Shaping Toronto: Reusing an Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 30, 2015.

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Crowd gathered at the opening ceremony of (Old) City Hall, 1899. Photo by Galbraith & Lewis. Toronto Public Library.

From Old City Hall to mall?” To some web denizens interested in heritage and urban affairs, headlines along those lines have likely induced fits of anger lately. On the surface, you’d suspect the denigration of a National Historic Site was upon us.

Take a moment to breathe.

The suggestion in the city staff report to the Government Management Committee to convert Old City Hall into a retail centre as a future source of rental income is tempered by other recommendations to replace the provincial and municipal courts when they vacate the premises. Based on analysis from real estate brokerage Avison Young, stores could be part of a multi-use facility incorporating food, event, and civic uses. Such a fate is not unusual for other cities across North America dealing with historic city halls, or even our past municipal battlegrounds.

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City Hall on Front Street, 1895. Picture by Frank William Micklethwaite. Toronto Public Library.

When the city’s second city hall opened at the southwest corner of Front and Jarvis in 1845, it was intended as a mixed-use complex to ease overcrowded, unsanitary conditions across the street at St. Lawrence Market. While Henry Bowyer Lane’s design included a clock tower that visitors recognized as they sailed into the harbour, it lacked the imagination of its successors. Architectural historian William Dendy assessed it as competent, but hamstrung by “providing for too many functions with too small a budget.” The building was outfitted with more retail space than planned, as City Council desired more rental income.

Their greed may have been hasty. Merchants felt their shops were too small. Structural faults emerged as the building settled into the ground. Lane soon left town, leading a contemporary observer to reflect that it was “a very strange building and it was unfortunate for the reputation of the architect that he had not left the province before he completed the building instead of afterward.” The city stepped in to improve the building’s structural integrity.

By the end of the 19th century, the site was too tiny to meet the needs of a growing municipal bureaucracy, and too old-fashioned to meet contemporary ideas about grand civic architecture. The city decided to integrate it into an enlarged south St. Lawrence Market. While its wings were demolished, the centre was encased within the new façade. After decades of disuse, the old council chamber was reborn during the 1970s as the Market Gallery.

Replacement proposals during the 1870s and 1880s faced Toronto’s deathly fear of spending one cent too many. When the city purchased the site that would become Old City Hall in 1884, it was intended as York County’s new courthouse. But a committee viewing of Buffalo’s combined courthouse/city hall prompted a public referendum to borrow $200,000 to build a similar duo here. Opponents such as the Board of Trade and the Globe raised the spectre of spiralling costs due to potential political corruption and argued that a new trunk sewer was more pressing. The vote failed. Years of wrangling ensued until the cornerstone for E.J. Lennox’s design was laid in 1891.

When it opened in 1899, Old City Hall joined a wave of Richardson Romanesque landmarks emerging within the city’s landscape. These included the parliamentary buildings at Queen’s Park, the Confederation Life Building at Yonge and Richmond, and Victoria College. It was also well-placed near the city’s early skyscrapers, such as the Temple Building a block south. “Its clock tower soaring above the vista from the lake,” historian J.M.S. Careless observed in his book Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History, “this edifice was a testament in lavishly worked buff sandstone to the metropolitan dignity of the High Victorian city.”

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Before Eaton’s revealed models of its proposed Eaton Centre, local cartoonist drew their own visions based on early descriptions. Here’s Andy Donato’s from the September 10, 1965 edition of the Telegram.

Such dignity was less appreciated by the early 1960s. Once the current City Hall was approved, the future looked gloomy for its predecessor. In October 1965 a delegation from Eaton’s department store proposed to buy the building for $8 million from Metro Toronto, who had purchased it from the city four years earlier. Eaton’s, encouraged by city planners, intended to transform the mega-block of Bay, Dundas, Yonge, and Queen into the Eaton Centre a complex of office towers, a hotel, shopping mall, and new flagship store. Officials on the project claimed that Old City Hall was “an insuperable barrier” which, no matter how much they tried, was a square peg in the plan. Their solution was to demolish all but the clock tower, as well as getting rid of nearby Church of the Holy Trinity because of the march of progress.

While many politicians were dazzled by the plans—Swansea Reeve Lucien Kurata said it was “so gorgeous, it’s almost sexy”—public outcry arose. When revised plans called for the full demolition of Old City Hall to make room for the podium of the closest office tower, questions were raised. A lobby group, Friends of Old City Hall, formed, performing actions such as cleaning off a portion of soot to show the beauty of the original walls. Eaton’s suddenly cancelled the project in May 1967, blaming unreasonable municipal demands. John David Eaton, head of the retail empire, bitterly remarked to an associate “let’s walk across the street and tell [Mayor William] Dennison he can shove the Old City Hall up his ass.” The irony is that the building Eaton wanted to vanquish outlived his department store.

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Old City Hall, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 651, Item 18.

While our former City Hall carried on as a courthouse, other cities across North America found mixed uses for their former municipal sites, or are struggling with solutions. Boston’s 1865 Old City Hall houses tenants ranging from heritage agencies to law firms to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. In Indianapolis, the old building housed the state historical museum for four decades, then served as a temporary home for the city’s central library. Vacant since 2007, the city recently entered a lease agreement with boutique hotel operator 21c Museum Hotels to restore the building as arts-related spaces and a museum, and provide a physical link to a new hotel being built in the neighbouring vacant parking lot.

Like Toronto, Tacoma, Washington nearly lost its Victorian-era city hall to demolition in the early 1970s. A remodelling with space for businesses and restaurants fell prey to the real estate market collapse. Falling into the disrepair, Tacoma bought the building from a private owner for $4 million earlier this yearafter a failure to meet repair deadlines. This week, the city is showing it off to potential investors, hoping to attract office use or a hotel.

Being a National Historic Site, it’d be a difficult, protracted process to radically overhaul the building, so anyone fearing a mini-Eaton Centre can probably relax. If such plans went ahead, public outcry would alter them (though the cleaning the soot stunt might not work a second time). What is required is a strong vision which, fingers crossed, can survive the inevitable petty political wrangling. Ideally, the building would house a long-needed city museum or other historical exhibition spaces accessible to the public. Retail tenants could integrate nods to our past a la the current occupants of Maple Leaf Gardens, and include businesses offering Toronto made or inspired products. The city report hints at possible trendy office uses such as a business or technology incubator. Given its long service to the city, whatever goes in the building should celebrate Toronto while continuing to respect Lennox’s enduring design as much as possible. It’s a site with plenty of potential that would be foolish to waste.

Additional material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993); The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999); and Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008).

BEHIND THE SCENES

Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.”

Shaping Toronto was my last ongoing series for Torontoist. It was proposed by new EIC David Hains as a means of looking into the mechanics of Toronto history, how our present landscape was shaped, and what examples could we draw on from elsewhere.

While envisioned as being less labour-intensive than Historicist, my work habits prevented that. Ultimately, the series diverted too much time from better-paying gigs, and, likely in a state of burnout, I pulled the plug in March 2016. In retrospect, ending Shaping Toronto began my gradual withdrawal from the site, a process which took a year to complete.

It’s still a great concept, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to doing something similar either on this site or elsewhere (send your pitches now!).

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Vintage Toronto Ads: The Toronto Bicycle Club Races, 1895

Originally published on Torontoist on June 3, 2015.

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The Globe, June 3, 1895.

In a two-page feature spotlighting the Toronto Bicycle Club in October 1892, the Globe expressed pleasure in the growth of cycling as a leisurely pursuit:

As a form of healthy and manly recreation no sport can surpass that of wheeling. If the rider desires to be alone that he may commune with his own thoughts he may be so, but the social side of cycling had strong attractions, a fact which is demonstrated by the existence of organizations of bicyclists whose bond of union is the wheel, and around which they cluster for the promotion of good fellowship and the cultivation of the social amenities. It is a form of recreation that does not preclude the enjoyment of ladies’ society, and sensible young women, who possess sufficient spirit to throw off the enthralling claims of conventionality, are beginning to appreciate the aid to health and pleasure that the bicycle affords. In increasing numbers they are betaking themselves to a mode of recreation that their mothers were ignorant of.

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“Half mile handicap at T.B.C. meet.” The Globe, October 22, 1892.

The paper also praised cycling’s health and competitive benefits:

With the development of the bicycle and its adaptability to speedy locomotion there has been a corresponding development of athleticism among the numberless votaries of the sport, and many young men with a distaste for too violent a form of exercise have adopted the wheel as a means of recreation and of physical training. It is an exercise that contributes to a healthy body and mind, and in this way cannot fail to have a beneficial effect upon society. One of the most popular pastimes of the day is bicycle racing, and, with the improvement of the machines, and the careful and systematic training of the wheelsmen, records hitherto considered impregnable have been ruthlessly smashed to pieces.

By the time this article appeared, the Toronto Bicycle Club (TBC) was among the most prominent of the half-dozen organizations in the city dedicated to bicycle rides and racing. Formed by 10 cyclists in April 1881, the TBC held its first major meet later that year on the Exhibition grounds, beginning an annual tradition of drawing top cyclists from across the continent to participate in races of varying lengths. Regular events included evening rides on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a longer ride on Saturdays, during a season which lasted from May through October. The TBC moved into a spacious club house at 346 Jarvis Street in the spring of 1891, around the same time that its ladies’ section held their first major race.

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Mail and Empire, June 3, 1895.

The TBC’s major meet in 1895 marked a shift for the club. Instead of being held over the August civic holiday weekend, it was moved to June 1. Organizers expected a good turnout to see the races, which were held on a high-quality track in Rosedale made from brick dust, cinder, and clay. Despite a strong west wind, oppressive heat reduced attendance, which was estimated between 1,200 and 2,000 spectators. “There were several punctures of tires, and one or two consequent spills,” the Mail and Empire reported, “but no accidents of a serious nature marred the splendid sport.” There was even musical accompaniment, thanks to the Queen’s Own Rifles band.

Many eyes were glued to several competitors from California. C.R. Coulter was expected to break records, but the combination of a long trip from suburban Boston and the weather did him in. After participating in preliminary heats for the mile race, he claimed he was too sick to participate in the final. His substitute was San Jose cyclist Otto Zeigler. “A mere boy in appearance,” the Globe observed, “but in regard to muscular development a miniature Titan, he was loudly cheered when he made his appearance.” Zeigler set a new Canadian competition record, finishing his mile in two minutes and four seconds.

“In many respects the Torontos had reason to pat themselves on the back,” the Globe concluded, particularly “the excellent way in which the races were conducted and the strict adherence that the officials kept to the laws laid down for their guidance as regards to the time allowed riders to prepare for their races.”

Additional material from The Ride of Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 by Glen Norcliffe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); the October 22, 1892 and June 3, 1895 editions of the Globe; and the June 3, 1895 edition of the Mail and Empire.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Living Rooster Orchestra of the 1890s

Originally published on Torontoist on March 18, 2015.

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Toronto World, February 12, 1891.

When it opened in 1890, Robinson’s Musee Theatre declared itself the “leading family theatre in the city” and “Canada’s great, best, and only amusement enterprise.” Beyond the hyperbole, the Yonge Street venue took a formula popularized by Barnum’s American Museum in New York City decades earlier: part theatre, part zoo, part freak show, and part exploiter of indigenous cultures.

Take the lineup advertised in December 1890. You can hear the carnival barker’s voice at work, promising all sorts of exotic sights to lure in the rubes…er…proper Torontonians:

Barney Baldwin, the only man living with a broken neck; the scientists and physicians puzzled. Gurnam Rose, the Midget Queen. Prairie Dog Village. A Whole Troup of Japanese Wonder Workers. [Reginald] Birchall, as he appeared before and after the execution. Clad in the original suit of clothes as at the time of the murder. The wax figures are true, life-like reproductions, and made from plaster casts exclusively for Mr. Robinson. The Aztec Mummies, relics of an ancient race 3,000 years old. Hungarian Gypsy Band. 10 Masterly Musicians. 10. Prof. Singleton’s Marionettes and Punch and Judy Show. Wax Groups. Mechanical Devices. 1,000 of other Curiosities. 1,000. In the Theatre—FRANK HALL’S ALL-STAR SPECIALTY and COMEDY CO. New attractions every week.

We’re not sure what the “prairie dog village” entailed, but it’s likely animal lovers and protection officials would frown upon the routines today. There were a lot of dubious animal acts at the Musee under its various ownerships, including boxing cats and the rooster orchestra.

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Pittsburgh Press, January 18, 1891.

The musical roosters visited Toronto throughout 1891. They played engagements at the Musee in February and June, then appeared alongside duelling cats and trained seals at the Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner of the CNE) that September. Ads and press releases in Toronto newspapers revealed little about the roosters, other than that, as the Globe observed, they were “gazed upon with astonishment by all who visit the Musee.” An ad from an earlier stop in Pittsburgh tells more: they were dressed in evening wear, played stringed instruments, and were “worth” $75,000.

What was the ideal human pairing on a bill with a rooster orchestra? During their June engagement, the lecture hall displayed “The Lucassairs,” an albino father-and-son duo described as “an odd-looking family from the far-off islands of the Indian Ocean.”

Eventually some locales tired of roosters forced to play music. In 1921, the Star reported that showman John C. Essex was fined for presenting “The Great Sousa Rooster Orchestra” in Blackpool, England. Essex’s act included a bird named “Sandy McPherson” who was forced to do a Highland fling. When Essex tried to force the reluctant bird to perform in court, neither judge nor the magistrates on hand wanted to witness further cruelty.

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The Mail, June 6, 1891.

Robinson’s Musee operated under various names during the 1890s, but it was under that moniker that it offered Toronto’s first public display of motion pictures in 1896. No roosters attended.

Additional material from the June 11, 1891 and September 9, 1891 editions of theGlobe; the December 2, 1890 edition of the Mail; the January 18, 1891 edition of the Pittsburgh Press; and the July 2, 1921 edition of the Toronto Star.

Whacking Whitney While Keeping Drew Out

Originally published on Torontoist on October 5, 2011 with additional material mixed in.

Besides lawn signs and public meetings, newspaper advertisements have long been a preferred method for Ontario politicians to spread their message to the public. Whether it’s a simple promise to provide “good government” or a full platform requiring a magnifying glass to read, the press has offered a forum for candidates to make their case to voters as long as they paid for the ad. Today’s gallery shows the evolution of Ontario election ads from short notices in partisan papers to spots where the reproduction quality barely hides the lines of a candidate’s toupee (sorry Mel).

1886

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Richmond Hill Liberal, December 23, 1886.

Back in the 19th century, a candidate generally placed ads in publications slanted toward their political party. Such was the case with G.B. Smith, a Liberal endorsed by the Richmond Hill Liberal. It wouldn’t be a great shock to discover that the paper’s December 23, 1886 editorial portrayed him as “man whose every utterance is straight-forward and fair, for a man whose conduct is open and fearless, for a man whose character and abilities should commend themselves to all.” Voters in York East agreed—Smith represented the riding until 1894.

Results December 28, 1886:
Liberal (Oliver Mowat): 57 seats
Conservative (William Ralph Meredith): 32 seats
Other: 1 seat

1898

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Short , sweet, to the point. The voters fulfilled the Globe’s vow, as the Liberals won their eighth consecutive term in office and their first without longtime premier Oliver Mowat at the helm. Conservative leader James Pliny Whitney was whacked again in the 1902 election, then finally won the premiership in 1905.

Results March 1, 1898:
Liberal (Arthur Hardy): 51 seats
Conservative (James Pliny Whitney): 42 seats
Other: 1 seat

1905

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News, January 24, 1905.

Liberal candidate Hugh Blain claimed nasty things were afoot in North Toronto as the campaign drew to a close. A poster entitled “Will Hugh Blain Deny” that alleged the candidate took advantage of government subsidies for beet sugar was circulated by Conservative supporters of incumbent MPP Dr. Beattie Nesbitt. Attacks on the Grits were common during an election that saw the end of 34 years of Liberal government. Nesbitt won, but he resigned his seat a year later to accept an appointment as registrar of West Toronto.

Results January 25, 1905:
Conservative (James Pliny Whitney): 69 seats
Liberal (George William Ross): 28 seats
Other: 1 seat

1919

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The Globe, October 18, 1919.

The first postwar election was accompanied by a referendum on the prohibition of alcohol, which the province had enacted three years earlier. There were four questions regarding varying degrees of repeal, from dumping the Ontario Temperance Act altogether, to allowing beer to be sold through the government. Voting on each question ranged from 60 to 67 percent against bringing legal booze back.

Results October 20, 1919:
United Farmers of Ontario (no official leader): 44 seats
Liberal: (Hartley Dewart): 27 seats
Conservative (William Hearst): 25 seats
Labour (Walter Rollo): 11 seats
Other: 4 seats

1923

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Toronto Star, June 23, 1923.

Voters didn’t heed Groves’s ad, as she finished second in Toronto Northwest, with 20.9% of the ballots. Her candidacy was attacked by the Telegram for ‘grossly violating” laws which prohibited political activity in schools. Brock Avenue School principal D.W. Armstrong posted a note on a bulletin board urging staff to support Groves, who ran for the Progressive Party. Armstrong accepted all responsibility. “Mrs. Groves did not speak to me about it and in no way have I heard from her in connection with the campaign,” he told the Star. “If it was an error it was mine and I must take the consequences.” Groves she had not campaigned in any schools, but was aware of support from teachers.

Results June 25, 1923:
Conservative (Howard Ferguson): 75 seats
United Farmers of Ontario/Labour (E.C. Drury): 21 seats
Liberal (Wellington Hay): 14 seats
Other: 1 seat

1926

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Toronto Star, November 30, 1926.

Alcohol was the key issue of the 1926 campaign. Premier Howard Ferguson ‘s Conservatives proposed repealing the act to allow government sales, which led to ads like this one. Killjoy drys were overruled in this election: Ferguson won a majority and introduced the Liquor License Act in March 1927, which led to the birth of the LCBO.

Results December 1, 1926:
Conservative (Howard Ferguson): 72 seats
Liberal (W.E.N. Sinclair): 15 seats
Other: 12 seats
Progressive (William Raney): 10 seats
United Farmers of Ontario (Leslie Oke): 3 seats

1934

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The Enterprise, June 13, 1934.

Proof scare tactics can backfire on a party: Premier George Stewart Henry (whose name lives on in the North York neighbourhood named after his farm) saw his party’s fortunes collapse as the Conservatives dropped from 90 to 17 seats against the populist appeal of Mitch Hepburn’s Liberals.

Results June 19, 1934:
Liberal (Mitch Hepburn): 65 seats
Conservative (George Stewart Henry) 17 seats
Liberal-Progressive (Harry Nixon): 4 seats
Other: 4 seats

1943

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Globe and Mail, August 4, 1943.

Governor-generals have to start somewhere. Though unsuccessful in his 1943 campaign against future Toronto Mayor William Dennison, Roland Michener was elected to Queen’s Park two years later.

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Toronto Star, August 3, 1943. 

Following its opposition to Canada’s entry into World War II, the Communist Party of Canada was officially banned in 1940. Despite this, candidates continued to run in federal and provincial elections. In Toronto, A.A. MacLeod (Bellwoods) and J.B. Salsberg (St. Andrew), who advertised themselves as “Labour” candidates, won their ridings. Shortly after the election, they agreed to sit as MPPs for the Communists’ new legal entity, the Labour-Progressive Party.

Results August 4, 1943:
Progressive Conservative (George Drew): 38 seats
CCF (Ted Jolliffe): 34 seats
Liberal (Harry Nixon): 15 seats
Labour-Progressive (no leader): 2 seats
Other: 1 seat

1945

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Toronto Star, June 2, 1945.

Building on the success of MacLeod and Salsberg in the 1943 election, the Labour-Progressive Party ran 31 candidates across the province, some of whom were allied with Mitch Hepburn’s Liberals. They failed to keep Drew out, as the Conservatives returned with a majority government. Part of the Tories’ success may have been due to a radio speech given by CCF leader Ted Jollife which accused Drew of establishing a “Gestapo” within the Ontario Provincial Police to keep watch on the opposition. The speech backfired on Jolliffe, though evidence was found years later to support his claims of government spying.

Results June 4, 1945:
Progressive Conservative (George Drew): 66 seats
Liberal (Mitch Hepburn): 14 seats
CCF (Ted Jolliffe): 8 seats
LPP (Leslie Morris): 2 seats

1948

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Toronto Star, June 5, 1948.

However, Drew lost his own seat to CCF candidate/temperance zealot Bill Temple in High Park. He quickly went into federal politics and won the federal Tory leadership. Peel MPP Thomas Kennedy served as interim premier until Leslie Frost became party leader the following spring.

Other notable candidates featured in this ad include CCF leader Ted Jollifee (running in a seat that another CCF/NDP party leader, Bob Rae, would hold), Agnes Macphail (Canada’s first female MP and one of Ontario’s first pair of female MPPs), Reid Scott (at 21, then the youngest MPP in Ontario history), and William Dennison (future mayor of Toronto).

Results June 7, 1948:
Progressive Conservative (George Drew): 53 seats
Liberal (Farquhar Oliver): 14 seats
CCF (Ted Jolliffe): 21 seats
LPP (no leader): 2 seats

1951

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Weston Times and Guide, November 8, 1951.

The province didn’t feel the same chill: Premier Leslie Frost’s Progressive Conservatives won all but 11 of the 90 seats at Queen’s Park.

Results November 22, 1951:
Progressive Conservative (Leslie Frost): 79 seats
Liberal (Walter Thomson): 8 seats
CCF (Ted Jolliffe): 2 seats
LPP (Stewart Smith): 1 seat

1963

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Don Mills Mirror, September 18, 1963.

Yes, the colour of margarine was once considered a major election issue, though butter-hued oil spread was not 100% legal in Ontario until 1995. The ’63 campaign was the first for John Robarts after succeeding Leslie Frost. Note the promises related to the Toronto area—Robarts flipped the switch when the Bloor-Danforth line opened three years later.

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Don Mills Mirror, August 14, 1963.

While Jim Service was unsuccessful in his run for the provincial legislature, he would serve North York as reeve and mayor from 1965 to 1969.

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Don Mills Mirror, September 18, 1963.

1963 was the first provincial election for the NDP, having changed its name from the CCF two years earlier. Party leader Donald MacDonald stayed through the transition, remaining in charge until 1970.

Results September 25, 1963:
Progressive Conservative (John Robarts): 77 seats
Liberal (John Wintermeyer): 24 seats
NDP (Donald MacDonald): 7 seats

1967

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Globe and Mail, October 16, 1967.

At least two of the “action politicians” were or would be easily recognized by the public. Stephen Lewis would win a second term in Scarborough West. Three years later, he became party leader. Over in High Park, Dr. Morton Shulman ran after he was fired from his role as Ontario’s chief coroner earlier in the year for embarrassing the government over inadequate fire protection in a new hospital. Shulman’s crusading medical career had also inspired a popular CBC drama, Wojeck.

Results October 17, 1967:
Progressive Conservative (John Robarts): 69 seats
Liberal (Robert Nixon): 28 seats
NDP (Donald MacDonald): 20 seats

1971

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Don Mills Mirror, October 6, 1971.

The Progressive Conservatives earned their ninth consecutive mandate under new leader William Davis, whose team. All of the candidates pictured in this ad, except for Deane (who lost to veteran Liberal Vern Singer) joined Davis at Queen’s Park. Timbrell ran for the party leadership twice in 1985, losing to Frank Miller in January and Larry Grossman in November.

Results October 21, 1971:
Progressive Conservative (William Davis): 78 seats
Liberal (Robert Nixon): 20 seats
NDP (Stephen Lewis): 19 seats

1975

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Toronto Star, September 16, 1975.

Who’s a better provincial candidate than Mel Lastman? EVVVERYBODY! Well, actually former Toronto mayor Philip Givens, who won Armourdale for the Liberals in election that produced Ontario’s first minority government since 1943.

Results September 18, 1975:
Progressive Conservative (William Davis): 51 seats
NDP (Stephen Lewis): 38 seats
Liberal (Robert Nixon): 36 seats

Vintage Toronto Ads: Come See the Cat Circus!

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2012.

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The News, January 27, 1894.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE! Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Today, we have for you the most incredible, the most astonishing, the most breathtaking, and the most amusing sight you have seen all day! Moore’s Musee, in association with Torontoist, is proud to present the world’s greatest novelty sensation of 1894! On today’s bill of 12, count ‘em, 12 sterling speciality stars, you won’t believe your eyes when you set them on Professor Harry Welton’s collection of charismatic, pugilistic, death-defying felines!

May we present to you…Professor Welton’s Cat Circus!

While boxing cats, complete with miniature gloves, was the star attraction of the cat circus, it also offered felines trained to perform somersaults, ride bicycles, and walk through burning rings of fire. None of these talents would likely earn the approval of animal cruelty prevention agencies today.

Within months of its appearance on the stage of Yonge Street’s finest novelty-act theatre, Harry Welton’s cat circus took its act to the world’s first movie studio, Thomas Edison’s “Black Maria” in West Orange, New Jersey. In July 1894, W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise shot a short film of the boxing portion of Welton’s show, which was touring vaudeville theatres in the New York City area that summer. The result, Boxing Cats, was only one of a number of animal-centric films the Edison Company turned out for its Kinetoscope machines. Compared to the cockfights that the studio also filmed, a pair of boxing cats was far less violent. If title cards had been used, the film would have been the 19th century equivalent of lolcats.

Welton was one of the first people to benefit from the new medium, as his live bookings increased after the release of Boxing Cats. We’re sure people were endlessly amused.

 

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 8

The Dapper Debt Collector

Originally published on Torontoist on December 27, 2011.

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The Toronto City Directory for 1890 (Toronto: R.L. Polk & Co., 1890).

Despite dressing him up in glistening brass buttons and a dapper waxed moustache, we doubt that these stylish touches increased the popularity of the friendly neighbourhood debt collector. We also doubt that pinning a “Collector of Bad Debts” badge persuaded delinquent accounts to settle up, unless the sight of such adornments struck shame in the hearts of 1890s debtors.

The “music in the air” ranged from the sweet sounds of songbird Madame Gruntly outlining, via a jaunty tune, the continued residency of the debtor in her rooming house, to the chin music that accompanied the debtor’s bouncing of the collector. A debtor unmoved by those tunes waited until the collector’s larger, hulking brute of a colleague came to the door to deliver a performance full of operatic fury.

He’ll Huff, and He’ll Puff

Originally published on Torontoist on March 6, 2012.

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Maclean’s, February 2, 1987.

Like many classic fairy tales, the saga of the Three Little Pigs has been interpreted in numerous ways. There’s the Walt Disney version, which popularized the question “who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” In the Looney Tunes universe, the pigs were a cool jazz trio pestered by a wolf from Squaresville. Last week, the Guardian newspaper provided a modern media spin on the tale.

Amid those visions comes today’s ad, brought to you to by the Ontario Concrete Block Association. In this version, the Big Bad Wolf appears well acquainted with the fine arts of arson and home invasion. Sure, the pigs are feeling secure in their solidly-built concrete domicile, but let’s hope that glass is shatter resistant.

Twistercise with Toshiba

Originally published on Torontoist on May 29, 2012.

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Time, September 24, 1984.

In an era of popular workout programs from the likes of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and Miss Piggy, it was inevitable that the business world would cash in. To encourage sales of their copiers, Toshiba launched “Twistercise” in 1984. The idea was simple: for the few moments the typical office worker left their desk to use the copier, they could give their upper torso a brief but effective workout. With the legs positioned as shown in today’s ad, the twisterciser would stand with the original document then twist down to place it in the copier. Hovering over the machine, the twisterciser would glance at the copier until the duplicate was made then twist away from the machine. After holding the position for 30 seconds, they would return to their original stance. How often the motion was repeated depended on the number of copies—to be a truly effective workout, the copier was programmed to only print one sheet at a time, with 55-second intervals between pages.

While Twistercise was effective with modern copiers, offices that attempted to adopt the program to aging equipment experienced mixed results. Medical officials did not recommend the exercise for anyone using a ditto machine because of prolonged exposure to duplicating fluid.

Get Rid of Dandruff Overnight? HA! HA! HA!

Originally published on Torontoist on June 26, 2012.

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Canadian Home Journal, August 1950.

The good doctor couldn’t help but scoff. Day after day for 15 years he had holed up in his home laboratory on a quest to discover a speedy solution for dandruff sufferers. He knew that Listerine had made many claims about its wonder powers over the years, from masking body odour to killing mouth germs. To him, the antiseptic liquid’s advertisements were little more than 19th-century medicine-show hyperbole. Friends who saw its possibilities as a dandruff home remedydisagreed, but they also thought he’d spent too many hours hunched over the microscope.

In the end, our incredulous doctor was approached by Procter and Gamble to work on a top-secret dandruff-shampoo project that promised to be head and shoulders above any other product on the market.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Top-Rung Advertising

Originally published on Torontoist on February 28, 2012.

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The Toronto Daily Mail, March 1, 1892.

Newspapers have always wanted to sit atop the wall of public opinion. While we don’t think the children trying to climb the ladder represent any particular rival papers, we imagine that the two brats at fisticuffs by the “good work” rung could easily be the Mail’s nineteenth-century rivals, the Globe and the Telegram. The kid sprawled on the ground could be the Empire, which was established when the Conservative Party found the Mail no longer willing to toe its party line without question.

The Mail‘s editorial page on the day this ad appeared (March 1, 1892) shows no evidence of opinions that would have swayed public thought. The Mail’s push to sell eggs by weight, due to the inability of hens to lay uniformly-sized eggs, was obviously not successful, since we still buy them by the dozen. The editors’ energy was also devoted to pitching the value of the Mail as an impartial observer of the new session of Parliament (even if, despite the break with the ruling Tories, the paper tended to lean in their political direction). As the editors put it:

The Parliament of the Dominion is now in session. The proceedings during the next few months will no doubt be of unusual interest, not only by reason of the importance of the measures promised and the discussions thereon, but because exhaustive enquiries will be instituted regarding boodling [whose root, boodle, is defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as “money, esp. when gained or used dishonestly, e.g. as a bribe.”] operations in various places. The Mail has made liberal and extensive arrangements for reports of the House and Committee proceedings, which will be prepared by an able staff of reporters and correspondents, whose instructions are to tell the whole truth, regardless of the interest of either political party. People who desire the truth must therefore read the Mail, and they will acquire such an accurate knowledge of the political situation as will enable them intelligently to consider and discuss all the important questions of State. Every patriotic Canadian should subscribe for Canada’s great independent paper.

We imagine a follow-up ad would have depicted new subscribers sitting on the wall alongside the flag-bearing boy, with the objective reporting of the Mail providing the balance required to prevent them from tumbling off like Humpty Dumpty.