Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 8

The Dapper Debt Collector

Originally published on Torontoist on December 27, 2011.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“There Are Opium Dens in Toronto”

Originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011.


The Empire, June 30, 1892.

When Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) mused in Monday’s  Sun about the possibility of opium dens lurking within some Toronto massage parlours, we couldn’t help but conjure up pulpy images of seedy locales dripping with racist Yellow Peril stereotypes. Which got us thinking: did Toronto have a problem with opium dens back when Asians were always quoted in pidgin English and readers devoured tales of drug lords like Dr. Fu Manchu?

As a late-19th century newspaper expose succinctly put it: “There are opium dens in Toronto.”

Over the course of three days in the early summer of 1892, the Empire titillated readers with the account of a fearless reporter’s journey into the underworld of Toronto’s opium dens. Guided by a reformed “opium fiend” from Chicago, the uncredited journalist promised to astound the public “with a surprise approaching incredulity.” In the neighbourhoods where dens were located, police and residents claimed ignorance of their existence: “Some went as far as to pooh-pooh the very idea that they could exist in moral Toronto without the fact becoming known to the morality department at least.” While partaking of opium was once so socially accepted that raw materials were advertised in the Globe, by the 1890s it was seen as a shameful activity presided over by Chinese immigrants.

The media often laid the blame for the dens solely on their operators and usually glossed over the culpability of their white patrons.

In order to access the dens, the reporter had his guide bring a letter of reference written in Chinese from a den owner in Chicago. They were denied entry to dens located at 18 Queen Street East and 42 Jarvis Street (which the duo blamed on their healthy appearances), but they succeeded when they reached the premises of Sam Lee at 321 Parliament Street:

The exterior of the shop is very unpretentious indeed, and its interior is no better. The front window is closed up with shutters, and the place has the appearance of being kept by a man whose interest in life is gone. As the ex-smoker entered the shop the old man at the ironing board sighed, and again bent down to his work on the bosom of a shirt. The letter was shoved over to him, and he stopped ironing long enough to read it. After perusing its long columns he folded it up, raised a face wasted by 40 years of opium smoking. Wearily he shook his head.

“Me no smokee,” was his answer, in a husky voice.

The guide and the old man questioned each other for several minutes before access was granted to a narrow, musty stall in the corner of the store. The partitioned-off area contained a bed, pillows, and all of the equipment required to enjoy opium. A lengthy description of how to smoke the drug followed. Among the other users they encountered, at least one was deathly afraid that their Sunday school teacher would find them patronizing a den.

As the pair visited other dens, word spread around the proprietors and they were soon denied access. The reporter concluded that despite the suspicion he encountered, and their own occasional opium-taking, the Chinese community in Toronto were “a much superior class to those who are found in American cities. But for their extreme suspiciousness they would probably be a hospitable lot of men, quite as anxious to do a suffering ‘fiend’ a kindness as to take the few cents charged for the favour.” His final thought was that “no good would follow the extension of the horrible fetish of whose dominion only a glimpse has been given.”

News of the exposé spread as far as Saint John, New Brunswick, where the front page of the Daily Sun proclaimed that “now that the dens have been pointed out, it is quite likely a police crusade will be in order.” It wasn’t just yet; as a police officer admitted to the Empire, there weren’t any laws prohibiting the use of opium or den keeping, which left the force powerless.


A squalid scene next door to an opium den. Slum interior, 152 York Street, January 20, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 1.

The legal situation changed in 1908, when federal Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King drafted the Opium Act, which criminalized trafficking and possession for sale. The law seemed squarely aimed at the Chinese community, especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, as other provisions of the act allowed respectable pharmacists to continue selling opiates with no problem. The first charges in Toronto under the new act were laid in July 1909, when Lee Chung Lung of 154 York Street and Tie You of 169 Richmond Street West were fined $100 each for operating opium dens on their premises. Police Magistrate Rupert Kingsford warned that the two men were being let off lightly, as future offenders would be jailed. Ten found-ins were also brought to court, but their charges were dropped as “the keeper is most to blame, getting those poor wretches into his place to smoke that stuff.”

Over the next two decades, the Chinese community complained of receiving harsh treatment from the police whenever people were found in opium or gambling dens. Charges were often reduced or dropped by judicial officials with paternalistic streaks toward the Chinese. Stories about opium gradually faded from the news, and seem so far in the past now that even if Councillor Mammoliti’s current claims are true, the nature of the issue makes his concerns fit neatly with his penchant for bizarre actions in the name of the public good—can we expect to see him park outside a suspicious parlour with video camera in hand?

Additional material from Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’ Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961 by Clayton James Mosher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and the following newspapers: the June 30, 1892, and July 2, 1892, editions of the Empire; the July 1, 1892, edition of the St. John Daily Sun; and the July 28, 1909, edition of the Toronto Star.


The complete Empire series on opium dens. Because of the size of the files, you’ll find them via these links:

June 30, 1892 front page.

June 30, 1892 page two.

July 1, 1892 front page.

July 1, 1892 page two.

July 2, 1892 conclusion of series.


The Black Bull of Yore

Originally published on Torontoist on April 23, 2011. Additional images have been included.


Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894).

Patio denizens and motorcycle enthusiasts may be relieved to hear news reports that fire damage at the venerable Black Bull was largely confined to the upper apartments and that the bar will reopen today. Had the three-alarm fire spread, Toronto would have lost what is debatably its oldest watering hole: drinks and hospitality were first served at the Black Bull in, depending on the source, 1833 (a year before York became Toronto) or 1838 (a year after William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion).

Based on a portrait of the bar in Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, even in its early days the Black Bull attracted a parking lot full of hogs…of the animal variety.

York was a hospitable place in the old days, for the places of entertainment in every section of town were very much more numerous, when compared to the population, than they are now. Up to a recent period, when it was succeeded by a brick building, bearing the same name, however there stood at the north-east corner of Queen and Soho streets the antique-looking inn, shown in the illustration, with a swinging sign and wooden water trough and pump in front. This was the Black Bull Hotel, a favourite stopping place for farmers on their way to town from the west and north-west.


The Globe, July 14, 1858.

The property was originally purchased by Peter Russell, for whom nearby Peter Street was named, in 1798 and was initially used for farming. Other illustrious families whose names remain on downtown streets (Baldwin, Willcocks) were owners of the property at Soho and Queen West over the first half of the 19th century. According to Robertson, the first landlord of the Black Bull Hotel was a Mr. Mosson. Between 1886 and 1889, the building was bricked and expanded.

Being a bar, it’s inevitable the Black Bull would eventually land in the police blotter. In a court case reported in the December 7, 1895 edition of the Globe, proprietor Richard Allcock and bartender Charles Bates were sued by carriage builder William Potter for $200. The plaintiff went to the Black Bull for a drink with a friend that September, but “while there a number of others congregated and had a drink at his expense.” When Bates demanded payment, Potter refused and a fight ensued. As Bates threw Potter out of the bar, the bartender struck Potter with such force that he lay unconscious for a week and was bedridden for a further five. The defendants denied the charges.

According to a 1903 classified ad, the Black Bull offered anyone looking for a place to stay a “large comfortable room, en suite or otherwise, for rent, with or without board.” That the ad didn’t use “quiet” as an adjective may have been due to incidents such as one that occurred on March 10, 1904. Four rowdy young men caused a ruckus in their room that night, during which they ignored the bartender’s attempt to quiet them down. When proprietor William Seager went up to the room, the men pounced and broke his leg. Two months later, when the incident went to court, Seager hobbled his way to the stand on crutches. His attackers received sentences ranging from 60 days to six months.

Corner of Soho St. and Queen St., looking north-east

Clifton House, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 48, Item 26.

For much of the 20th century, the premises operated as the Clifton House, a name it shared with an east end home for boys where beer was the only drink available in its beverage room. Articles published after the name reverted back to the Black Bull in 1977 indicated that it was “pretty rough” during its Clifton days. All we were able to ascertain about the Clifton was that it was among the 68 venues licensed to sell beer in Toronto in 1934. By the early 1980s, when the bar was owned by retired football players Bobby Taylor and Jimmy Hughes, the Star reported that “the only reminder of its past are the colourful residents who patronize the pub, along with Ontario College of Art students and a full range of athletic types.”

Additional material from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto by John Ross Robertson (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894); the December 7, 1895 edition of theGlobe; and the December 23, 1903, May 26, 1904, November 1, 1934, and November 18, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.


An Empress Hotel Mystery

Originally published on Torontoist on January 6, 2011.

s0574_fl0018_id49378 edison hotel small

The Empress Hotel in a later incarnation, the Edison Hotel, 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 18, Item 49378.

It’s a sure bet that, just like the Naked City, there are eight million stories to be told about 335 Yonge Street and those who passed through the doors throughout its long history as a hotel and retail space, before the building’s recent misfortunes. This is one of them.

In 1888, Richard Dissette leased much of the newly built property at the southeast corner of Yonge and Gould and opened the Empress Hotel, which initially used 339 Yonge as its address. A profile in the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 provides a glimpse of what the hotel had to offer:

The building is a handsome four-story brick structure, 44 x 140 feet in dimensions, containing upwards of forty newly and handsomely furnished sleeping rooms. The hotel is equipped with all modern improvements and conveniences, including gas and electric light, steam heat, etc. The dining room is commodious and well lighted and has a seating capacity for fifty guests. A large and handsome bar room is attached, where only the choicest wines, liquors, ales, porters, cigars, etc., are sold, and the best liquors are also put up for family use. The rates are from $1.00 to $1.50 per day, and while the rates are reasonable, no expense or pains have been spared to make this a first-class hotel in every respect, while every means or appliance tending to the comfort and convenience of guests has been adopted. Electric cars pass the door every three minutes direct to and from the Union passenger station and connecting with all parts of the city. Mr. R. Dissette, the genial and popular proprietor, is a gentleman in the prime of life, and is a Canadian by birth and an old resident of this city.

On the evening of October 17, 1896, a room was booked by a man who signed the register under the name George Hall. The next morning, Hall discovered he was paralyzed on the right side of his body, which left him unable to leave his room. A physician was called in, but when he inquired as to details regarding the patient’s family, Hall refused to answer any personal questions. Hall was soon transported to Toronto General Hospital, where he continued to rebuff anyone who pried into his background or questioned his activities prior to his sudden incapacitation. By October 20, the mysterious patient piqued the curiosity of city newspapers, who guessed that Hall may have been a lawyer from Sundridge. As for what might have caused Hall’s paralysis, the World cited a Dr. Rennie, who felt it may have been an apoplectic fit.

Over the next two days, Hall’s past slowly emerged. He was a thirty-four-year-old lawyer who had last practiced in the north, but in Parry Sound, not Sundridge. And his name wasn’t Hall but Wall—Guret S. Wall—whose legal career included stints with two Toronto firms (including one whose partners once included Sir John A. Macdonald) and a junior partnership in the practice of Parks and Wall. His mother had passed away in Smiths Falls two years earlier and left him with some property. What happened to Wall after her death was left vague in the newspaper accounts; a front page story in the Star indicated that his life was “rather eventful” and that he “first adopted the name George Hall to prevent his friends from knowing of his whereabouts.”

But any old friends had little time to visit Wall. The night his identity was published, he passed away due to what the Telegram termed as an “acute congestion of both kidneys.” No further follow-ups on Wall appeared in the papers, which leaves many unanswered questions. Why was his life so “eventful” that he decided to take on a new identity? What would have caused him to remain so tight-lipped about his past? Debauchery? Debts? Fraud? Murder? Social deviancy? Was his sudden paralysis a bad stroke of luck, the result of hard living, or caused by nefarious means?

Frustratingly, delightfully, we have just enough of an outline that a historical mystery writer could let their imagination run wild.

Additional information from the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Printing, 1893) and editions of the Globe, Telegram, Toronto Star, and Toronto World published between October 20, 1896 and October 22, 1896.


Ghosts of Christmases Past

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 25, 2010.

This holiday edition was, as the introduction noted, “a sampling of a century’s worth of Christmas advertisements, illustrations, pictures, and stories. Light up a Yule log (real or video), sit back and enjoy.”

For this edition, I’m not using the original gallery format, deleting some archival photos, and adding in some material that didn’t make the final cut. I am also merging in ads originally featured in a post for the 2014 holiday season.

globe xmas1885

Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Globe, 1885. Library and Archives Canada.

In its Christmas Eve 1885 edition, the Globe reprinted the “Story of the Mistletoe” from Youth’s Companion. While much of the piece drones on about mistletoe’s role in Norse mythology and its use by Druids, it includes these nuggets about its contemporary sources and uses, in as non-romantic terms as possible.

It used to be brought over by friendly foreign steamers, but is now found in Virginia and in most of the Southern States, and is largely used for holiday decoration…The American mistletoe is not the genuine English article, although it strongly resembles it. The botanists have given it a new name, phoradendron, which signifies “a thief of a tree.” It is, however, a true parasite. The mistletoe is now so seldom found growing on the oak that when it is found there it is a great curiousity. It frequents apple trees chiefly, and is propagated by birds wiping their bills on the boughs and thus leaving some of the viscid pulp and seed, and if the bark happens to be cracked there it takes root.


Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Globe, 1889. Library and Archives Canada.

Little does the turkey suspect that the young lady who visited each day with yummy treats was secretly fattening him up for her family’s holiday feast. Speaking of turkeys…

globe 1890-12-20 live turkeys

The Globe, December 20, 1890. 


The News, December 22, 1894.

If you couldn’t slaughter a turkey, you could always check out a “slaughter sale” of fine reading material.

news 85-12-22 ads

The News, December 22, 1885.

The News also provided “practical hints for the benefit of West End residents and others” as it named off a variety of Queen West merchants. Among the highlights: a free set of tableware with every purchase of a pound of tea at Laut Brothers (420 Queen West); a stock of nuts “not surpassed in the city” at Mara & Co. (280 Queen West); bargains among the jewellery and other goods damaged in a recent fire at J.I.S. Anderson (294 Queen West); and “beautiful villa sites overlooking High Park and Humber Bay” free of city taxes that went for one dollar per square foot at the real estate office of R. McDonnell at Queen and Gladstone.

me 97 xmas cover

Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Mail and Empire, 1897. Library and Archives Canada.

Underneath the colour cover of this supplement was a collection of seasonal art, stories, and other diversions for the entire family.

20141224xmascardsThe Mail, June 27, 1881.

Even back in the Victorian Age, saving a buck on Christmas supplies like cards was as important as aesthetic considerations.


The Empire, December 22, 1894.

An excerpt from the Empire’s Christmas Day 1894 editorial: “To the mind of the child this is the glorious season of the year when there is no cloud in the sky to dim the sunlight of pleasure in which infantile natures rejoice; but to the mature it is a period, apart from its spiritual associations, the delights of which are tempered by gravity and the joys of which are tinged with sadness, for as men grow memories gather. Looking back upon the Christmases of the past, who is there among us who does not feel that change and decay have wrought their mysteries as the years rolled on, taking here a friend and there a companion and leaving gaps in the ranks more significant and impressive at this time than at any other, so that even at the feast, and where rejoicing reigns, the heart stops for a moment that sorrow may supply its chastening touch.”

news 10-12-24 xmas cartoon

Front page, the News, December 24, 1910. 


Illustration by Lou Skuce, Toronto World, December 25, 1910.


Toronto World, December 22, 1912.

From an editorial on holiday charity: “People are giving freely now, who keep their hearts and pockets closd ’till next Christmas. Why? There is need always as at Christmas time. It is simply that we are moved now by an unusual sentiment–an impulse to kindliness.”


The News, December 23, 1914.

The Copland Brewing Company’s Toronto roots stretched back to 1830, when William Copland opened a brewery along Yonge Street shortly after arriving in Upper Canada. By 1914, most of its products were brewed at its plant on King Street between Ontario and Berkeley Streets. Bought by Labatt in 1946, the site was later occupied by the Toronto Sun.


Toronto World, December 19, 1915.

An editorial note from the second holiday season of the First World War:

Above all, the call of Christmas is ‘Peace on Earth.’ In the present grievous crisis of the world there is significance in this call beyond that of any crisis mankind ever before was called to read. That war has darkened Christmas for so much of the world may well seem, at the moment, the crushing condemnation of all such conflicts.”



Toronto World, December 19, 1915.

As the war staggered on over in Europe, World cartoonist Lou Skuce reminded readers of where the battlelines were usually located on Christmas Eve.


Toronto World, December 25, 1916.


Toronto World, December 25, 1918.

A pair of First World War-themed ads from Eaton’s.


Mail and Empire, December 25, 1920.

With the shadow of the First World War fading, Eaton’s ad held the promise that life was returning to normal for its customers, and that Christmas was a time to rejoice in youthful spirit.


The Telegram, December 19, 1923.

Given that the establishment of Sick Kids was a pet project of Telegram founder John Ross Robertson, the paper took every opportunity during the holiday season to solicit donations for the hospital. Heart-tugging stories to invoke contributions were printed in the Tely around Christmas, bearing headlines like “CHILD SWALLOWS LYE THROAT BADLY BURNED” (December 19, 1923).


The Telegram, December 23, 1933.

A sample of a Sick Kids ad from a decade later.


Toronto Star, December 24, 1924.


Mail and Empire, December 25, 1930.

Simpsons centred its 1930 holiday ad around verse from poet Bliss Carman, who died the previous year.


Mail and Empire, December 20, 1933.

Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the Mail and Empire urged its readers to light up the city at Christmas time. We doubt any displays inspired by this contest were accompanied by a menagerie of front yard inflatables.


Mail and Empire, December 22, 1933. 

Years before teaching the world to sing, or employing polar bears as pitchmen, Coca-Cola offered an economical solution for holiday entertaining during the Great Depression.


The Telegram, December 23, 1933.



Weston Times and Guide, December 14, 1934.

The 1930s equivalent of the slightly naughty gift ads found decades later in alt-weeklies like eye and Now?


Toronto Star, December 23, 1939.


Weston Times and Guide, December 13, 1945.

Relieved that the Second World War no longer interfered in his annual delivery run, Santa relaxed a little in 1945. He found time to stop in Weston for a luscious roast bird. Note the slightly scary look in his eye, as if he’s daring the artist to take the plate away from him.


The Telegram, December 23, 1950.

The poet of Toronto’s sports pages, Telegram columnist Ted Reeve, penned an ode to holiday shopping based on one of the big musical hits of that season, “The Thing“:


As we were walking north on Church, no Xmas shopping done,
We went into McTamney’s to maybe buy a gun.
The clerk behind the counter there let out a mighty roar:
“Get out of here with that shopping list and don’t come back no more.”

We hadn’t done our Christmas cards when reaching work today,
We asked the office girls if they would get them on the way.
They turned on us with a vicious yell as fierce as any blow:
“Get out of here with that shopping list and you know where to go.”

We’ll get to Kresge’s Christmas Eve and in a final dash
We’ll try to get the presents bought unless they want some cash.
The chances are the manager, while tearing up our cheque,
Will heave us out with our boom-boom-boom and land us on our neck

There’s only three more days to go, we haven’t bought the tree,
It is a most perplexing week, we think you’ll all agree.
And if we don’t get anything done we’ll just let Xmas pass
And take that terrible boom-boom-boom and hide it in the grass.


Don Mills Mirror, December 8, 1960.

Either the caption writer was ordered to devise a happy sentence without seeing this picture, or somebody decided to play a cruel joke at the expense of the exhausted Santa at the Don Mills Centre. His arrival by helicopter in late November prompted ten thousand people to greet him at the shopping centre, doubling the number that greeted him the year before. Santa’s trip was delayed ten minutes due to fog and low-flying planes landing at Malton airport. Once the chopper landed, Santa hitched a ride on a fire engine, which took him to his seat at the centre of the complex. With over four-and-a-half thousand kids mounting his lap that day, no wonder Santa looks like he can’t wait to escape back to the comfort of the North Pole.


Weston Times and Guide, December 22, 1960.

Wonder how many diners around that time hummed Marty Robbins’s 1959 smash hit about the west Texas town while eating their delicious young turkey dinner.


Maclean’s, December 9, 1961.

From 1912 to 2006, Kodak’s Canadian division called Mount Dennis home. Its large campus near Eglinton Avenue West and Black Creek Drive is being redeveloped and will service the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Whenever that line begins service, perhaps someone who received a Kodak camera under the tree will be inspired by the site’s history to haul it out and shoot the opening ceremony.


Weston Times-Advertiser, December 22, 1964.

Politicians love sending seasonal greetings, and Alan Eagleson was no exception. Before he achieved fame in the hockey world for forming the National Hockey League Players’ Association and infamy for his criminal actions regarding pensions and disability claims, Eagleson sat as a Progressive Conservative MPP for Lakeshore from 1963 to 1967.



Willowdale Enterprise, December 8, 1965.


Willowdale Enterprise, December 22, 1965.

Santa and the reindeer might have needed a map when a widened Highway 401 between Highway 400 and Hogg’s Hollow fully opened to to traffic on December 16, 1965. The expansion of the freeway from four to twelve lanes included the introduction of the express/collector lane system.



Toronto Life, December 1966.

Toronto Life celebrated its first Christmas by asking Gordon Sinclair to describe how he really felt about the holiday? His verdict? Despite not being a fan of organized religion, Sinclair felt it was “the best and friendliest of all family celebrations when we are with kinfolk; the ones of our blood who accept us for what we are. Not what we should be, or could be, but what we are.” He also described Christmas was the worst day of the year to be alone, a situation he experienced while reporting from Shanghai in 1938. That day he wandered through clubs and pubs “looking for someone to feel sorry with” but found only a black eye (a present given by an American when Sinclair declined to have a drink with him) and a crying fit (after returning to his hotel to find “wish you were here” cablegrams from Canada). There was only one thing he would have changed about Christmas: “that stupid abbreviation, Xmas.”


The Enterprise, December 20, 1967.

An excerpt from the Enterprise‘s December 13, 1967 holiday editorial, which criticized the trend toward war toys like G.I. Joe, which kids might have asked Miss Suzie for as they received a candy cane.

War toys are not going to make a killer out of a child, but they do instil an acceptance which lasts into adult life. In other words, war toys are a marvellous propaganda instrument…The only way to counteract war toy propaganda is for the consuer public to boycott any kind of violent toy–and encourage manufacturers to produce just as interesting toys who emphasis is not military.


Globe and Mail, December 25, 1970.

A stylish seasonal ad from a fashionable Kingsway-area women’s clothier. Two weeks earlier, Lipton’s published a gift certificate order form in the Globe and Mail, positioning it as “great trim for any tree.”


Toronto Life, December 1974.

While CHUM-FM offered a slender Santa for the holidays, its AM sibling distributed its usual CHUM Chart. Topping the Toronto hit list on December 21, 1974 was Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.”


Toronto Sun, December 16, 1975.

Unfortunately for eager carolers, the Sun-sponsored musical celebration of the season was cancelled due to the first blizzard of the season. High winds coupled with around 20 centimetres of snow resulted in a record number of help calls to the Ontario Motor League (now CAA), severe TTC service delays and the cancellation of a Toronto Marlboros hockey game. The storm did not deter holiday shoppers, as Simpsons reported a minor decrease in the usual last Saturday before Christmas crowd at their Queen Street flagship.


The City, December 3, 1978.

Simpsons felt a little punny during the 1978 holiday season. It was a time of change for the retailer–Hudson’s Bay Company had launched a bid to acquire the department store chain in November, while shoppers at its Queen Street flagship would have seen the south end of the Eaton Centre near completion.


Toronto Life, December 1985.

Because this article needs a touch of 1980s Christmas style.


Vintage Toronto Ads: The Startling Young Sampson

Originally published on Torontoist on December 7, 2010.


The Mail, October 31, 1891.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! For just ten cents, that’s ten cents, not fifteen or twenty-five, you will be amazed by the acts we have scoured the world for! See the classiest of curiosities! Heights of human endurance! Strongmen, singers, clowns, warriors…you want entertainment, we’ve got entertainment! Step right up…

For the sheer variety of acts, few venues in town could top the Musee theatre. From its opening as Robinson’s Musee in late 1890, the combination of theatre, lecture hall, and dime museum at 91 and 93 Yonge Street offered up a rotating roster of sideshow and vaudeville acts.

For today’s batch of “startling novelties,” the Mail offered a preview designed to draw in the curious (even if by modern standards several of the presentations were, to put it mildly, exploitative):

To see all that is to be seen, one must go to the Musee to see the many features presented by Manager Moore for his patrons. Sampson, a man billed as the strongest man on earth, will appear, displaying his herculean strength by breaking solid bars of iron, snapping in twain welded chains, and other feats that will astonish his audience. A band of Hottentots brought to this country recently by Dr. Stone, the missionary, will enlighten people as to their native customs. Zamossa [sic] the Zulu, who participated in the late Zulu war, will also be present.

Comparing the drawing used in this ad with other 19th century strongman posters, the “Modern Hercules” in question was likely Charles Sampson. Many of his claims about his abilities were highly suspect, including a boast that he acquired his talent for bending iron after being struck by lightning as a teenager in France. He often rigged his performances by using tactics such as emptying backstage the sand or lead that filled his barbell, while his manager dramatically outlined to the crowd the “feat” they were about to see. His “feats” faltered in the face of less shady early bodybuilders, such as the time he was humiliated in a strength contest with Eugen Sandow in London in 1889. While Sampson was exposed as a fraud in front of audiences whenever the rigged methods he used to perform tasks like lifting an elephant with a harness flopped, he remained a popular vaudeville attraction during the 1890s.

The few reports about Sampson’s 1891 visit to Toronto in the local press give no hint of anything amiss. The Mail noted that the audience provided plenty of applause for his “clever exhibitions of strength” and that the week’s program of acts was “without doubt the finest show that has been given at this house this season.”

The Musee passed through several owners during its existence. During the summer of 1891, original proprietor Marion Robinson passed the premises to James Moore, who promptly renovated the facilities. After changing hands at least one more time, Robinson reassumed control in 1896. He offered one piece of programming starting that August which merited the plaque found on the office building currently occupying the site: the first presentation of projected motion pictures in Toronto.

Additional material from the November 2, 1891, November 3, 1891, and November 4, 1891 editions of the Mail.