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culture

Vintage Toronto Ads: Mail “Want” Columns Get Results

Touting the power of the Victorian equivalent of Craigslist.

Source: the Mail, February 20, 1886.

Based on the first situation depicted in today’s ad, it’s clear that, in 1886, serving real butter and eggs instead of that weird oleomargarine stuff was guaranteed to attract as many applicants for a boarding house room as, today, an attractively illustrated apartment listing on Craiglist draws renters. The medium may have changed, but the power of a well-placed classified ad remains the same.

Though small ads had been commonplace for years, recognizable classified sections only started appearing in Toronto papers during the 1870s. In his survey of the 19th century Canadian Press, A Victorian Authority (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), Paul Rutherford summed up the want-ad’s initial impact:

Normally, each item was very short, rarely fancy, mostly abbreviated, since the client was charged according to the number of words used. Here could be found something for everyone, whether of high or low station—business cards, real estate listings, articles for sale (including machinery), personals, board and lodging, above all jobs available and jobs wanted.

For years, the market leader in Toronto was the Telegram, which distinguished itself from other papers by devoting its front pages to classifieds, a practice it stuck with through the mid-1920s. By the end of the 1880s, the Mail carried an average of half-a-page of classifieds daily, and up to two pages in its Saturday edition. Their classified rates ranged from free (accommodations, jobs wanted, lost items) to two cents per word (commercial listings).

Source: the Mail, February 20, 1886.

In 19th-century Toronto classifieds, the buzzword seems to have been “first-class,” which may explain our city’s eternal obsession with securing first-class/world-class events and projects. Among the highlights of the January 23, 1888 classified section:

  • A barber was needed in Tilsonburg, but only if he was white and “first-class.”
  • Morrison & Co. of 48 Yonge Street was looking for sales agents for an entirely new line of products: “ornamental adhesive hooks used in houses, stores, banks, offices, etc., instead of nails and tacks.” The ad promised large profits.
  • A baker and his wife “without encumbrances” placed a “situations wanted” ad. He was “first-class on bread, cakes, and pastry,” while she was “competent to serve in store or assist in house.” Both offered “first-class references.”
  • A “large, handsomely furnished room” was available for boarding at the Stormont Lodge at the corner of Adelaide and John. The room was heated with hot air and dinner was served late. “None but first-class need apply.”
  • A “respectable middle-aged woman and her son, aged 12” sought a home for a few months. Both were “willing to make themselves generally useful.” They didn’t provide any first-class credentials.

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