Originally published on Torontoist on December 3, 2014.
The Mirror, December 21, 1838.
We suspect George Baker didn’t have the merriest Christmas in 1838. A lost steer would have affected his ability to sell holiday roasts from his market stall. While it’s possible an ox gone astray might have been found among the cattle still allowed to roam the streets of Toronto at that time, it’s likely poor George was never reunited with that particular source of income.
Notices about lost livestock and other misplaced items were a fixture of 19th-century newspapers. “In the large family of classified advertising, the lost and found advertisement stands out for its sincerity,” observes Sara Bader in her book on early classifieds, Strange Red Cow. “Born out of the simple desire to reclaim or restore property, it is typically a genuine plea to the public that … still resonates. Indeed, everyone can relate to the empty feeling of having lost something—a set of house keys, a dearly loved pet that strayed too far, or an irreplaceable family locket—and we all know the surge of relief that accompanies the safe return of an important belonging.”
These ads often hinted at the problems growing North American cities faced as animals and humans tried to coexist. As late as 1853, pedestrians south of 42nd Street in New York City were injured by cattle drives. In Toronto, tensions grew in the early 19th century over free-roaming animals, which led to horrifying incidents of people mutilating cattle that wandered onto their private property.
Illustration of St. Lawrence Market north complex (1831-1849) by Charles Comfort, Toronto’s 100 Years by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934)
John Mussop (or Mossopp) owned a farm located near the Black Bull Tavern on present-day Queen Street West. By 1840, Mussop’s property was on the edge of a zone stretching south of Queen between Peter and Berkeley streets where free-range cattle grazing had been outlawed [PDF]. The no-graze area was the result of one of a series of bylaws implemented between 1834 and 1876 that cleared city streets of animal farming—though one could argue that wild beasts roam the zone to this day, when the bars let out.
Perhaps the ox tried to avoid his fate as the day’s prime cut at St. Lawrence Market. At the time the ad was placed, the market was housed in a large red-brick building with an open courtyard. Built between 1831 and 1833 in the block bounded by King, Jarvis, Front, and Market streets, the structure also served as Toronto’s city hall for a decade. The complex was poorly designed for butchering: too much sun filtered into the stalls, and the cellars were too poorly ventilated for meat storage. But despite its problems, the butchers stayed even as poultry and produce vendors (along with city council) moved into the first version of the current south market building in 1845. The complex was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1849 and replaced by St. Lawrence Hall and new north market shops.
Additional material from Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2005); and “Living and Working with Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto” by Sean Kheraj, from Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank, editors (Hamilton: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013).