Vintage Toronto Ads: Seeing Santa at Yorkdale, Early 1970s Style

Originally published on Torontoist on December 18, 2012.

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Don Mills Mirror, November 22, 1972.

Yorkdale wasn’t joking when it called itself “Canada’s Christmas Centre” in the early 1970s. Around 100,000 children per year perched themselves, either with excitement or with pure terror, onto the laps of the three Santas the mall employed. We imagine a few fading images taken during those brief visits survive in homes around the GTA.

Chief Santa John Horning was well acquainted with the hazards of the job: bruised knees, beard-tugging, and leaky bladders. After eight years on the job, he found that children weren’t greedy, but were “just victims of advertising.” He told the Don Mills Mirror that “every now and then a smart Alec asks for a million dollars, but to balance that a few ask for peace and happiness in the world.” Horning noted that while kids always offered to leave cookies, “I’d like to tell them to leave a shot of rye.”

Because heaven knows Santa needs a little fortification to cope with the stress of making all those deliveries on Christmas…

Source: the December 13, 1972 edition of the Don Mills Mirror.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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dmm 72-12-13 local santa clauses 2

dmm 72-12-13 local santa clauses 3

dmm 72-12-13 local santa clauses 4

Don Mills Mirror, December 13, 1972.

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Letter to editor, Globe and Mail, December 5, 1973.

Dining at the Coxwell Kresge

This installment of my Retro T.O. column for The Grid was originally published on June 26, 2012.

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Toronto Star ad announcing Kresge’s arrival in Toronto, June 12, 1929. The original location on Danforth west of Woodbine is, as of July 2019, occupied by Dollarama. Click on image for larger version.

While modern successors of five-and-dime stores like Dollarama expand across the city, they lack certain attributes their ancestors possessed. You won’t find the mingling of odours from parakeets, popcorn, and rubber boots. You won’t find the latest chart-topping records. And, in the chains at least, you won’t find a classic lunch counter.

While the dining areas in Toronto’s branches of cross-border chains like Kresge and Woolworth didn’t have the society-changing impact like those locations that served as focal points of the American civil-rights movement, they did provide a gathering place for the surrounding community. Sitting on a stool or leather-padded seat along the counter, patrons could catch up with friends or enjoy coffee, a light meal, and a slice of pie on their own. Before fast-food chains took over, the counters were ideal for a fast economical meal or a treat to calm down the kids.

ts 88-10-11 coxwell kresge dinette Toronto Star, October 11, 1988. Click on image for larger version.

When the Star profiled the “venerable east-end oasis” that was the Kresge outpost at 265 Coxwell Ave. in 1988, its counter seemed like a relic from another age. Despite the store’s yellowing shelf stock and creaky wooden floor, the 28-stool counter remained vital for its aging clientele as a place to socialize as their neighbourhood evolved into Little India. According to veteran clerk Vi Podmor, “We have the same old people showing up for coffee at the same time they have for years. I think they need this place to stay in touch.” Regulars like Moe Chandler recalled how busy the counter, which opened in 1942, was in its heyday, when it was patronized by streetcar drivers. “But they go to the doughnut shop on the corner now,” Chandler noted, “and a lot of people who used to shop here are going to Bargain Harold’s across the street.” While many of the other patrons he knew had passed on, Chandler, described as a “spry” 86-year-old, felt the counter was a “not bad” cruising spot.

Adding to the atmosphere was the vintage restaurant and soda-fountain equipment used to prepare the lunch counter’s culinary delights. Top sellers were classic snack bar fare: burgers, hot dogs, toast, and western sandwiches, at prices that only survive at Gale’s Snack Bar; few menu items topped four dollars. The classic milkshake machines likely saw less use than they did during the 1950s and 1960s, when local teens flooded the store every week to pick up the weekly CHUM Chart and enjoyed a drink while scanning the latest chart-toppers.

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Example of a downtown Toronto Kresge storefront, in this case at the southeast corner of Yonge and Carlton circa 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 21, Item 49409.

The Coxwell lunch counter outlived Kresge, whose last five Toronto stores were closed by Kmart in 1994. The new store owner, Super Dollar, retained the vintage aura of the dining area by retaining the “Dinette” sign, now with “Dollar” in front of it. But the decision to retain low prices proved unprofitable and the counter was closed in April 1996. The community’s ire expressed itself in a petition signed by 425 people. Combined with a substantial sales drop overall following the counter’s closure, store owners reopened it a few months later. The store would change names again, but the counter continued to feed the neighbourhood, under the banner of Liquidation World, until it closed for good in April 2007. Some seats were quickly removed to make space for a rack of dish cloths that once might have cleaned the counter. The store site is currently vacant, despite interest in remaking the space.

Sources: the April 18, 2007 edition of the National Post, and the October 11, 1988, April 26, 1996, and September 11, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

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As of October 2019, 265 Coxwell Avenue houses Dollar Tree. Head to the back, near the rear entrance, for a sense of where the lunch counter was.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Thanks to the Toronto Star Photo Archive at the Toronto Reference Library, higher-quality versions of Doug Griffin’s photos of the Coxwell Kresge taken in 1988. There’s a glimpse of the No Frills next door which, as of July 2019, is being rebuilt.

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Another ad for one of Kresge’s early Toronto stores, taken from the November 15, 1929 edition of the Star. As of July 2019 this location is a Scotiabank branch.

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Globe and Mail, January 6, 1994

The 13 Canadian locations marked the end of Kmart’s involvement in the five-and-dime trade. The remaining American Kresge stores (along with the Jupiter chain) were sold to McCrory’s in 1987. Growing up across the border from Kmart’s home base of Detroit, I remember shopping at several Kresge’s across the Motor City’s suburbs, mostly to stock up on sports cards. Soon after the sale, the stores were rebranded as McCrory’s, accompanied by a drop in quality during the period where five-and-dimes were on the way out and dollar stores were starting to fill that retail void.

Kmart’s overall woes continued. The Canadian division was sold to Zellers in 1998. Store closings continued in the United States. Falling behind competitors like Target and Walmart in the discount department store it once dominated, Kmart declared bankruptcy in 2002. Then hedge fund operator Edward Lampert gained control, merged the company with Sears, and has demonstrated over the past two decades how (a) to drive two venerable retailers into the ground and (b) how Ayn Rand-inspired methods are no way to run a business. A sign of how far Kmart has fallen: in Metro Detroit, where the company was based until Lampert gained control, only four locations remain as of 2019.

Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

A merger of two Torontoist posts, one written when Target bought a pile of Zellers leases (published January 13, 2011) and one when Target Canada called it quits (published January 23, 2015), along with a few extras tossed in.

Let’s begin with the expectations some people had when Target announced it was coming to Canada…

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some preferred, Tar-zhay) drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

Torontonians didn’t bite, as its first location closed within months. That first store was ignored in the PR for Zellers’ return to the city in March 1950. “Even if many Torontonians hear the news at first with indifference,” Globe and Mailbusiness columnist Wellington Jeffers wrote, “I am convinced that later on they will know it is something of an event that Zeller’s Ltd will this year open a Zeller store on Bloor Street.”

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

The branch at 24 Bloor Street West (now the site of the Holt Renfrew Centre) was hailed by City officials as the beachhead for larger stores moving onto Bloor between Yonge and Bay.

Zellers quickly took advantage of the explosive growth in suburban shopping, placing stores in pioneering shopping centres like Golden Mile Plaza and Lawrence Plaza. The stores gradually evolved into modern discount department stores, though unlike its competition (Kresge’s Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco chains), Zellers didn’t rebrand its larger locations.

Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers.

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

In August 1986 Zellers launched its Club Z customer loyalty program. Initial press reports depicted it as a computerized version of old “green stamp” schemes, complete with gift catalogue promising decent merchandise for a large number of points—a 28-inch colour TV could be yours for only 1.5 million Club Z points. Targeted consumers were women aged 25 to 55 who frequently shopped at Zellers for basic clothing and other staples for their families.

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

The following year, Zeddy debuted. In his early days, Zeddy taught kids to be safe via colouring books, and lent his assistance in finding missing children. Zeddy later upheld the “law of Toyland,” joining the likes of Batman and Robin in crusading for lower prices on kids’ goods. After being dumped in the woods in a humorous ad campaign in 2012, Zeddy became a mascot for Camp Trillium.

The influence of Target hovered over the chain from the 1990s onward, via revamped presentation in some stores, stocking common brands like Cherokee and Massimo, and periodic rumours the American discounter was about to take over. Yet model stores, as Canadian Business discovered at an Ajax location in 1996, could not escape complaints about messiness customers grumbled about for years:

Pieces of children’s clothing are strewn about the floor. The cosmetics counter is in hopeless disarray. A snorkel and mask are lying in the stationery section. A bucket of dirty water sits next to a mountain of tinned ham. Empty cardboard boxes and abandoned shopping carts block the aisles.There are rows of empty shelves in almost every department of the store. Some of the goodies bins around the checkout area sit empty—a cardinal sin in the retailing world, where impulse buying accounts for a significant percentage of sales. A female clerk swears loudly as she sets up a display. Another gives a visitor a sour look when he asks for directions to the washroom. Needless to say, this is not the ultimate shopping environment. And yet Zellers is counting on “model” outlets such as this to save it from oblivion.

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

To put it mildly, Target Canada didn’t live up to expectations. Its failure will probably be a case study in business textbooks for years to come. One side effect was a wave of nostalgia for Zellers, which left a void in the marketplace that is still being filled.

When Target announced its decision to pull the plug on its Canadian misadventure, it provoked a wave of nostalgia for the discount chain it supplanted. Memories and laments for Zellers made it a trending topic on social media, and the textbook case study of Target’s mistakes led people to forgive past complaints about the home of Club Z and Zeddy.

“Zellers, for most of its history, was quite simply the major discount store in the country,” retail expert Ed Strapagiel noted when Target purchased Zellers’ leases in Janaury 2011. ”It really was quite phenomenal—it didn’t necessarily offer the most fashionable items, but it had a reputation for good and sturdy clothes.”

Anyone with pangs of nostalgia, or wishing to have a last laugh on Target, can still shop at Zellers in Toronto, though the lone remaining store in the city at Kipling and Queensway is effectively a Hudson’s Bay outlet.

Sources: the September 1996 edition of Canadian Business; the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post; the February 2, 1950 and January 14, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 7, 1931, November 10, 1931. March 9, 1950, and August 10, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

It appears that Zellers will disappear (again) by the beginning of 2020, as its last two locations will be closing. 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Corner of Balmuto St. and Bloor St., looking north

Corner of Balmuto and Bloor, looking north, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 66, Item 21.

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

On the business side of the balance sheet, Mr. Zeller knows as much about the variety store business as any man in the business. On the personal side, he is forthright, hard-hitting and, when asked his opinion, gives it without reserve. What he has accomplished in a relatively short space of time implies a businessman of the “dynamo” type. He is all of that. And to back up his boundless supply of energy, is a knowledge of his own business and capabilities that commands respect.

The profile ended with this odd tidbit: “He has only two hobbies: business and Kiwanis.”

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

“County Fair” malls and plazas anchored by Zellers dotted the Canadian landscape during the 1970s. I wonder if the one closest to where I grew up (Leamington, now anchored by FreshCo) ever held a “stagnite” like the Georgetown location.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 22, 1903. Click on image for larger version.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

I considered including a brief history of Target in one of the original articles. These two ads show the birth of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s, out of which Target emerged as its discount division in 1962.

Bonus Features: Loblaws, Cinesphere, and OSAP, Oh My!

It’s been a busy week-and-a-half for me on the writing front: a trio of stories set (mostly) in Toronto for TVO. Because after a holiday break, you need a good kickstart to get back in a regular writing groove.

Not everything I find over the course of my research for these kinds of stories can or should make the final cut. So, where appropriate and time permitting, I’ll share with you the scraps from the cutting room floor or the side material that’s too good not to post.

Loblaws

Read the TVO article, published on January 15, 2019.

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Toronto Star, October 7, 1920.

The earliest Loblaws ad I found, when the chain opened its third store, which shares the current address of St. Lawrence Hall.

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Toronto Star, August 26, 1926. Click on image for a larger version.

Within a few years the ads grew larger, and the spotlight was shone on house brands. This ad also shows how the company pitched the benefits of self-service, as competitors slowly began switching over to the format.

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The Globe, June 13, 1930.

The introduction of one of Loblaws’ oldest house brands. It may be bagged now, but the look of Pride of Arabia coffee has changed little over the past 90 years.

globe 1926-11-19 page 14 front page of special loblaws sectionThe Globe, November 19, 1926. Click on image for larger version.

In 1926 The Globe published a special supplement about Loblaws and related food stories. Among the article titles:

“Interesting Story of Orange Growing Goes Back to 1865”
“Salmon Induced Never to Travel Into U.S. Waters”
“Fine Frozen Foods May Be Appetizing Even on Cold Days”
“Analysis Can Show That Canned Fish is Good, Safe Food”
“Fattening Foods Described For Folks Who Are Thin”
“French Government Made Note of Early Use of Ice Cream”

And, my favourite, “Buying of Products Sold in Groceterias is Full of Romance.” The “romance” derived from items sourced from exotic lands like Asia Minor, Burmah, Mesopotamia, Siam, and Sicily. “Few people actually realize,” the article notes, “the romance existing in the conduct of a modern groceteria establishment, or the great extent of the operations necessary to place at the disposal of the buying public the many and varied lines demanded today.”

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The Globe, November 19, 1926.

Photos took readers into the various departments which supplied each groceteria. Some of those spotlighted aren’t a big surprise…

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The Globe, November 19, 1926.

…while others just seem funny now. Maybe a Loblaws exec who stumbles upon this post might be inspired to launch a new, 100th anniversary artisanal, handcrafted mayonnaise division.

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The Globe, October 2, 1931.

Some chest-thumping as the company opened its 100th location. A condo was recently built on this site.

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The trade obit for T.P. Loblaw.

Cinesphere

Read the TVO article, published on January 21, 2019.

You may also want to read an earlier piece I wrote for Torontoist about the opening of the Cinesphere.

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Published circa 1972, this magazine offered readers highlights of the park along with articles spotlighting different regions of the province. “We are an interesting and exciting province,” observes Premier William Davis in his introduction. “One of our greatest assets, our size, is one of our problems. We are so vast it is almost impossible for a person to travel over the whole of the province and get to know it all.”

After a few paragraphs about the economy, Davis concludes that he believes “the province will remain as accommodating as it has been in the past, exerting steady and calm influence on Canada and the rest of the world. I believe we will continue to keep our voices down and let ourselves be judged on the quality of our lives, the clarity of our ideas and the full measure and value of our accomplishments.”

His present-day successors in government would be wise to generally revisit that conclusion.

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The section on the Cinesphere from the magazine, highlighting its second season offerings. The ETROGS (named after Sorel Etrog, who sculpted the award winners received) soon became the Genie Awards, which lasted until they were merged with the Geminis to form the Canadian Screen Awards in 2013.

OSAP

Read the TVO article, originally published on January 24, 2019.

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The Varsity, October 6, 1965.

I suspect that when this ad for the Canada Student Loans Plan was published, newspapers were supposed to insert the nearest locations at the bottom. The Varsity decided to let applicants find that out on their own.

Confession: trying to sort the financial details of what students could and couldn’t apply for in terms of bursaries, loans, and scholarships under CSLP and POSAP between 1964 and 1967 was confusing, especially as conditions constantly changed. Congratulations to those who figured it out without suffering a nervous breakdown.

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Front page, The Varsity, September 30, 1966.

The Varsity‘s turnout figure for the 1966 POSAP protest in Queen’s Park was at the high end of the estimate scale, while the Globe and Mail claimed as few as 1,200 (I used the Star‘s figure of 2,000, which seemed like a nice, median number). Inside this issue, the Varsity‘s editorial felt the gathering was a success. “It means student leaders do not need to think and work in a vacuum–with efficient and patient preparation they can obtain the co-operation and support of their fellow students and of the faculty and administration.”

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Globe and Mail, September 29, 1966.

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Queen’s Journal, September 29, 1966.

Following the changes to POSAP in early 1967, the Globe and Mail reported that a rumour spreading around student councils and media “that agitators will be given special preference by the Government in their applications for loans.”

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Globe and Mail, August 17, 1967.

Vintage Toronto Ads: 2007’s Christmas Sampler

A batch of holiday-themed Vintage Toronto Ads columns from 2007.

Part One: Leaping into the Holiday Espirit

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2007.

Vintage Ad #412: The Esprit of Simpsons

Toronto Life, December 1984. Click on image for larger version.

The holiday shopping season has descended upon the city, along with an early blast of winter. This combination may lead shoppers to unconsciously purchase items to cure their winter blues, even if the calendar shows that fall has a few more weeks to go.

Today’s ad offers a prescription from Simpsons and Esprit to keep free-spirited souls in an ecstatic mood come February. A trip down to the historic Queen Street department store promised relief, with a checkout line standing in for a waiting room.

This cure for the midwinter blahs appears to have worked for our models, who discovered that the colourful zig-zag sweater patterns unlocked a yearning for childhood games. They called up the rest of the gang, found an empty studio, and played leapfrog, jump rope and dodgeball for several hours.

Part Two: Saturdays with Santa at Woolco

Originally published on Torontoist on December 11, 2007.

Vintage Ad #431: Breakfast with Santa at Woolco

Toronto Star, December 8, 1977.

A longtime staple of the holiday season is a special visit from jolly old St. Nick to the nearest shopping mall or department store. Kids relish the opportunity to tell Santa that they want the latest hot toy, peace on Earth or an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model air rifle, while retailers hope these gift lists translate into sales. If the establishment has hired their Santa carefully, kids will not need to purchase Santi-Wrap before sitting on the big elf’s lap.

The F.W. Woolworth Company entered the discount department store battlefield in 1962, the same year rival five-and-dimer S.S. Kresge launched K-Mart. As Woolworth’s had long operated traditional outlets in Canada, it wasn’t long before the new format was launched in Toronto. Known for promotions such as “$1.44 Days,” Woolco proved to have a longer life here than stateside, where all locations were shuttered by 1983. The chain had 160 locations by the time it was sold to Wal-Mart in 1994.

The Red Grille was Woolworth’s cafeteria concept, found in Woolco and larger Woolworth’s stores on both sides of the border. Torontoist remembers that many had wobbly, flip-down red seats kids loved to play with, usually while sipping a drink in a red-striped cup. The smell was distinct, fried food mixed with an undefined element. We’re not sure how Santa or store management would have handled children who were bad all year––maybe they weren’t allowed to grab a package of Peak Freen cookies at the cashier.

These cafeterias were the descendants of the lunch counters that occupied Woolworth’s and many of its competitors. Toronto’s last surviving example of a five-and-dime counter, located in a former Kresge at Coxwell and Gerrard, closed earlier this year.

Of the locations listed in today’s ad, four continue to operate as Wal-Mart stores (Agincourt Mall, Dufferin Mall, North Park Plaza and Square One), while the others have been converted to other retailers or demolished.

As for Woolworth’s, the last of its North American five-and-dime stores closed in 1997 when the company decided to concentrate on its mall-based specialty chains. Several name changes later, the company continues to operate under the corporate name of its largest subsidiary, Foot Locker.
Part Three: Give the Gift of Baseball

Originally published on Torontoist on December 18, 2007.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1977.

‘Tis the season for gift certificates. Whether you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what to give to an impossible recipient or selecting your loved one’s favourite store or service, the selection of certificates, cards and vouchers seems unlimited. More than a few local sports woke up on Christmas morning three decades ago to find one of today’s passes for the Blue Jays’ second campaign as a stocking stuffer.

The Jays finished their debut season in a familiar spot for expansion teams, last place in the American League East. Despite a record of 54 wins and 107 losses, over 1.7 million fans cheered for the team at Exhibition Stadium. Orioles castoff Bob Bailor led hitters with a .310 average, while Dave Lemanczyk led the pitching staff with 13 victories. Of the players who took the field that year, only pitcher Jim Clancy and catcher Ernie Whitt were still in Toronto uniforms when the Jays made their first trip to the playoffs in 1985.

That the team had a store in Commerce Court wasn’t a great surprise, as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was one of the original owners of the franchise, along with Labatt’s Breweries and Imperial Trust. The bank retained an ownership share until it sold its last interests when Rogers Communications bought the team in 2000.

Part Four: Seasons Greetings from CBC Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on December 25, 2007.

Vintage Ad #116  - Merry Christmas from CBC

Toronto Life, December 1975.

A short but sweet season’s greeting for you from some of CBC Toronto’s mid-1970s personalities. Dig those frames on young Hana Gartner! The passage of time has made it hard to determine if the “oh yeah” was part of the original ad or a sarcastic comment by a previous reader.

Shaping Toronto: Christmas Window Displays

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2015.

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View of Christmas window display at Queen and Yonge Street, December 26, 1958, Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 101, Item 23.

90 years ago, the Globe illustrated the annual pilgrimage of shoppers to the Christmas display windows of downtown’s consumer temples with prose as colourful as holiday lights:

There is a peculiar fascination in Christmas window-shopping, and for the lucky beggar whose purse is at once portly and elastic there is a stimulus in a leisurely stroll along main thoroughfares gazing upon the wonder display flaunted through polished glass plate. On a pre-Christmas afternoon—the purple twilight shattered with shafts of rosy light gleaming from a thousand meteor-lights illuminating the shopping district of the city—men and women, boys and girls loitered in the glare, finding appeal in the magnificence of the Yuletide exhibit.

For decades, Christmas wasn’t complete without viewing the holiday window displays of the rival department store giants at Queen and Yonge: Eaton’s (which also decorated its College Street store) and Simpsons. At their peak during the 1950s and 1960s, crowds jostled for the best view as children and adults stood transfixed by each year’s animated presentation of nativity scenes and Santa’s workshop, and families drove for hours to view the spectacular scenes.

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Globe and Mail, November 30, 1953.

In her book Eatonians, Patricia Phenix described the craft and creativity presented in these via one created for Eaton’s College Street store (now College Park) by Merchandise Display Manager Ted Konkle and his wife Eleanor:

In one illuminated window, movable figures skated figure eights on a Teflon rink; in another, a baby Jesus figure lay in his crèche, surrounded by the figures of three wise men, their velvet costumes designed to Italian Renaissance exactitude. The figures, modelled in Styrofoam, were moved electronically after heated brass rods were inserted in their bases.

The Konkles prepared much of the installation at home, where their clothesline was loaded with papier-mâché figures. “We remember our son sitting in a high chair pounding Styrofoam with something or other,” Ted Konkle recalled. “We were weirdos, let me tell you.”

Weird perhaps, but such efforts worked, pleasing the public and corporate accountants. But something was lost when Eaton’s replaced its downtown stores with its Eaton Centre flagship in 1977—with only three windows along Yonge Street to work with, executives decided there wasn’t room for a holiday display. When the decision was passed off an experiment to gauge public reaction, the Globe and Mailhad a simple reaction: “boo.” It’s tempting to treat this as foreshadowing for the retailer’s unpopular decision to drop the Santa Claus Parade in 1982.

Meanwhile, high-end retailers like Creeds on Bloor Street utilized holiday displays inspired by fashionable New York windows, where the icy creepiness of mannequins was used for dark comedic effect. The shock value of designs which skirted the boundaries of good taste made good headline fodder.

For Holt Renfrew, as fashion director Barbara Atkin told the Star in 2001, a good store window is like good sex: it’s all about the fantasy and allure. She noted that any retailer who just filled the window with merchandise didn’t appreciate, in the Star’s words, “the gentle teasing, the fervent anticipation and the climax of landing the sale.” Since the late 1990s, Holt Renfrew has drawn gazes for themes ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Moulin Rouge.

Beyond consumerism, holiday window displays can serve as a forum for social issues. This year’s scene at Untitled & Co on Queen West looks like a stereotypical nuclear family enjoying Christmas dinner…until the husband slaps the wife. The Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses (OAITH) hopes it will raise awareness of the spike in domestic violence the stresses of the season create. “We wanted to bring awareness to the public and we wanted women to know and understand that they weren’t alone during this period,” OAITH chair Charlene Catchpole told the Globe and Mail. “That isolation when everybody around you is happy, excited, looking forward to Santa coming and having this big holiday meal, when you can’t afford those things and you’re waiting for that other shoe to drop—we really wanted to let women know that they weren’t alone.”

The traditional department store holiday display is still available at Simpsons’ successor, Hudson’s Bay. Comparing its display to Holt Renfrew’s in 2008, the National Post observed that “kids don’t care about couture. They care about Santa Claus and elves.” We’ll see how both sides mix in the neighbourhood next year when Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue make their downtown debuts.

Additional material from Eatonians by Patricia Phenix (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002); the December 14, 1926 edition of the Globe; the November 25, 1977, April 5 1980, and December 14, 2015 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 1, 2008 edition of the National Post; and the December 20, 2001 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Black’s

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2015.

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Globe and Mail, November 28, 1966.

“Black’s is Photography.” Or at least it was until yesterday, when Telus announced that it will shut the chain’s 59 remaining stores by August 8. A spokesperson blamed the 85-year-old brand’s demise on changing technology and the costs associated with making its recent revamp succeed.

Perhaps Telus, who has owned the chain since 2009, heeded advice Eddie Black gave his sons: “Don’t hang in too long.”

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One of the earliest ads to mention Eddie Black’s. The Globe, October 19, 1931.

Black’s traced its origins to 1930, when Eddie Black used a $500 loan from his parents (who owned a grocery store at Spadina and Lonsdale in Forest Hill) to open a radio and appliance shop at 1440 Yonge Street. Nine years later, sensing public interest in photography on the eve of the royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, he began carrying a small selection of cameras. The first batch sold out quickly.

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Globe and Mail, October 22, 1949.

When Eddie decided to open a larger store several doors north at 1424 Yonge, his eldest sons Bill and Bob proposed selling fishing gear, guns, and photographic equipment out of the old location. Eddie agreed, setting them up with a loan to launch those lines under his name in 1948. Within a year, the store dropped its outdoors goods. Besides retailing, the brothers offered lectures in their basement and ran equipment shows.

Sixty years later, Bob Black described the environment in which he began selling photographic equipment:

When we first started our store, the cameras were almost painful to use because they were so complicated. You had to focus, cock the shutter, set the lens opening and speed, set your flash, and figure out the proper distance. Photography often required a tripod. If you had slides, you needed slide trays, a projector, and a screen. Movies needed splicers, reels, and cans. Picture taking was a lot more than just the push of a button as it is today. Our timing, however, was perfect. In less than a decade, the camera went from being a specialty item to a common family purchase.

From the beginning, Black’s made good use of advertising. It sponsored a show on CFRB, “Black’s Camera Club of the Air,” which dispensed advice and previewed new products. Pitchmen included humourist Henry Morgan and Front Page Challengehost Fred Davis. The “Black’s is Photography” campaign developed by Saffer Advertising in the early 1980s used Martin Short to get that point across. Many of the ads featuring Short were improvised and sometimes mistakes made it into the final product, such as the time a spooked St. Bernard dragged the comedian across the set. It wasn’t the only time Black’s dealt with animal shenanigans; during an ad shoot at Bayview Village in the late 1970s, an elephant was depicted twirling a roll of film with its trunk before dropping it off with a clerk. “The elephant crapped all over the floor,” Bill Black later remembered.

Expansion into a chain began during the 1950s. Its fourth store, opened at Eglinton Square in 1954, launched its association with malls and plazas. There were hiccups along the way—the company was targeted by the federal government in 1962 over the definition of “regular” price under the recently passed Combines Investigation Act.

One of Black’s innovations was enlarging the standard size of photo prints. Up through the mid-1970s, customers usually picked up 3.5×5 prints. Sensing competition from instant cameras, management decided it needed something to set them apart. The answer was a larger 4×6 photo. When Black’s contacted Kodak to build a custom printer, they were told such machines would only be able to produce the new size. Introduced in 1977, the larger prints took off, eventually becoming the industry norm.

By the mid-1980s, a dozen members of the Black family worked for the company. They sensed the time was right to sell due to record profits, no debts, and private fears about how digital technology would affect the business. The 105-store chain was sold for $100 million to Scott’s Hospitality, which owned franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Scott’s Chicken Villa”) and Holiday Inn. The new owners doubled the number of stores to 210, and launched a short-lived foray into the United States. Subsequent owners included Fuji Film (1993-2007) and private equity firm ReichmannHauer (2007-2009).

When Telus picked up Black’s, by then reduced to 113 locations, for $28 million in 2009, it was to boost its shopping-mall presence in the wake of rival Bell’s purchase of The Source. “There’s a convergence going on between wireless and photography and Black’s is particularly well suited to take advantage of that,” Telus executive Robert McFarlane told the Globe and Mail. But adapting to the rapid changes in digital technology and how people display and store images proved too much of a challenge. A recent revamp, which included ditching the apostrophe from the chain’s name, increased profitability, but was deemed too pricey an initiative to succeed.

Black’s will soon be a memory, like those it long boasted of preserving among its customers.

Additional material from Picture Perfect: The Story of Black’s Photography by Robert Black with Marnie Maguire (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009) and the April 24, 2009 and September 9, 2009 editions of the Globe and Mail.