An Illustrated Business Quartet, 1893

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on January 23, 2010.

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Cover of Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Illustrating, 1893).

“Towering triumphantly on the northern shore of the majestic Lake Ontario, Toronto…presents in her commercial history a record of advancement, an epitome of industrial progress and a chapter in itself redundant of individual and collective instances of energy and enterprise to which few communities of the New World can rightly lay claim.” So opens the introduction to Toronto Illustrated 1893, a guide to merchants and service providers in the Queen City that offers insight into familiar and forgotten titans of industry. Following a background sketch of the city’s history and economic development, profiles of bankers, corset manufacturers, chewing gum distributors, doctors, hoteliers, industrialists, and not-so-starving artists fill out the book. The profiles are fawning and often contain generic information that could apply to anyone (“one of our most deservedly popular and successful business enterprises”) but provide an interesting glimpse of the local business community during the “Naughty Nineties,” including the four that follow.

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Parker’s Dye Works, 787-791 Yonge Street. Toronto Illustrated 1893.

The first business to merit a profile is among the few still in operation. Robert Parker established his first cleaning and dyeing operation in Ottawa in 1876, originally focusing on adding colour to ostrich feathers. The book noted that “Mr. Parker is an Englishman by birth and a young man of exceptional business ability who, by close application and carefully attending to the interests of his patrons, has built up a business of such magnitude that he finds it now almost impossible to keep pace with growing demands made upon him. Such a condition of affairs certainly speaks for itself.” By 1893, Parker’s Dye Works operated six locations around the city, plus branches scattered from London to Hamilton where one could have sung the company’s jingle “We Dye to Live.” The main office and processing facility took up several storefronts along Yonge Street where the Toronto Reference Library now stands. By the end of the decade, Parker’s was the second company in Toronto to use motorized delivery vehicles, an achievement recognized on a postage stamp a century later. The dyeing portion of the business decreased over time, though it might be amusing to watch the clerk’s reaction if you brought ostrich feathers in for dyeing at any current location of Parker’s Cleaners.

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John Abell Engine and Machine Works. Toronto Illustrated 1893.

Spectators of the wars between preservationists and developers may remember the battle during the 2000s over 48 Abell Street. Long before its use as a space for artists, the complex turned out boilers, engines, threshers, and other agricultural implements under the careful eye of John Abell. Born in England, Abell established his company in Vaughan Township in 1845 as the Woodbridge Agricultural Works. Despite the occasional hiccup, such as a fire in 1874 that nearly destroyed the business, Abell was highly regarded for the quality of his machinery and his community involvement. Before moving his operations to Queen Street in 1886, Abell served as a justice of the peace, the president of several agricultural societies, and, for a term, as the first reeve of Woodbridge. By 1893, the John Abell Engine and Machine Works employed 150 skilled workers whose toil included the boilers for Massey Hall and machinery sold to exotic locales like the Ottoman Empire.

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Portraits of John Abell and Elias Rogers. Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: The Mail Printing Company, 1891).

The Globe praised Abell’s personal qualities in an editorial published shortly after his death in 1903:

[He] was a man of singularly engaging personality. He had a strong scientific bent and exceptional mechanical aptitude. He was by nature an inventor and by temperament a student…His main interest in his work was not the amount of money he could make out of it, but the amount of good he could accomplish by relieving the toilers through the improvement of the implements with which they have to work…He was, in spite of his modesty, a charming conversationalist, because of his keen sagacity, intellectual originality, and generous sympathies. He was a conspicuous example of the enterprising capitalist who successfully resists the narrowing and hardening tendency of intense application to mechanical or commercial pursuits.

Abell’s company was purchased by two American interests shortly before his death and operated for another decade as the American Abell Engine and Thresher Company.

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Elias Rogers advertisement, The Toronto World, February 13, 1914.

For years, the Elias Rogers coal bucket and its promise of the “very best” in heating fuel was a familiar sight to Toronto newspaper readers. Born near Newmarket, Rogers entered the local coal business with his brother Samuel in 1876 after buying mines in Pennsylvania. Toronto Illustrated claimed that Rogers owned “the largest yards and the most improved facilities for handling coal in Canada,” used “one of the best arranged telephone systems in the city,” and compared his position in the coal trade to that of Macy’s in retail. By the end of 1890, Elias Rogers Coal operated a variety of offices and yards around the city and a pair of large docks along the Esplanade near St. Lawrence Market that could process 725 tonnes of coal a day.

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Elias Rogers Coal & Wood Co. – property, south side of Esplanade East (near foot of Berkeley Street), 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 30, Item 33 .

Rogers entered the political arena as a city councillor for the St. Lawrence ward in 1887. He was positioned as a reformist candidate for mayor later that year, but his campaign faltered after an attempt by teetotalling Quaker Rogers to tar opponent Edward Frederick Clarke‘s ties to the liquor industry. Clarke responded by accusing Rogers of being part of a price-fixing coal cartel. Rogers left the political realm after his defeat, but remained a key figure in local business organizations (including a stint as president of the Board of Trade in the 1890s). He sold his interests in the coal business to his son Alfred around 1912 and died eight years later.

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Wesley Buildings, Richmond Street side. Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor (Toronto: William Briggs, 1892).

One of the oldest businesses in Toronto Illustrated was the Methodist Book and Publishing House, which first cranked up its press in 1829. By 1893, this branch of the Methodist Church was one of the country’s largest publishers, and its offices at Richmond Street West and Temperance Street pumped out educational, religious, and secular literature under the watchful eye of Reverend William Briggs. One of Briggs’ main policies was to use profits from foreign publications to fund the printing of Canadian authors like Charles G.D. Roberts and Catherine Parr Traill.

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Methodist Book Room, southeast corner of Queen and John streets, 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 761.

By 1913 the church and book company (later known as Ryerson Press) required more space for its head offices; a facility was built at 299 Queen Street West, later the home of CITY-TV.

As for the future of Toronto’s business community, the anonymous author believed, “It is safe to predict that the historian of the industries of the future will be able to point back to those of today as the auspicious beginnings of a greater and brighter destiny.”

Additional material from the August 10, 1903 and April 12, 1920 editions of the Globe.

Past Pieces of Toronto: Speakers Corner

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 22, 2012.

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They seemed like just another bunch of goofy guys crammed into the booth at the corner of Queen and John Streets. Paying a dollar destined for a charity gave them two minutes in the spotlight. As the camera clicked on that day in March 1991, they sang. The tune was about asking a girl to be their Yoko Ono, complete with Yoko-style shrieks. While other musicians earned little more than a brief appearance on CITY TV, a visit to Speakers Corner helped propel the career of the Barenaked Ladies.

Speakers Corner was installed sometime after CITY moved into the former Ryerson Press building in 1987 and was among the quirky innovations programmer Moses Znaimer developed at the station. The public’s views on virtually anything quickly proved a useful addition to the station’s newscasts. In 1990, producer Peter Whittington proposed a weekly half-hour show built around Speakers Corner, with clips linked by themes like politics and the battle of the sexes. Costing little to produce, the series debuted that September. The Star’s Antonia Zerbisias called Speakers Corner “a clever little show” which “covered everything from stupid tongue tricks to propositions to CITY personnel.”

In another article four years later, Zerbisias noted that in the Speakers Corner editing room, it didn’t “take long for an observer to conclude that the world is full of morons who don’t even have the sense to keep it to themselves…they want to let the world know.” Material left on the cutting room floor tended toward people left speechless once the camera clicked on, or those whose performances couldn’t be shown on television, such as a couple engaged in sexual activity in the booth who suffered from poor compositional skills. “The framing was bad,” Whittington noted. “They didn’t understand television.”

But many others understood the medium. After a game where he stomped on an opponent’s head, Argonauts wide receiver Rocket Ismail headed straight to Queen and John to record an apology asking forgiveness from football fans for his actions. He didn’t talk to the media until the following day. The booth also saw its share of poignant moments, such as a plea from one woman that led to her reunion with sisters she hadn’t seen since childhood.

The booth also attracted celebrities of varying degrees. Tuning in might have rewarded you with poet Irving Layton honouring former pupil Znaimer, Mike Myers testing out new material, Judge Reinhold improvising movie trailers, and cameo appearances ranging from Harrison Ford to Madonna. Prince was a fan during his Toronto residency—“I just love the idea of it,” he told the Canadian Press in 2004. “I am so tempted when I go by to stop the car and go into the booth and say what I have to say.” Alas, he never did.

Despite the avalanche of complaints directed at them, politicians latched onto Speakers Corner. Whether it was fringe council candidates outlining their platforms, then-prime minister Jean Chretien encouraging viewers to vote, or federal justice minister Kim Campbell promoting the Charlottetown Accord, the booth proved a satisfying pulpit. Campbell’s appearance, during which she was hugged by a young, robed bearded dude telling her how beautiful she was, prompted CITY reporter Colin Vaughan to remark “Now I’ve seen everything.”

But like many elements of the Znaimer era, Speakers Corner gradually fell by the wayside after he left the premises. When CTV purchased CITY in 2006, the booth was closed while the fate of the station was determined. After the CRTC forced the sale of CITY the following year, new owner Rogers temporarily installed a new Speakers Corner at the Rogers Centre, with the intention of permanently relocating it to the station’s new home at Yonge-Dundas Square. But that never happened: in June 2008, Rogers cancelled both the television show and the new booth.

The demise of Speakers Corner could be seen as just another example of corporate bean counting at work. It could also be viewed as a casualty in the rise of internet sites like YouTube, where anyone can post their own video rants and stories. What it allowed, and may be missed by some, is the opportunity to express your thoughts and talents in a public space with no guarantee that anyone other than an editor would watch your two minutes of fame.

Sources: the October 16, 1992 edition of the Globe and Mail, the August 27, 1991 edition of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, and the September 21, 1990, September 24, 1992, September 10, 1994, and June 12, 2008 editions of the Toronto Star. Full episode of Speakers Corner from October 1990 posted on YouTube by Retrontario.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 21, 1990.

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The original Speakers Corner machine, displayed at MZTV when it opened at the ZoomerPlex in May 2014.

Shaping Toronto: Queen West

Originally published on Torontoist on March 16, 2016.

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“The road to the heart of Toronto runs along Queen Street. It may not be the most imposing thoroughfare in town, nor the longest, but it is the liveliest, the most vibrant, successful, and popular. More than any other, it is the street that defines Toronto, and that has led the way to the re-urbanization of the downtown core, a process that continues today.” — Christopher Hume, Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure, 2012.

For those who came of age from the late 1970s through early 1990s, the heart of Queen West was between University and Spadina. It was the Queen West I was introduced to as a child, tagging along with my father as we browsed one used book store after another. To a kid from deep southwestern Ontario, it was a magical place, with its funky old buildings loaded with funky old things, and a stretch with a wide sidewalk to run around freely.

Flash forward to my teens. My hometown is finally wired up to cable, introducing the CHUM/CITY galaxy of channels, which, to a not-yet-cynical mind, depicted Queen West as the coolest place in the country. Based on an informal survey of friends on Facebook, this was not an unusual feeling. You could speak your mind on Speakers’ Corner, or check out whatever MuchMusic was doing. You could even toss in some shopping while you were at it.

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South side Queen Street West from 217 to 233, August 23, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1234.

“Along Queen Street West, purchasers in that section of the city will find much that it will be to their advantage to inspect.” — the Toronto News, December 23, 1885.

One of Toronto’s oldest roads, Queen Street (known in its early days as Lot Street) was laid out when York was established in 1793. During the early 19th century, the stretch we’re concerned with was the front of D’Arcy Boulton Jr.’s property, where he built The Grange. His lasting legacy along Queen is the short stretch east of Spadina where it widens out.

“Our worst streets are those Victorian and Edwardian thoroughfares where bad design and poor maintenance give an impression of sordidness and decay. King, Queen, Dundas, and much of Yonge are such streets, and their ugliness is not improved by their stretching, seemingly, to infinity.” — Eric Arthur, Toronto No Mean City, 1964.

For much of its existence, Queen West was a modest commercial strip serving local residents and workers at nearby factories and warehouses. Never glamourous, by the 1970s it was described by Toronto Life as being “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country.” What it had was great older commercial architecture and cheap rents, two assets which would spur its revitalization.

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Map of Queen West, Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

“Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge Street on to Queen Street West unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen Street West—notably the few blocks between John Street and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops, and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings, and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge Street or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

“Today that section of Queen—two blocks on the south side, three on the north—shows signs of becoming the new world. The spirit of trend has raised her elegant skirts and skipped down from gorgeous, pricey Bloor to nestle among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries, and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.

“The setting is a broad, tree-lined stretch of Queen Street, Toronto’s answer to the Rue des Capucines in Paris. There, close to 40 vibrant young stores have sprung up among the old—altogether a Saturday browser’s dream.” — Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

Expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario and a greater integration of the Ontario College of Art into the neighbourhood produced an influx of artists who remolded the street, whose works are currently celebrated in an art exhibition as part of the Myseum Intersections festival. Longstanding businesses, such as the Peter Pan diner, were revamped. Tourists were told the strip was, according to Fodor’s, “a strange world of dusty, neglected stores next to popular nightclubs” like Bam Boo and others.

“Think of Queen West as Toronto’s version of Hollywood’s Melrose, minus the palm trees. And Heather Locklear. Whether for shopping or people-gawking, Queen West is Toronto’s hippest strip.” — Stephen Davey, Now City Guide Toronto, 1999.

As Queen West evolved, it fell victim to its own success. As rents shot up, the next generation of artistic entrepreneurs moved further west, pushing out beyond Bathurst. Filling the spaces were chain stores, leaving the impression among those who enjoyed its renaissance that the strip was becoming an extension of the Eaton Centre. Shifting ownership drained the vitality out of the old CHUM/CITY channels. Some pushouts were less successful than others—the space where Pages bookstore operated has been vacant for years, though recent renovations of the front indicate something may finally be happening.

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“Today Queen Street West is an animated mixed-use corridor that functions as a local and regional destination, drawing people from the residential neighbourhoods that surround it, and extensively, from all over the city and beyond. The history of the street, and its place in the collective memory, continues to be enhanced by the presence of a vibrant retail and entertainment scene, and the multiple events and venues that make Queen Street West their home.” — Queen Street West Heritage Conservation District Plan report, 2007.

Sidewalks remain packed on average days. Live entertainment still holds sway at venues like the Horseshoe, Rivoli, and the Rex. Designation as a heritage conservation district in 2007 offers stronger protection to retain its low-rise, century-old architecture (even if it currently boasts at least one example of odd facadism where Silver Snail used to be). Whatever you think of the strip’s evolution, it retains its vitality.

Additional material from Toronto No Mean City by Eric Arthur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964); Now City Guide Toronto by Stephen Davey (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999); Fodor’s Toronto (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1984); Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2012); the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life; and the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was the final installment of Shaping Toronto.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the initial revival of the Queen West strip during the lare 1970s in the following installment of Retro T.O. for The Grid, originally published on April 17, 2012. 

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

With Silver Snail’s impending move to Yonge Street, one of the few remnants of the original Queen West strip is departing the scene. The ongoing transformation of the stretch between University and Spadina into a row of chain stores is just the latest evolution of the street. Back in the winter of 1979, the Star and Toronto Life devoted lengthy articles to the birth of what would become, as one headline put it, “gutter glamour on Glitter Street.” The Star depicted pre-hip Queen West as such:

Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge St. on to Queen St. W. unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen St. W.—notably the few blocks between John St. and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge St. or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

Toronto Life characterized the area as a marginal strip on the fringes of the clothing trade, where the streetscape was “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country, ‘old-country good-for-nothings’ in the eyes of their more successful compatriots.”

Several explanations were given for why the landscape changed. There was the influence of Ontario College of Art graduates who stayed in the neighbourhood. Rent was far lower than in Yorkville, which provided better profit margins for the new business owners whose average age was 30 to 35. There was the allure of nearby cultural attractions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Alex. Frequent streetcar service and plenty of on- and off-street parking didn’t hurt.

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Queen Street looking west from St. Patrick’s Market, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 29. 

The result, according to the Star, was a neighbourhood where “the spirit of trend” had “raised her elegant skirts” and nestled “among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.” A few reminders of the old days, like the A. Stork and Sons poultry store and a touch of industrial pollution, lingered on.

Both articles viewed the refurbishment of the Peter Pan restaurant as the turning point for the strip. With a history as an eatery stretching back to 1905 (and under its present name since 1935), the diner at 373 Queen St. W. attracted three partners who discovered old booths, counters, and fixtures gathering dust in the basement. After a refurbishment, the new Peter Pan was, according to the Star, “an art deco wonderland, a smash hit with the city’s young affluent.” That is, it was a hit if you could stand the servers, who Toronto Life declared the representative figure of the new Queen West (“the narcissistic waiter who’s in a punk band”).

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Queen Street looking west from Beverley Street, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 30. Click on image for larger version.

Of the 27 businesses listed in the Star’s “Where to shop in new village” guide and a few others included on a map, only four will continue on Queen West following Silver Snail’s departure: the Black Bull, Peter Pan, the Queen Mother Café and Steve’s Music Store. Even in 1979, merchants worried about the street’s future. “I don’t want too much change in the original street,” noted Peter Pan co-owner Sandy Stagg. “Change will come, I know. I just hope we can keep it under control.”

Additional material from the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star and the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life.