We Did Our Bit: WWI Exhibition Favourites Part 6 – Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories

This is the sixth and final installment of the We Did Our Bit WWI exhibit-closing series.

This post was contributed by Kathleen Powell, Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator of the St. Catharines Museum.

Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories

Kathleen Powell, Curator of the St. Catharines Museum, poses with a display in the Doing Our Bit WWI exhibit.

Doing Our Bit: World War One from St. Catharines to the Western Front holds significant meaning for me. To research and prepare for the curation of this exhibition, I spent a lot of time meeting and talking with families about the stories of their family members during the First World War. I personally read the diaries, letters home, and postcards of each of the individuals we feature in the exhibit. I got to handle the keepsakes, medals, and memorabilia passed on to family members from the war. Over time, I felt like I had gotten to known these individuals almost intimately. I became invested in their stories and experiences.

Given my role in the Doing Our Bit exhibit, it’s impossible for me to pick just one favourite. However, I will say that the artifacts that strike me the most are the ones that look the most ordinary and unassuming. While there is certainly something to be said about the incredible value of a war medal or a soldier’s uniform (both of which are displayed in our WWI exhibit), everyday objects from the First World War hold more weight for me. Such objects remind me that the St. Catharines men and women who contributed to the war effort, whether overseas or on the home front, were regular citizens. People just like you or I.

Cigarette belonging to Edwin James Southam

A single cigarette from the war was kept safely in a case by Edwin James Southam for the entirety of his life. It was uncovered by his family almost 100 years later.

A single ‘smoke’ in a cigarette case that we have on display is particularly telling of this. The case belonged to Gunner Edwin James Southam of St. Catharines. He enlisted in September 1915 and served in France in 1917 and 1918. His job was to drive ammunition wagons up to the gun positions. Southam served at Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, among other battles. Also on display is Edwin’s uniform and spurs, both of which would have been worn on the field. However, there is something incredibly ordinary and familiar about the cigarette case and cigarette that Southam would have carried with him as well. Why did Edwin hold onto this object in particular for so long? What meaning did it have for him?

The cigarette is still fully intact, the tobacco surviving 100 years in its casing. On the rolling paper are the words: “Duty Free Solely for Canadian Troops.” This tiny object was made specifically for Canadian soldiers during the First World War. An iconic image might conjure up in the mind of soldiers in wartime standing around smoking as they passed the time. Was Edwin trying to pass the time? After the war, Southam held onto the cigarette safely in its case and took it across the ocean as he journeyed back home in St. Catharines. The cigarette was uncovered by family members as they searched through his belongings to find objects to contribute toAs the Doing Our Bit exhibition. Edwin Southam was not know by his family to smoke.

Bullet belonging to Percy Bradshaw

Private Percy Bradshaw enlisted in August 1914 at St. Catharines and arrived in France with the 4th Battalion by February 1915. During the Battle of Ypres, Bradshaw was seriously wounded by a shot in the arm and was immediately sent to England for surgery and convalescence. Percy was eventually discharged due to the injuries he sustained later that year.

This bullet was extracted from Percy Bradshaws arm after he sustained injuring during the Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Bradshaw held onto the bullet, carrying it with his as a good luck charm for the rest of his life.

The bullet on display is the bullet that was extracted from Percy Bradshaw’s arm during surgery. From that day in 1915 forward, Percy carried the bullet in his pocket as a lucky charm. This tiny object is not the shiniest or the biggest or most impressive, but it is a testament to the experience of the war. Like Edwin Southam’s cigarette, why did this tiny bullet survive all this time? What did it mean for Percy Bradshaw, what did it make him think of every time his felt the bullet in his pocket?

Every object in the Doing our Bit WWI exhibit carries a meaningful story. As curator, I felt an immense responsibility to tell each story with care and respect. I hope that this exhibit was able to offer visitors insight into the personal ways the First World War affected the people of St. Catharines and I hope that visitors were able to see themselves in the objects displayed and the stories told. Doing Our Bit is a really powerful exhibit for me and it has been a great honour to be able to share these stories with our visitors. I am truly sad to see it go.

We encourage you to visit the St. Catharines Museum to discover this story and more from the First World War. Doing our Bit: WWI from St. Catharines to the Western Front officially closes on Friday, November 30.

Please join us as we close out this exhibition with a 1918 Victory Party celebrating the end of the First World War. Enjoy live jazz music, swing dance lessons, food, and drink throughout the evening.

Friday, November 30, 8pm-midnight | $10 per person | Tickets online or by calling the Museum at 905-984-8880 | Visit our website for more details 


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