Wednesday, 8 March 2017





The series of digital stories about Toronto history and culture which make up this project are the work of fifty-three Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) graduate students. The project was inspired by the 2015 Myseum Intersections – Telling Toronto’s Stories and invited each storyteller to select an object from local collections which has significance to Toronto’s past and present. The objects inspired the authors to connect historical events with contemporary context so that they tell stories about the multiple intersections that happen in the city.

Musings will be posting collected stories once a cycle. We hope that, after reading the stories, you will know Toronto a little bit better. And perhaps you will find similar stories in your own objects!

Our partners for this project, to which we are extremely thankful, are:
Now, without further ado, object stories from Scarborough Museum.



How can you travel the world without having to leave your own home? By using a stereoscope, of course! This was a popular entertainment and educational tool commonly found in homes in rural Canada. Within the fine parlour of Scarborough Museum’s Cornell House, set to the year 1914, is a Victorian Stereoscope. What exactly is this strange looking object, and why does it belong in a rural Toronto home?

Scarborough Museum Stereoscope rear view.
Image courtesy of Scarborough Museum.
Rural Ontario offered little entertainment for the pioneering lads and ladies of the 19th century. Their wealthy British counterparts could take a jaunt to France, Italy, and Germany, absorbing the arts and culture of the time. This was referred to as “The Grand Tour” and was a popular rite of passage for young aristocratic men, as part of their classical education. They would witness awe-inspiring symbols of Western culture and explore the vestiges remaining from enlightened ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Romans. Travel in general was a thrilling pastime of both wealthy men and women.

But what about everyone else who wanted to travel? What options did rural Torontonians have to explore the world? Pailagi Pandya, Museum Program Officer of the Scarborough Museum explains that “stereoscopes were particularly useful in the sense that they allowed people to ‘tour’ foreign lands without the expense and hassle of actually going there. They enabled people to travel the world from the comfort of their parlour. It provided the sense of "You are here" with depth of the images, like the 3D viewfinder”.

Scarborough Museum Stereoscope front view.
Image courtesy of Scarborough Museum.
The stereoscope is a faceplate with a long handle and wire brackets to hold images of faraway places. This stereoscope is made of wood and metal and finds its home in the parlour of the Scarborough Museum, very close to Toronto. Stereograph cards showed the same image twice and the glass lenses in the faceplate and the repeated image tricks a user’s mind into seeing one 3D image. The stereoscope originated in Britain in early 1838 and was shown at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. Queen Victoria even showed interest in the device during the Great Exhibition as it pleasantly entertained her. Stereoscopes traveled to North America and could be found in homes, schools, and libraries as entertainment and education for all ages! Rural Torontonians were limited no more! People, places and things from every continent could be viewed and enjoyed despite age, gender, or social class. If you were able to access a stereoscope and its images, you could travel. Better still, stereoscope-toting Torontonians could write their own adventures based on the images they were seeing. 

Temple of Heaven, Seoul, South Korea. Stereograph Card. Underwood and Underwood, 1902.
Image courtesy of Boston Public Library flickr page.
This stereograph shows a beautiful temple found in Seoul, South Korea. This particular image was printed in Toronto and is accompanied by the caption “The beautiful Temple of Heaven, where the Emperor worships at the solstices.” Onlookers could travel to Korea and experience its “exoticism” without having to move from their parlour chaise! A travel experience rural Victorian Torontonians may not have had without a stereoscope!

Works Cited
City of Toronto. (2015). Cornell House. Retrieved from Toronto:

City of Toronto. (2015). Scarborough Museum. Retrieved from Toronto:

Darley, G. (2008). Wonderful Things: The Experience of the Grand Tour. Perspecta, 41, 17-29.

Government of Canada. (2013, 06 15). Artefacts Canada - Humanities. Retrieved from Canadian Heritage Information Network:

Howard, I. P. (2012). Perceiving in Depth, Volume 1: Basic Mechanisms. New York: Oxford University Press.



Our story begins with a road and a bedframe…

If you’ve ever ventured into Scarborough, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of McCowan Road. McCowan Road runs through Scarborough from the shore of Lake Ontario in the south to Lake Simcoe in the north.

William P. McCowan’s bed frame from the Scarborough Museum.
Photography by author.
Pictured above is a four-poster bedframe made from wood with a stained varnish, on display at the Scarborough Museum. A latticed rope surface would’ve been used to hold up the straw-stuffed mattress. It is not known exactly when this bedframe was built, but it is safe to assume that it dates back to the 1830s.

Photograph of another bedframe displayed at the Scarborough Museum,
demonstrating the structure of the latticed rope surface that would hold up the mattress.
Photography by author.
But what does a road in Scarborough have to do with a bedframe?
The answer is William Porteous McCowan, or Willie, as he was known, namesake of the road and original owner of the bedframe.

Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1820, Willie and his family emigrated to Upper Canada in 1833, settling in the burgeoning township of Scarborough. His story is one that many present-day immigrants to Toronto can probably relate to. As immigrants to a new land, the McCowan family was in search of a better life. So, in 1848, Willie purchased a modest log home in the area of McCowan and Kingston Road looking to build a new life for himself and his family.

Now a landowner in his own right, Willie supported his mother and sister by raising sheep and cattle, and growing hay and an orchard on his 100-acre property. It was on this very bed where Willie would lay his head after a long, hard day’s work.

William Porteous McCowan house, Malvern. (Built c. 1833) Ref#13-IV-2.2.
Image courtesy of the Scarborough Historical Society.
This small log cabin was just enough to accommodate two small bedrooms – as master of the house, Willie had one for himself, and the other was shared by his mother and sister. As beds were often one of the most expensive items families would own, [1] having your own bed would’ve been quite a luxury for regular settlers in 19th century Canada, not to mention your very own bedroom! [2]

This bed frame stands today as a symbol of Willie’s lifetime of hard work to carve out a better life for himself in Canada. Though he may not have started out with much, by saving up to purchase small luxuries like this bedframe he was able to make his life a little more comfortable. This elegantly carved bedframe is a testament to Willie’s appreciation for, and pursuit of, beauty despite the relatively harsh conditions of settler life. It is perhaps due to this admirable trait that Willie became a prolific member of the early Scarborough community, prompting McCowan Road to be named in his honour.

After his death in 1902, Willie’s bedframe became a McCowan family heirloom, passed down from generation to generation. When it was acquired by the Scarborough Museum in 1992, amazingly, it was reunited after almost a century with the McCowan log house it had called home throughout Willie’s life.
To find out more, visit the Scarborough Museum!

1. Bill Bryson, A short history of private life (London: Doubleday, 2010), 346.
2. Peter Ward, A history of domestic space: Privacy and the Canadian home (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999), 81.

Bryson, Bill. A short history of private life. London: Doubleday, 2010.

Ward, Peter. A history of domestic space: Privacy and the Canadian home. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999.



Music is played and listened to on various modern devices, from computers to iPods and record players. But how was music played and enjoyed in the early 20th century? Music was played on a gramophone! It may be difficult to purchase one now, but if you ever want to see one in person head down to the Scarborough Museum’s McCowan Log House, one of the historic houses which make up the museum. There, will will find a tall mahogany gramophone.

“Sonora Gramophone”,
picture by Tammy Law.
“Close Up of Sonora Gramophone”,
picture by Tammy Law.
The gramophone, explained Pailagi Pandya, the Museum Program Officer, was originally invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, but it was patented in 1887 in America by Emile Berliner who initiated the transition from phonograph cylinders to gramophone records. The gramophone was produced by Sonora Phonograph Company, a company known for producing chime clocks until its reincorporation in 1913. The gramophone in the McCowan Log House was most likely purchased from A. & S. Nordheimer, a piano company founded in 1844 in Toronto. This is how a gramophone works.

There are several historical advertisements for gramophones found in online newspaper archives such as those of the Globe and Mail. One 1989 advertisement described the gramophone as the “ideal machine for home entertainments” and “the realm of modern invention” of its time, and most importantly it was “inexpensive”. The gramophone allowed for the public to enjoy music that was “reproduced” rather than “imitated” thus creating an authentic experience.

“GRAM-O-PHONE” from The Globe (1844-1936); Jan 15, 1898;
ProQuest Historical News Papers: The Globe and Mail.
When I first saw the gramophone, I assumed that last time it was used was perhaps by the original owners. But when I asked Elaine Kemp, the Acting Curator of the Scarborough Museum, however, I got a very surprising answer. She said that the museum had used the gramophone to play music in the past to entertain the visitors. Unfortunately, Kemp also mentioned that the gramophone can no longer be used since the needle is broken.

Despite the current condition of the gramophone, it is comforting to know that it was used at one point to perhaps entertain or enlighten visitors in the 21st century. The experience may have given visitors a glimpse into the lives of those who used the gramophone almost a century ago. They can reflect on the similarities or differences of family and community engagement in regards to how music is played and enjoyed today.No vinyl records were visible at the McCowan Log House unless the records were placed in the cabinet beneath the gramophone. The thing I was most curious to know was what specific genre of music was listened the most by people in Toronto in the early 20th century while enjoying a cup of tea or during a holiday party. Perhaps this is what they listened to.

Display ad 2 -- no title. (1898, Jan 15). The Globe (1844-1936) Retrieved from

MyOldPhonograph. (2011). Sonora Phonograph Co., Inc.; New York, N.Y.. Retrieved from



Just a short drive from the downtown core of Toronto, the Scarborough Museum offers visitors a rare glimpse into Toronto’s regional history. A living history museum, the Scarborough Museum focuses on the lives of the everyday person within the Scarborough area. Although this is generally a familiar past, one rich in local history and perhaps even ancestral ties, the museum’s collection of objects is extremely vast and still holds many secrets waiting to be uncovered.

The Scarborough Museum’s Victorian Draught Screen.
Photography by author.
This Victorian draught screen is one such mystery. Currently on display in the dining room of the Cornell House, one of the four structures that shape the museum, the draught screen would have been used to prevent drafts from tampering with family meals. In fact, this is precisely how the screen is stationed in the museum, carefully placed between the table and the window of the dining room, readily available for the family’s next meal.

Both functional and decorative, this screen is composed of varnished hardwood with dried flowers, leaves, and ferns pressed between two sheets of glass. Despite the fact that this draught screen would not have offered a great deal of privacy (it is largely composed of glass after all!), other variations would have served as partitions or dressing screens.

But where did it come from?

Anonymously donated to the museum in the 1960s by a Scarborough-based family, we unfortunately know very little about the original owners or the artisan that crafted the screen. We do know that it was made in the nineteenth century, [1] a time when both decorative art and homemade goods, such as this screen, were becoming steadily more popular. It was also during this time that the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements flourished, strongly influenced by Japanese art and artifacts. In truth, it was from Japan that the concept of the draught screen originated, its popularity slowly spreading to Britain through trade, eventually reaching across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada and thereby, Scarborough.

Indeed, Scarborough homes were not excluded from the changes that occurred during the nineteenth century, such as the emergence of electricity and the influence of globalization and “exotic” styles. During this time, a growing concern for “the tasteful manner of serving” [2] began to replace earlier, more modest, living. As the “heart of the house,” the dining room was perceived as the space in which comfort and style should be achieved at all costs, [3] and in the case of this screen, the cost was measured in flowers.

Unfortunately, we may never know which Scarborough citizen originally created or owned this screen, but thanks to the mysterious Scarborough donor in the 1960s the museum is now able to share a sneak peak into the private lives – and the dining experience – of Victorian Scarborough.

For more information about life in eighteenth-nineteenth century Scarborough click here.

1. P. Pandya, Oct 16, 2015.
2. David Boyle, The Township of Scarboro 1796-1896, (Toronto: William Briggs,1869), 109.
3. Harriet Prescott Spofford, Art Decoration Applied to Furniture (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1878), 191.

Works CitedBoyle, D. (1869). The township of Scarboro 1796 – 1896. Toronto, ON: Williams Briggs. Retrieved November 7, 2015 from

Prescott Spofford, H. (1878). Art decoration applied to furniture. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Retrieved November 7, 2015 from

Screens and their uses. (1882). The Furniture Gazette, Xvii, pp.119-120.



Minnie Pickford’s sampler on display in the Cornell House at the Scarborough Museum.
Notice the skill with which the numbers, letters, and decorative motifs were stitched in vibrant linen thread.
Photo credit: Olivia Elliott Smith.
Displayed on the upstairs landing of Scarborough Museum’s Cornell House is a piece of Toronto’s embroidered history. Proudly bearing the creator’s name, Minnie Pickford, is a wonderful example of a 19th century needlework sampler. In keeping with the tradition of the time, Minnie has industriously stitched the alphabet, numbers, and her name in a sturdy, legible font. The composition is further embellished with brightly coloured decorative motifs of potted plants, flowers, exotic birds and a stag. Each element would have been specifically selected so that she may practice and remember her stitches. The completed sampler would also be used as a reference guide when creating other works, rather like a 19th century “recipe card”.

Around the time this piece was produced, samplers had become an important part of the “genteel female education” [1] which prepared middle and upper-class girls for their future household duties. One such duty was marking clothing with unique, identifying stitches. Carolyn Beacroft, International Liaison for the Embroiderer’s Association of Canada, explains that this skill “was essential in a society that sent out the laundry to be done by local women living nearby.” [2] Minnie’s sampler would have allowed her to display her feminine accomplishments, as well as the value her family placed on her education.

Though we don’t know anything about Minnie Pickford other than her name, we can imagine what she may have been like in light of her sampler’s home at the Scarborough Museum. The Cornell House was built in 1858, and represents the typical rural, upper-middle class home of the time. Charles and Matilda Cornell, the house’s original owners, had eight children, and creating samplers like Minnie’s was likely an important part in their daughters’ upbringing. Like the Cornell’s children, Minnie was likely the daughter of a middle or upper-middle class family living in Scarborough in the 19th century. She would have made this sampler around age 10 or 12 as a way of showcasing her education and sewing abilities.

The Scarborough Museum also tells us about immigrant experiences, since the original owners of its historic houses were immigrants to the Scarborough area. While we can’t know for sure if Minnie was an immigrant to Scarborough, her sampler’s place in the collection is an example of the travelling of traditions. Samplers have been produced in Europe since at least the 15th century [3] and the presence of this practice in Scarborough illustrated through Minnie’s work connects a very old European tradition with a newer Canadian context. Sampler making would have travelled with immigrants from Europe to North America, where it remained an important part of a Canadian girl’s preparation for her future role in Toronto’s society. Samplers were also an opportunity for young ladies to be creative. The brightly coloured flowers, birds, and stag Minnie chose for her piece make us wonder what they may have meant to her. Are these some of her favourite animals? Are there deeper meanings to these symbols that contemporary viewers would have understood, but are lost on us? What do you think?

1. The Milwaukee Public Museum uses this term to refer to the education that middle and upper class girls would have received at the time. For more information on the museum’s extensive collection of samplers, please visit
2. Carolyn Beacroft, First Marking Samplers. Embroiderer’s Association of Canada
3. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England has an extensive collection of samplers ranging from the 15th to the 20th century, and has produced a lot of research on their history. To find out more, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment