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.

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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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Hudson’s Bay Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on January 28, 2015.

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Toronto Star, November 5, 1975.

“A kind of urban Rip Van Winkle” was how the Star assessed the state of Yonge and Bloor in 1970. “We let it fall asleep in the early decades of this century, then tiptoed all around it during the ensuing years building the modern face of Toronto. While glittering towers of glass and concrete and stainless steel shot up everywhere else, mid-town retained a sleepy two-storey profile.”

In terms of large-scale development, the neighbourhood was waking up. Headlines transitioned from the complaints about youth in Yorkville to announcements of new office towers and shopping complexes. By the end of 1970, over 200 storeys of new space were expected to be built within the next four years. While buildings like the Manulife Centre and 2 Bloor West materialized, other ideas, like a pedestrian walkway above Bloor Street into the Colonnade, remained on the drawing board.

Among the first projects announced was a reshaping of the northeast corner of Bloor and Yonge. Backed by affiliates of Swiss-owned developer Fidinam, Toronto architectural firm Crang and Boake revealed plans for the as-yet unnamed complex in June 1969. They called for an office tower, an apartment/hotel tower, two levels of shopping, and an 800-vehicle garage, among other features. Sitting atop a major commuter hub, the complex linked into a series of underground shopping centres stretching westward, whose foot traffic would allow landlords to charge hefty rents. The project soon secured interest from Famous Players cinemas and, vacating its old building on the corner, Royal Bank.

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Toronto Sun, August 7, 1974.

Two major tenants were announced in December 1971: the Workmen’s Compensation Board (WCB), which planned to rent up to 13 floors of office space, and Hudson’s Bay Company. The Bay was familiar with the neighbourhood, having operated a branch of its Morgan’s chain at the present site of Holt Renfrew. The new store would serve as the flagship for the Bay’s rapid expansion in Eastern Canada. It also lent its name to the project: the Hudson’s Bay Centre.

Political controversy soon arose at Queen’s Park. It emerged that Fidinam, which received a $15-million loan from the WCB toward construction, donated $50,000 to the ruling provincial Progressive Conservatives following the decision to move the WCB into the building. A probe by attorney-general Dalton Bales found no wrongdoing under existing laws.

Not everyone was happy with the changes the rising towers brought to the neighbourhood. “Due to the rapid expansion of Bloor from Spadina to Church in the past five years no one paid any attention to amenities, sunlight, wind current, the general environment and the general esthetics,” alderman Ying Hope lamented to the Globe and Mail. “As a result it is rapidly becoming just another canyon with little uniformity and ‘toothgaps’ everywhere. Without some control the whole environment could be killed.”

When The Bay opened on August 7, 1974, district general manager Al Guglielmin promised it would give Eaton’s and Simpsons “a good run for their money.” The 260,000-square-foot store was touted as the first major department store to open in the core since Eaton’s College Street (now College Park) welcomed its first customers in 1931. A fifth-floor exhibition hall showcased displays from community groups. Of its three restaurants, the highlight may have been “The Edibles,” a buffet-style restaurant with English cuisine (roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips) decorated with cartoons by Ronald Searle illustrating the company’s colorful history.

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Toronto Sun, January 12, 1977.

A parade on the Bay’s opening morning ran from Varsity Stadium to the store. A year later, on November 6, 1975, the rest of the complex officially opened. To celebrate, high-wire performer Jay Cochrane walked the 287 feet between the two towers at a height of 439 feet above ground, sans safety devices.

One of the Hudson Bay Centre’s persistent detractors has been Star architecture critic Christopher Hume. He has frequently noted its failings, especially the cold concrete face it displays at street level. In a 1987 article on the best and worst buildings in the city, Hume considered it a lowlight:

An object lesson in how to take one of the two most important intersections in Toronto—Bloor and Yonge—and wreck it. Without windows or doors to break up its solid concrete facade, this Crang & Boake monstrosity looks more like a bunker than a department store. The only way life has returned to the corner is through the itinerant vendors who set up their wares around the centre.

A decade later, Hume declared “it sums up everything that shouldn’t happen in a city.”

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Left: Globe and Mail, November 17, 1975. Right: Toronto Star, October 28, 1975.

In recent years, the shopping complex underwent years of renovations. The Bay gradually lost its flagship status after Simpsons on Queen Street changed branding. It appeared the space would be transformed into the Canadian flagship for Saks Fifth Avenue, until Hudson’s Bay management decided to convert part of the Queen store. Height-wise, the complex looks tiny compared to new neighbours like One Bloor East. Amid the current developments in the neighbourhood, some might say the site feels like the Rip Van Winkles it displaced.

Additional material from the June 18, 1969, December 7, 1971, March 17, 1972, October 1, 1973, and November 7, 1975 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 14,1970, November 2, 1972, January 5, 1973, July 17, 1974, August 1, 1974, May 9, 1987, and September 19, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.

Happy 50th Birthday, North York!

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 12, 2012.

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Cover of The Mirror Special Jubilee Edition, June 1972. All images in this article are taken from this publication.

The summer of 1972 was a momentous one for the Borough of North York. The growing suburban municipality celebrated its 50th anniversary that year with a series of special events throughout that spring and summer. Among the souvenirs was a special edition of the Mirror newspaper which traced North York’s past, present, and future.

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Photo: Doug Hyatt.

The Borough of North York Council enjoy a ride at Black Creek Pioneer Village after rehearsing a planned re-enactment of the first council meeting in 1922 (the councillor in the white coat and red scarf might be Mel Lastman, while Paul Godfrey may be third from left in the front row). North York was born out of a farmers’ revolt over their lack or representation on York Township council. During the early 20th century councillors were voted on by the entire township, which increasingly meant all of the representatives came from the southern, urban end of York Township. A petition was launched to separate the rural northern area, which was taken door-to-door by Roy Risebrough in his 1917 Model T. The petition succeeded: a bill establishing the Township of North York was passed by the Ontario legislature on June 13, 1922.

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Likely as a reward for his work in establishing the Township of North York, Roy Risebrough was named its first police constable. When he noted that he knew nothing about police enforcement, officials told him “you’ll learn soon.” In his 34 years as North York’s chief constable he never carried a gun and knew most of the township’s early citizens by name. Outside of occasional gas station robberies (which were mostly committed by Torontonians), crimes tended to be minor. “Ninety percent of the cases were settled out of court,” he told the Mirror.” I used to go round to the house and talk to the people. It was different in those days. Instead of taking them to court, you gave them a tongue-lashing. And in a month, they were good friends again.” In many ways, Risebrough was the stereotypical small town law enforcer, to the extent that at least one long-time resident believed he never wore a uniform so that he could slip away for a few hours to fish.

Make that almost never wore a uniform. When George Mitchell campaigned for reeve in 1941, he promised to make Risebrough wear official clothing. After his election, Mitchell took Risebrough to Tip Top Tailors to be measured. When the uniform was ready, Mitchell had Risebrough put it on before both men made an evening drive from Willowdale to Hogg’s Hollow. Mitchell said “Now I’ve fulfilled my campaign promise, Roy. You can do what you damned well like.” Risebrough never wore the full uniform again.

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North York’s planning department prepared a series of maps tracing the municipality’s growth. The following description was provided for the 1922 map (population: 6,000):

North York’s population in 1922 was scattered in small farm-based communities centring along Yonge. It continued the development spine of the city of Toronto. Various villages thrived along the Yonge axis—York Mills, Lansing, Willowdale and Newtonbrook. Many of the borough’s historic sites are located in the bygone villages—Gibson House, C.W. Jeffery’s home, the Jolly Miller Tavern, and the Hogg store, Dempsey Brothers’ store, York Cottage and the Joshua Cummer house. A population nucleus existed in a strip development at Humber Summit on Islington, on the road leading to Woodbridge. A small development existed at North West, at Wilson and Weston Rd.

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By 1945, the population had spread from both sides of Yonge. Most of the growth was in the area south of Wilson, between Yonge and Bathurst. By this time, Lawrence Park, was largely developed to its present extent. Humber Summit expanded more towards the Humber River and became largely a community of summer cottages. These were soon winterized for year-round occupation. North Weston expanded further to merge with the Pelmo Park area to its east.

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This map shows the vast population growth which occurred in the decade. It took place largely in the area west of Bayview. East of Bayview the township remained largely in farm use. With the exception of a few pockets, development took place south of Sheppard and west of Bathurst. It went as far north as Steeles between Bathurst and Bayview. Why the growth? New family formations brought the need for single-family homes. Unified water and sewerage in Metro helped speed development. The growth of car ownership brought people to the suburbs, starting in 1949. North York’s 1948 official plan helped planning and the comprehensive zoning bylaw of 1952 showed permitted land uses. By 1955 the Yonge St. villages had merged into the community today known as Willowdale. But only a small population had moved to Don Mills by 1955.

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It was during the decade 1955 to 1965 that North York changed from being a dormitory community for Toronto’s labour force. It became a more integrated urban community with the introduction of industrial and commercial developments and the jobs these provided. By 1965 Don Mills was developed to its present extent. Yorkdale Shopping Centre had been opened in the western half of the borough. Development had almost reached the northern limits of the municipality at Steeles and left a few remaining pockets of undeveloped land south of Finch, such as Windfields Farm.

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With the notable exception of Windfields Farm, the filling in of large subdivided tracts of land is now almost completed. What remains in the borough? There are vacant single-family and apartment building lots. Also, not all land is at its full potential use as, for example, where single-family homes stand on land planned for apartments. The planned population of the borough, according to the district plan program is 734,000 people. North York is expected to reach this figure sometime after 1990. During the 1966–71 period the major developments in North York include the Ontario Science Centre, Flemingdon Park and Fairview Mall Shopping Centre.

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During the debate over the Spadina Expressway, some North York residents protested in favour of the controversial roadway. Director of traffic operations S.R. Cole professed an open mind toward Spadina in his contribution to the Mirror special. “I simply note that if we had left the Lake Shore Blvd. as it was in 1945 and not built the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, downtown Metro might be like some downtown areas in other cities—deteriorating, lacking in development. There might be no North York as we know it today. North York needed a downtown core to grow as it has.” Cole also believed that rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue was needed “sooner than the Toronto Transit Commission will likely propose it.”

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Sheppard Avenue, facing east towards Leslie Street. Photo by Doug Hyatt.

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Borough councillors were asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the municipality. Mayor Basil Hall thought traffic problems due to massive construction projects like the Yonge subway extension were the biggest concern in the present, while redevelopment to prevent urban decay would be required in the future. Controller Mel Lastman targeted municipal strikes and inadequate TTC service as his beefs, while fellow controller Paul Godfrey was determined to protect North York’s ecology.

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York University had existed for just over a decade, and operated from its main campus for seven years when North York celebrated its golden jubilee. The school’s first president, Dr. Murray Ross, noted the best course for York’s continued progress:

The only possible problem which could adversely affect York’s development is the kind of confrontation found frequently on other campuses in North America. We have avoided such difficulties at York thus far. It is not conflict of view which is inevitable in all families and organizations, but the manner in which conflict is resolved that is important. We have been able so far to work out our difficulties and differences in discussion and debate. If we are able to continue to do so, York’s future is assured. I predict, and I believe sincerely, that in the future York will enhance its already established reputation.

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When it opened in 1970, Fairview Mall was the first multi-level shopping centre in Metropolitan Toronto. Among its early attractions was the lengthy movator, which was removed during the 1980s.

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One of the many ads found in the Mirror special from North York’s major corporate citizens. The IBM complex at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road is currently home to Celestica.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The municipal ad on the back cover. “The astonishment of North York,” according to writer Robert Moon, “lies not so much in its multi-billion-dollar construction since the Second World War, which is profound in time and space, but in the creation of a quality place to live and work for 520,000 people, which is simple and grand in concept.”

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A collection of North York historical landmarks.

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The accompanying map.

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Some scenes in North York never change, such as the eternal traffic jam on the northbound Don Valley Parkway around Lawrence Avenue.

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While some of the corporate offices and landmarks shown in this ad are still present in Flemingdon Park (Foresters, Ontario Science Centre), others are long gone. As of 2018, Inn on the Park is a car dealership, IBM is Celestica, the Imperial Oil property is Real Canadian Superstore, while the Bata and Shell properties are now the Aga Khan Museum. The spotlighted property, the Ontario Hospital Association and Blue Cross building, is now bannered with ICICI Bank.

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Toronto Star, June 13, 1972.

Tourism Tips, 1867

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on June 11, 2011.

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How we imagine a tourist magazine cover might have looked in 1867.

In June 1867, Toronto was weeks away from becoming the capital city of the province of Ontario in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Then, as now, the summer tourist season was underway, though the preferred methods of arrival were train or steamship. We recently thumbed through a travel guide published that year, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, which provides both brief highlights for visitors to our fair city and criticizes the lack of natural wonders. Which got us thinking…what would tourist literature akin to modern publications like Where Toronto have looked like during the Confederation year?

Here’s our attempt.

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Normal School building, Gould Street, north-side east of Yonge, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.

Summer is upon us and there are few better times to take a day’s visit or a week’s excursion to Toronto. Pay no heed to the authors of a recent travel guide who contend that our city has too many brick buildings (due to the absence of local stone quarries) and utterly lacks beautiful scenery and scenic drives. A city like ours has many aspects to appeal to any traveller, with which we hope to enlighten you.

ATTRACTIONS

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St. James Cathedral, between 1885 and 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 23.

Toronto treats piety with the utmost seriousness. If your visit coincides with the Lord’s Day, there are many handsome churches that will satisfy your spiritual needs. If you are of the Anglican persuasion, attend a service at St. James Cathedral at the corner of King and Church streets. If you are a devotee of the papacy (which we generally do not advise visitors to openly display on Toronto’s streets, especially those of Irish extraction, unless brawling is on your itinerary), then slip into a mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael. Though both of these buildings of high worship have yet to be completed, we are assured that once their spires are finished they will provide much to the city’s appearance from a distance.

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University of Toronto, 1859. Painted by Sir Edmund Walker. Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s institutes of higher learning provide more than space to train the nation’s future leaders—these are sites for tourists who wish a sense of Toronto’s philosophy, the city’s aesthetics. Deep thought has gone into their architecture and aesthetic surroundings which make them ideal locations to spend an afternoon. The University of Toronto offers a beautiful botanical garden on its grounds, along with a main Norman-styled building made of the finest white stone from Ohio. On Queen Street, Trinity College offers 20 acres of lush parkland that we are certain future generations will enjoy on days resplendent with sun. The Normal School at St. James Square is said to the largest building in America designed to train future educators.

ENTERTAINMENT

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Right wing of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 1868. Photo by William Notman. McCord Museum, Item I-34480.1.

A recently published guidebook, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, highlights one of the most enlightening experiences in which any visitor to Toronto can partake, one that reinforces the frailty of human existence:

The Provincial Lunatic Asylum, at the western extremity of the city, is well worthy of a visit by the curious in such matters. It is kept in admirable order; and though it is a painful sight at all times to be brought in contact with “humanity so fallen,” it is pleasing to see the degree of comfort many of the patients seem to enjoy. There is no difficulty in obtaining permission to view it.

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The Globe, June 12, 1867.

Were a carnival of “fallen humanity” not diversion enough, visitors in July will have the opportunity to enjoy one of America’s finest travelling circuses, operated by veteran showman L.B. Lent.

ESSENTIALS

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Union Station (1858-1871), waterfront, west of York St., Toronto, Ont. Water colour, pen & brown ink over pencil. William Armstrong, 1859. Toronto Public Library, JRR 291 Cab III.Union Station, circa 1860.

Travellers arriving from the north have a new train station to disembark from in the vicinity of City Hall and St. Lawrence Market. Operated by the Northern Railway, this wonderful new facility on the Esplanade west of Jarvis Street was recently described in one of the city’s finest newspapers, the Globe, as being “a much more ornamental and commodious structure than is generally imagined…It is in the Italian style, with heavy bracketed cornice, circular-headed windows and doors, glazed with ornamental ground glass.” No less a figure than John A. Macdonald (who we suspect will become leader of the new Dominion next month) was on hand for the opening ceremony to praise the future possibilities of extending the line beyond Barrie into Grey County and other points north.

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King Street East, south side looking west, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 1.

For the finest in dry goods and seasonal fashions, King Street east of Yonge offers high class shopping to rival that found in older cities. It is a district for the chattering class, as one writer has noted:

The buildings on King Street are greater and grander than their neighbours on Yonge; the shops are larger and dearer; and last but not least King Street is honoured by the daily presence of the aristocracy while Yonge Street is given over to the business man, the middle-class and the beggar. Amid the upper classes there is a performance that goes on daily that is known among the habitués as ‘doing King.’ It consists principally of marching up and down a certain part of the street at a certain hour, performing, as it were, ko-tou [sic] to the goddess of Fashion, and sacrificing to her sister divinity of Society.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the first stragglers appear on the scene, which extends perhaps a quarter of a mile. These consist primarily of young ladies, whose proper place should be at school, and young men attired in the height of fashion. By the time these ardent devotees have paraded a few times, the regular habitués make their appearance, and till six o’clock in the evening one side—for one side only is patronized—is crowded to excess.

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Advertisement spotlighting the Golden Lion, 1872. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1662, Item 14.

Among the finest of King Street’s merchants is the establishment of Robert Walker and Sons, colloquially known as the “Golden Lion” due to the jungle lord that gazes down upon patrons entering the store. Founded around 1836, the business has been in its present location for the past two decades. Current renovations to the handsome cast-iron building will make it the largest retailer in Canada West/Ontario. When finished, the store will consist of a four-storey frontage along King Street and a two-storey section stretching back to Colborne Street that will include a large dome to provide beautiful natural lighting to heighten customer appreciation of the goods for sale.

Additional information from The Canadian Handbook and Tourists Guide (Montreal: M. Longmoore & Co., 1867), Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978), Toronto by Bruce West (Toronto: Doubleday, 1967), and the June 11, 1867 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The cover of the Coles Canadiana Collection edition of The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, published in 1971. Given its focus on modern-day Ontario and Quebec (then Canada West and Canada East), the book was likely prepared prior to Confederation.

From the introduction:

The nooks and corners of Canada, and more especially of the Lower Province, in addition to the interest they awaken as important sources of Commercial and Agricultural wealth, are invested with no ordinary attraction for the Naturalist, the Antiquary, the Historian, and the Tourist in quest of pleasure or of health. We have often wondered why more the venturesome spirits amongst our transatlantic friends do not tear themselves away, even for a few months, from London fogs, to visit our distant but more favoured clime. How is it that so few, comparatively speaking, come to enjoy the bracing air and bright summer skies of Canada?

Here is a Vintage Toronto Ads column about the Golden Lion department store, which was originally published on Torontoist on April 8, 2015.

 

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The Globe, September 7, 1858.

During the late 19th century, several downtown Toronto dry-goods merchants developed the potential to grow into major department stores. While Eaton’s and Simpsons evolved into national retailers, their competitors either couldn’t tackle the two giants or fell by the wayside for other reasons. One could-have-been-a-contender was Robert Walker and Sons, a.k.a. the Golden Lion, which was considered the largest retail business in Ontario in the late 1860s.

A native of Brampton, England, Robert Walker moved to Toronto in 1829, where he quickly entered the local clothing business. Around 1836, he formed a partnership with Thomas Hutchinson and operated a store on King Street east of Yonge. Around 1847, Walker opened up his wallet and spent a spectacular amount for the time period ($30,000) to build a stone structure at 33-37 King Street East to house his business. Two years later, the store adopted a golden lion as its symbol.

The intense competition between dry-goods sellers led to bloodthirsty ad copy. Take the following spot Walker prepared in January 1858:

NO HUMBUG
The remains
of the late stocks of
CLOTHING & DRY GOODS
to be
SLAUGHTERED!
at
FEARFUL REDUCTIONS
for cash

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The Globe, March 19, 1881.

The Golden Lion became a key component of one of the city’s most fashionable shopping blocks. Its success prompted a major expansion built in 1866-67 which utilized cast iron columns to free up floor space previously occupied by thick masonry. The new four-storey front on King Street included a 30-foot-high glass window, while a two-storey back section stretching to Colborne Street utilized a 12-foot-wide glass dome for improved natural lighting. Topping the store was a 12-foot-high stone lion. The result, the Globe declared, excelled “anything before seen in this city, or perhaps any other part of Canada.”

Walker was active in the community, serving as a firefighter and on the board of the Necropolis cemetery. He was a devout Methodist who acted as a Sunday school superintendent and donated the land to build the Parliament Street Methodist Church (later demolished to build the Regent Park housing project). Walker retired from the business in 1870; when he died in 1885, the Globe called him “an energetic and upright merchant, a Christian who lived up to his creed and was not afraid to be known as a Christian—Mr. Walker was one of whom Toronto was, and had a right to be, proud.”

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Toronto Star, September 25, 1895.

Though the store doubled in size again in 1892, by 1898 no one was left in the Walker family to run it. Unlike its competitor Simpsons, where founder Robert Simpson’s sudden death in December 1897 prompted his survivors to sell out, the Golden Lion closed its doors. Subsequent occupants included another short-lived department store and a Liberal campaign office during the 1900 federal election.

After the stone lion was removed on April 6, 1901, the store was demolished to make way for a prominent new development. “In Toronto,” the Hamilton Herald observed, “they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.” The store’s replacement has stood the test of time as a downtown landmark—the King Edward Hotel.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978); the January 19, 1858, February 23, 1867, and October 6, 1885 editions of the Globe; and the April 12, 1901 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Over the years of writing Historicist, I developed a bad habit of finishing columns while I was supposed to be on vacation. Entries were finished everywhere from cozy hotels in Montreal to large chain suites near LAX. This entry was written during the first part of a roadtrip to Boston – part of it was written in Syracuse, while the finished product emerged in Beantown.

I was running so far behind on this one that I brought along a Toronto Public Library bag filled with research items. This sparked the curiosity of the border guard who checked my trunk when I crossed at the Rainbow Bridge. I think she was convinced I was trying to sneak into an academic conference or was seeking work stateside. She pondered the contents for several moments, and repeatedly asked why I was bringing so many books with me.

Finally convinced of my true intentions, she let me go…but not before locking my keys in the trunk.

While she laughed, I gritted my teeth. At least I learned where the panic button was in that car. I may have yelled an obscenity once I was safely past security. After that, I made sure to always have the column wrapped up before crossing the border.

***

If you click on the original Torontoist link, you’ll notice the images are broken. During one of the site’s revamps, images published on posts I wrote during mid-2011 vaporized. Several were fixed, usually when I needed to link to them, while others remain broken. It didn’t help that my computer died during this period, before I was able to backup some files.

Scenes of Toronto: The Sign Lives On at Consumers Distributing

Originally published on Torontoist on April 21, 2011.

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Behind the gloss of the Shops at Don Mills, a few office buildings and plazas that haven’t experienced redevelopment still line the southwest quadrant of The Donway. A passing glance at the tenants of 49 The Donway West reveals an exiled anchor of the old Don Mills Centre (Home Hardware), service-based merchants (Cadet Cleaners, The Beer Store), and vacant space temporarily filled by the campaign office of the local Conservative candidate. It’s when you hit the western back corner of the plaza that you encounter one store banner in disbelief: Consumers Distributing. Disbelief, because it’s been 15 years since anyone ordered from a Consumers catalogue.

To a kid, the Consumers Distributing catalogue, along with the doorstop Sears dropped on the front step, was like a religious text. One could dream for hours about playing with any of the showcased games, toys, and video systems. Needed to show your parents what you wanted Santa Claus to bring on his sleigh? The catalogue provided a visual guide to pass on to the Jolly Old Elf. Whenever a new catalogue came out, the old one could be hacked up for cut-and-paste school presentations.

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From one location that opened in 1957 on a site now occupied by Eglinton West subway station, Consumers Distributing grew to more than 200 stores across Canada and a few south of the border. The model was simple: flip through the catalogue, choose an item, go to a store, fill out a form, and pray the item was in stock. Despite supply-chain hiccups, the model worked for four decades. By the mid-1990s, the combination of the refusal of its foreign owner to inject more money into the business in light of a couple of poor seasons, a new superstore model that didn’t perform to expectations (which included touch-screen computers for ordering), the decline of the catalogue-store business across North America, and competition from Wal-Mart and other new big-box stores caused the chain to go bankrupt. As 1996 closed, so did the last Consumers stores.

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How did this sign survive in pristine condition? Being hidden under a Blockbuster Video sign didn’t hurt. At first glance, the site appears vacant apart from a sign directing customers to a relocated dry cleaner. A small whiteboard with faded writing inside the door reveals the store’s current use as a dog-training facility.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the building has been demolished.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Remember 239 Yonge Is Bata

Originally published on Torontoist on April 5, 2011.

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All ad images: the Telegram, October 12, 1954.

For the downtown stretch of Yonge Street, 1954 was a year of grand openings. The major development was the opening of the city’s first subway line in March, which brought in shoppers to sample the strip’s stores. Less significant, but worthy of being heralded with giant ads, was the opening of an exciting retail concept from a company who had moved their base of operations from Czechoslovakia to Canada just a decade and a half earlier: the shoe department store.

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The Bata store at 239 Yonge Street on April 2, 1954, several months before its facelift. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 2437.

Based on the photo above, the immediate predecessor of this ultra-modern shopping experience was an average shoe store with a window display of the kind still favoured by long-standing purveyors of footwear around the city.

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As with any department store, Bata was divided into specialized departments designed to make each member of the family comfortable while enticing them to buy whatever was on display. Given touches like an aquarium for the kids and posters for teens, we’re surprised they didn’t include a miniature bowling alley in the sports section, a barber in the men’s department, a powder room for the ladies, and a fine selection of language courses on record for the internationally inclined.

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The tri-level shoe department store did not prove to be a concept for the ages. By the time they ceased Canadian retail operations in 2005, smaller mall-based stores sans goldfish aquariums were the norm for Bata.