Iconic piece of Canadiana up for auction

Exquisite model canoe is one of only four known to exist.


This extremely rare ‘sample model’ canoe is one of only four known to exist. It was made by John S. Stephenson, one of the most important figures in Canadian canoe-making history, if not all of North America.

According to Roger Young, a Canadian expert and model canoe collector for over 30 years, Stephenson was one of the earliest innovators of commercially-made wooden canoes. He began working in the Peterborough, Canada area during the 1850s, developing ground-breaking techniques which eventually led to factory-made wood canoes and later wood-canvas canoes. Stephenson’s innovations made the area famous for them, which is why he’s often referred to as ‘the grandfather’ of the Peterborough canoe.

This rare sample model, in very good condition, is about 30 inches long, seven inches wide and three inches deep (76 cm by 17.8 by 7.6 cm). According to Mr. Young, historical documents indicate that Stephenson made several of these models and gave them to family members around 1890. They’re made of wide, cedar planks attached to closely-spaced broad, flat ribs, with boldly grained decks and birch bark veneer covering. Family lore suggests Stephenson made the models as examples of some of his earliest designs proposed for construction, although no full-size versions are known to exist.

Of the four sample models that are known, one remains with descendants of the family, one is in the Canadian Canoe Museum and a third is owned by Mr. Young himself. This fourth example has recently come to light, never before offered at public auction.

Unlike in the United States where ‘salesman samples’ by canoe manufacturers show up fairly frequently, very few Canadian sample models are known to exist.

Stephenson was a master at his craft, clearly ahead of his time and his U.S. competitors, according to Mr. Young. As early as the mid-1870s – almost 20 years before his American counterparts – Stephenson was experimenting with canvas, textile and bark veneer coverings, in an effort to address the canoe’s Achilles’ heel – leakage – and to prepare them for commercial production.  

“This model can therefore be looked upon as an example of Stephenson’s truly inventive, innovative mind at work,” says Mr. Young.

There is undoubtedly an element of magic associated with canoes. Part of it relates to the critical role they played in Canadian and even North American history, being the first and primary method of transportation on waterways.

The late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canada’s 15th prime minister and father of the country’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was a deep devotee of the canoe. He once wrote, “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois, paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”

The history, the magic and the allure of the canoe are all embodied in this extraordinary ‘sample model’ by the famous John S. Stephenson.

Author - Diane Sewell

Item Estimate: $9000 - 12,000

Lot Number: 358

Auction Details: Canadiana & Historic Objects - February 9, 2019. 10 am.

Live Auction Location: 59 Webster St. New Hamburg, Ontario. N3A 1W8

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