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.

One Fine Holiday Season in 1887

Originally published as a “Historicist’ column on Torontoist on December 22, 2012.

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A Toronto-penned carol from 1887 you can play at home this season. The News, December 24, 1887.

In some ways, the holiday season that brought 1887 to a close was similar to today. People rushed around the city to pick up their Christmas gifts. Plenty of booze was downed. Discussions and editorial pages focused on the future of Toronto’s mayoralty. Digging beyond the surface, similarities via the city’s legion of newspapers shows a season that was equally celebratory and cringe-inducing.

Mail columnist H.H. Wiltshire (aka “The Flaneur”) provided the best-written observation of the state of Christmas:

Latterly the question has been often asked as to what is the meaning of the tendency everywhere during the last few years for a much more general observance of the Christmas festival. In some quarters it is attributed to increased reverence, in others to sentimentality, while we are also told that it is only seized upon as an excuse for idleness and gluttony, under the cover of hospitality. Without staying to consider how far any of these views are correct, may we not suppose that one very natural reason is the necessity we all feel for a little rest and enjoyment! Unquestionably there is more work done now in a shorter time than was ever the case before; this must cause a reaction in some form, and this season of the year has appeared most convenient because it is the nearest approach to a recognized universal holiday-time throughout the civilized world. A simple answer to the enquiry is given in the fact that that overworked humanity wants rest.

All of us with healthy minds in healthy bodies enjoy holidays and amusement, and custom, if nothing else, has made both seem especially appropriate to this time of the year. One of the best associations of Christmas undoubtedly is the increasing fondness for family and friendly re-union, when many feuds are healed and words and acts of temper are forgiven; also the inculcation and practice of the truth that there are none of us so poor in ability or in purse but that we can, by merely doing “the duty nearest hand,” make the load lighter and the day more bright for some among those whom sickness or sorrow, misfortune or folly, entitle not only to our kindness and sympathy, but also to be the unsoliciting recipients of practical and generous aid.

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The Globe, December 23, 1887.

The rest Wiltshire extolled wasn’t present on Christmas Eve 1887, as downtown streets filled with shoppers in a rush. Though shop windows were filled with joyful displays, those entering stores to purchase gifts were, according to the Globe, hardly in a celebratory mood. “Almost everybody one met seemed to have a parcel or to be in a hurry to get one,” the paper noted. “To judge by the expression of face and the words caught in passing, the getting of the parcels seemed rather to hinder than to help the feeling of joyousness.”

The papers were filled with holiday-inspired doggerel and Christmas stories which would not be published under any circumstances today. The worst offender was a lengthy illustrated tale published in the News on Christmas Eve whose anonymous author reminisced about the glorious celebrations enjoyed by plantation slaves in the southern United States prior to the Civil War. Every imaginable derogatory term was used in a story filled with pidgin English, stock stereotypes, dancing galore, and “the wild hilarity of a negro gathering.”

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Evening Telegram, December 20, 1887.

Because Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, good upstanding Torontonians were expected to observe the usual pieties that created Toronto’s reputation as a place not to have any fun on the Lord’s Day for decades to come. Not that the day was devoid of pleasure—when evening rolled around, carollers hit the streets, along with impromptu brass bands playing tunes on battered instruments.

There was a sad note Christmas morning when the body of Maria Green was found in a stable behind 40 Elizabeth Street. Rather than provide any sympathy for her death from exposure, the press went into full moralizing mode. The Globe depicted Green as “an elderly woman employed as cook in a house of ill-fame on Albert Street,” while the Mail described her as “a woman of about fifty years of age, and the greater part of her life had been spent in infamy. Christmas brought to her not peace but an excess of drunkenness and debauchery with her tragic death as a wind-up.”

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The News, December 24, 1887.

The delay of most public Christmas activities to December 26 appeared to create a pent-up thirst among Torontonians, as people went wild when the bars reopened that morning. “’Moral’ Toronto Spends a Very Liquid Christmas” screamed a headline above the World’s account of “the drunkenest day that Toronto has seen for years.” Sleighs overflowed with “more young men than is allowed by the law regarding cruelty to animals.” People who claimed to have never touched a drop of alcohol were among those found in packed saloons. Some establishments closed early to avoid a steady stream of barroom brawls and police visits. “The ordinary drinking public dropped into their usual haunts and were surprised and disgusted at what they saw,” the World reported. “By 6 o’clock there were so many places closed that a usual question was ‘well, where can we go to get a drink?’” Police handled the chaos by making arrests only when necessary. The Globe theorized that the drinking orgy was due to liquor vendors attempting to demonstrate that tougher temperance laws would increase the abusive effects of booze, especially a set of bylaws on the upcoming municipal election ballot.

Alcohol control played a key role in the mayoral campaign that holiday season. On November 3, 1887, Mayor William Holmes Howland announced he would not run for a third term. While Howland spoke to Christian and temperance groups in other cities to extol the effects of his campaigns to reduce the availability of alcohol, the question arose as to who would continue his moral crusade and efforts to curb corruption at City Hall. The favoured candidate among the reformer set was rookie alderman Elias Rogers, a Quaker pro-temperance activist who was one of Toronto’s largest coal merchants.

Two other candidates emerged. Edward Frederick Clarke was a rookie Conservative member at Queen’s Park who published the Orange Sentinel newspaper. Unlike many Orangemen of the era, Clarke was seen as a broadminded man due to actions like allowing Irish Catholic activists to speak at the organization’s hall. Because he wasn’t a fervent temperance advocate, he was depicted by opponents as a friend of the saloon. Daniel Defoe was a veteran alderman who touted his long council experience but was handicapped by his Catholic faith in a very Protestant city—the best he could hope for was a spoiler role. Whoever became mayor needed to be, according to a Globe editorial, “a level-headed, painstaking, conscientious man of marked business ability.”

The campaign was well underway when official nominations were made during a raucous meeting at City Hall (now incorporated into the south St. Lawrence Market) on December 26. The loudest members of the overflow crowd were Clarke supporters, who jeered the other candidates and their nominators. Rogers received most of the verbal abuse, some of it deserved. Female electors were still a new concept—Ontario had granted spinsters and widows the vote in municipal elections in 1884—so Rogers pointed out those in attendance and indicated they were on his side. When a heckler yelled “How do you know they are?,” the Telegram noted that Rogers “knew they were on his side because the ladies were always on the right side.”

More troubling for Rogers were reports that he was the head of a “coal ring.” A series of exposes in the News written by Clarke ally and York West MP Nathaniel Clarke Wallace portrayed Rogers as the leader of a cartel who artificially inflated the price of coal in Toronto, failed to pass savings onto consumers after the federal government removed tariffs on the heating fuel, and conspired to drive competitors out of business. Rogers painted himself as a victim via a complicated explanation involving American coal combines, merciless railway companies, and forming his own ring as a protective measure.

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Cartoon depicting Elias Rogers and Edward Clarke, The News, December 31, 1887.

Despite increasingly lengthy explanations about the coal ring which convinced few voters, city churches and most of the press endorsed Rogers. Endless ink was devoted to depicting him as the best man to uphold Howland’s policies and continue the moral crusade against corruption and liquor. Papers like the Telegram were smug in their certainty of a Rogers victory, declaring that the defeat “will simply be extraordinary.”

The extraordinary happened. As the votes were tallied on January 2, 1888, Howland waited for the results at Rogers’ HQ and kept the crowd pepped up. When the early results showed Clarke in the lead, Howland urged people not to leave. By 9 p.m. the race was over—Clarke defeated Rogers by nearly 1,000 votes. Clarke appeared at the window of the News’ newsroom and gave his victory speech, where he declared his win as “not a triumph of the saloon, but a triumph of the moderate over the intemperate party.”

Clarke captured two key groups that Rogers’ backers had looked upon with condescension: labour and women. He pointed out his participation in and arrest during the printer’s strike of 1872 and utilized female canvassers. There were also signs that Torontonians were tiring of heavy-handed, puritanical laws enacted by the Howland administration, such as preventing the hiring of horses on Sundays. In his recently launched paper Saturday Night, E.E. Sheppard observed that people were exasperated by the increasing self-righteousness of Howland’s allies and by “sumptuary laws more arbitrary and intolerant than those which already exist and have been found unworkable.”

Besides Rogers, voters rejected the temperance bylaws on the ballot. They also rejected a ballot proposal to fund construction of a trunk sewer to improve city sanitation, a vote which falls into the great Toronto tradition of balking at spending money on needed infrastructure projects.

Additional material from Mayor Howland The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973), Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), and the following newspapers: the December 23, 1887, December 26, 1887, and December 29, 1887 editions of the Globe; the December 24, 1887, December 26, 1887, and January 3, 1888 editions of the Mail; the December 24, 1887 edition of the News; the December 10, 1887 edition of Saturday Night; the December 27, 1887 and December 29, 1887 editions of the Telegram; and the December 27, 1887 edition of the World.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Editorial item, The Globe, December 21, 1887.

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The Evening Telegram also weighed in on what clergymen in Boston felt about Santa.

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A poetic attempt to use jolly old St. Nick to sell some merchandise, as found in the December 21, 1887 edition of the News.