Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on February 4, 2012.
How would you open a profile of Toronto for one of the U.S.’ most popular general interest magazines? Well, if you were the Saturday Evening Post 60 years ago, you would start with a joke that originated in a rival city, Montreal: a Toronto magnate was summoned to appear in court. On the appointed day his doctor appeared in his stead, claiming the businessman had lapsed into a coma. An attorney asked, helpfully, “Did you try showing him some money?”
So began that magazine’s look at Toronto in its March 22, 1952 issue. Our city was profile number 116 in the magazine’s “The Cities of America” series, which spotlighted the continent’s most colourful urban areas. After reading the article, a reader might have concluded that Toronto possessed a boastful attitude and an obsession with money.
Unfortunately, we didn’t receive a Norman Rockwell cover to go with it.
That the article started with a joke from Montreal may not have been just an illustration of the rivalry between the two cities. Author Leslie Roberts was considered the dean of Montreal journalism, at least in the eyes of the Montreal Gazette, when he died in 1980. Long a commentator for CJAD radio, Roberts had been a correspondent for Harper’s, Reader’s Digest, and the Saturday Evening Post during the Second World War. An opponent of Quebec nationalism who promoted the “No” option during the lead-up to the first vote on sovereignty, Roberts’ last words to his wife were “make sure I vote in that referendum.” He died five days before the ballots were cast.
“Torontonians assume,” he wrote, “with considerable accuracy, that Montrealers are disturbed by Toronto’s threat to their city’s pre-eminence as the Canadian banking-and-financial center, by the fact that the capital of Ontario has already become Canada’s greatest industrial producer, and because Toronto is rapidly catching up in the census figures.” The Torontonians Roberts talked to took the pot shots in stride, acting “as if the laugh really were on the originators.” They pointed out that Torontonians donated more to charity than other Canadian cities, volunteered in larger numbers for military service, and “cheerfully vote[d] for community improvements without much caring what they cost.” Money was something used to unashamedly build civic pride, which provides a sharp contrast to the views of certain members of the current city administration.
According to Saturday Night editor R.A. Farquharson, Toronto’s pursuit of wealth was fuelled simply by the desire to meet its own growing needs. If an institution like the Hospital for Sick Children required a new wing, for instance, fundraising teams would quickly raise the necessary monies. A combination of taxes, endowments, and public subscriptions allowed institutions like Sick Kids, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Public Library, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to develop. Farquharson believed that these institutions, combined with a reverence for old traditions, reflected the city’s “conservative-progressive” spirit.
And, according to the article, these successes prompted Torontonians’ passion for boasting to visitors about our accomplishments, which seems to indicate a self-confidence our citizens are now often accused of lacking. Instead of shrugging off or appearing self-conscious about Toronto’s achievements, people were eager to boast of our discoveries, such as insulin, or large-scale buildings and events. The Royal York wasn’t just a luxury hotel—it was the largest in the British Empire. The Canadian National Exhibition billed itself as “The Biggest Annual Fair in the World.” Roberts observed that “When bigness or uniqueness is under discussion, everybody in Toronto, everybody gets into the act.” Among our greatest braggarts was Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe. Having won six Stanley Cups since 1942, Smythe’s boast that perennial baseball champions the New York Yankees were “the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball” was not without merit. Smythe also claimed that “every boy in Canada who owns a pair of skates hopes to play for Toronto when he grows up—and most of the good ones do!” We can think of at least one child in Quebec who didn’t share Smythe’s world view.
Roberts observed that citizens born outside Toronto were among the city’s loudest boosters. “So heady is Toronto’s missionary spirit,” Roberts wrote, “that it often leads the immigrant who has been around for a mere decade or so to talk as if his ancestors founded the community.” Such was the case with Mayor Hiram McCallum, who discussed the city’s “most favoured fragment of historic folklore,” the American invasion and occupation during the War of 1812. When Roberts asked McCallum if he was a Toronto native, the mayor replied “Bless you, I don’t belong around here. I’m just a western boy who had the good sense to move to an up-and-coming city!”
Among old line Toronto families mentioned in the article, the Eatons were treated with admiration bordering on worship. Citizens loved telling outsiders how wonderful the retailing family was, from overseeing the highest annual merchandise turnover in the British Empire to, despite customer complaints, upholding marketing practices initiated by Timothy Eaton such as refusing to sell tobacco and covering display windows with shades on Sundays. People often repeated a quote uttered by Sir John Craig Eaton when he was asked to place a price tag on the business: “There is not enough money in the world to buy my father’s name!” According to Roberts, “Toronto considers this the finest sentence ever uttered by mortal man.”
Much of the wealth flowing through the city during the early 1950s derived from mining, whose participants Roberts frequently encountered deep downtown:
Gaudy Mackinaw shirts and knee-high boots—the uniform of the bush—stir no greater excitement in the lobbies, bars and elevators of the Royal York, or the nearby King Edward, than a ten-gallon hat does in Texas. Geologists, mining engineers and prospectors, out from the mining country, hustle around the business district, and those who don city clothes for their stay in town are identifiable by the uneasy air they put on with them. The morning coffee drinkers in Childs’ or the lunchers at the next table to you in the Savarin spin fancy tales of new strikes out in the Northwest Territories, or of gold up yonder in Quebec province. They talk the romantic lingua franca of a new wilderness empire. But no Torontonian, overhearing it, pays much attention. The mining argot is as common hereabouts as wheat talk in Winnipeg or cow talk in Cheyenne.
Mining represented a frontier spirit that, according to Toronto Industrial Commission manager T.H. Bartley, inspired business magnates old and new. “The old barons were tough,” Bartley noted, “but they taught us the value of the frontier. As long as we remember, and Canada has frontiers, this town will boom.” For Bartley and industrialists of the early 1950s, the frontier was the farmland surrounding the city that was quickly being bought for developments like Don Mills, the Golden Mile, and Rexdale.
That people came to Toronto and its hinterlands strictly for business prompted Roberts to examine the saying that “nobody ever moved to Toronto for the scenery.” He suggested that our citizens took on the task of creating beauty themselves. While the article advises that one had to head north to Lake Simcoe, Muskoka, or Georgian Bay to experience true scenery, the city’s ravines were seen—as they still are today—as a refuge from the roar of traffic, while a road like Highway 2 (encompassing portions of present-day Lake Shore Boulevard and Kingston Road) took advantage of the contour of Lake Ontario. As for downtown, “Few North American cities can boast a finer view than that seen up the broad mall of University Avenue, faced by the rugged dignity of the provincial Parliament Buildings,” Roberts noted. “The avenue is flanked by new skyscrapers, clubs, publishers’ offices, armories, hospitals, and a row of dwellings, in one of which Mary Pickford was born. It is a graceful eight-lane boulevard, with grass down the center and a flower display which would do credit to a city in the gentle Pacific coast climate.”
What the article captures is the end of an era. The 1950s were the beginning of the end of Toronto as a fiercely loyal outpost of Great Britain, an era when Sunday restriction began to loosen and the influence of organizations like the Orange Order waned. While Roberts notes that Toronto was seen to be both Canada’s most British and most American city, our southern neighbour began wielding a stronger influence. The old frontiers vanished with the growth of suburbia and the worship of icons like the Eatons became less devout and more irreverent. The flow of new arrivals continued, but diversified to include draft dodgers, Cold War refugees, and immigrants from the other side of the globe. To the rest of the country, our pursuit of wealth and the stereotype of the world revolving around Toronto still resonate, even if other regions are rolling in more resource-derived money than we are.
Roberts’ final thoughts on our fair city?
Toronto, admittedly, is not beautiful in the sense that San Francisco is, nor as colourful as its rival, Montreal. But the townsman cheerfully shrugs off belittling comparison. Toronto may lack the scenic charm and heady atmosphere of the French-speaking metropolis, but it has more tourists and is away out in front as a convention city—the “biggest,” of course, in Canada. It may be likened to a plain but clever woman, who has studied her good points and made the most of them. And, like the woman who has given intelligent aid to Nature, Ontario’s capital may be fairly called a handsome, as well as a prosperous, up-and-coming town.
Additional material from the May 17, 1980 edition of the Montreal Gazette. Unless noted, all images photographed by Ivan Dmitri and published in the March 22, 1952 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.