the park on a busy summer day.  Those weeks leading up to the official unveiling were busy ones, but I’m happy to say we made the deadline, and Henry House opened in front of an enthusiastic crowd on Canada Day.  This date also marked the designation of Henry House, Robinson House and Guy House as historic sites under the Ontario Heritage Act, the first buildings in Oshawa to be designated as such.

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Although I started at the museum in the middle of the Henry House project, I can remember my sense of pride in being part of this project. Henry House looked great and was once again able to be open for public tours.  Talking with many enthusiastic visitors that day, I was able to get a sense of just how important a landmark is Henry House for the people of Oshawa.

Dressing for Display

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Mounting a historic dress can be challenging, even for the experienced dress curators and conservators.  Inappropriate handling is one of the main causes of damage to museum objects.  Handling should be kept to a minimum; the risk of damage occurring can be reduced by good preparation before, during, and after the historic dress has been mounted.

The condition and structure of the historic dress should be carefully analyzed to determine if it has any structural weaknesses, previous damage, or fragile surfaces.  The condition of the dress will inform how to safely display the piece, or even if it can be displayed at all.  Ensure to consider its stability against environmental conditions and mounts while on exhibit.

A properly dressed mannequin is important for both the visitor experience at a museum and the artefact/garment itself.   The correct style of mount should be chosen, whether it is two dimensional or three dimensional.  For our display at the Oshawa Museum, we have chosen three dimensional mounts using mannequins in various shapes and sizes to create the correct silhouette.  It is important to remember when working with mannequins and dressing historic garments that it is not the same as dressing a store mannequin.  At a store, the mannequin is automatically the correct silhouette and the garment is new and can withstand the stress and handling.

When mounting historic garments, a mannequin should be chosen that is significantly smaller than the garment.  First, carefully measure the garment and ensure to take the time to measure properly.  Measure the entire bodice of a garment, not just straight across the chest.  Carefully measure all the way across the inside of the garment, following the curve of any space created for the bust.

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Areas to measure on the mannequin and the historic dress.  The second photo indicates the measurement of the entire bodice, not just straight across.

 

Once the proper mannequin has been selected, it is time to start building out the mannequin so the historic dress is well supported throughout.  Supplies to build out mannequins include white cotton sheet, pantyhose, quilt batting, cotton twill tape, flexible fabric measuring tape, scissors, and straight pins.  A well-dressed mannequin should go unnoticed by visitors.  This means the visitor will focus on the historic dress itself and not on how it is displayed.  A poorly mounted mannequin can distract the visitor from focusing on the garment and its story.

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When simply placed on a mannequin, this 1860s dress is neither supported nor provides a true representation of its silhouette.

 

The final stage is to ensure the proper silhouette is created.  This primarily comes into consideration with women’s and children’s clothing during certain periods.   Through the addition of appropriate under structure, the garment will be fully supported.  This is completed through the use of petticoats (antique or reproduction) from different time periods, for example, small pillows for bustles, and fabric tulle or netting can be used to create a 1950s crinoline or a 1830s full skirt.

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By using petticoats to fill out the skirt and acid free tissue paper to stuff the sleeves, the garment presents a truer illustration of 1860s fashion.

 

Be sure to watch our social media channels for a glimpse behind the scenes in the upcoming weeks as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, The Vintage Catwalk!

Image for OMA site