From a single publication about groceries, John Bayne Maclean built a publishing empire.
“It has never been my policy to create a sensation and get talked about,” publisher John Bayne Maclean told an interviewer in 1923. “I want to get our publications recommended by readers primarily because of their value and interest and their reliability and fearlessness.” Over his 60 years in publishing, the founder of publications ranging from trade papers like Canadian Grocer to the magazine that still bears his name hit most of his targets.
“He ventured boldly into a new journalistic field where failure seemed certain—at least in Canada,” observed Maclean biographer and long-time employee Floyd Chalmers, “and yet he achieved dramatic success.”
Born in 1862 in Crieff, Ontario (a village in Puslinch Township, south of Guelph), young Maclean dreamed of serving in the British army. Though he never achieved that wish, Maclean enjoyed a long career as a militiaman, first joining as a teenager in Owen Sound. He eventually rose to lieutenant colonel of the 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars, earning him the nickname “The Colonel.” His belief in the value of militia service was outlined in a speech to a Toronto military group:
The militia is the greatest single factor in the maintenance and development of national unity and loyalty in Canada and the Empire. It is the best training school, and perhaps the only training school, in which young men are taught discipline, and through their military discipline are inspired to discipline themselves in their private lives and to discipline themselves to the obedience of law and order.
Maclean moved to Toronto in 1881 to train as a teacher at the Normal School. Though he wasn’t certified due—ironically, given his future—to failing an English course, Maclean wasn’t bothered. He later joked that within a couple of years he earned more as a reporter than his Normal School examiners.
Maclean’s writing career began in his teens by assisting an uncle who edited a Presbyterian magazine. Though he cranked out streams of words at a time throughout his life, Maclean’s prose skills were damned with faint praise. “A windy and disorganized writer,” observed Chalmers. “He turned millions of words, yet never achieved true skill, let alone literary distinction.” But Maclean was dedicated and dependable. After flunking out of the Normal School, he joined the Toronto World as a reporter in October 1882. For five dollars a week, Maclean covered Orange Lodge meetings and police court proceedings. Within a few weeks, he moved over to a better-paying post at the Mail.
In 1884, Maclean was promoted to assistant commercial/financial/marine editor of the Mail. He received the role by default thanks to peers who thought it was boring work. Obsessed with facts and figures, the job perfectly suited Maclean. Over the next three years, Maclean ran up against space limitations that prevented the sharing of detailed information useful to businesses. He soon envisioned a lucrative market in trade-specific news.
With an investment of $3,000, two-thirds of which he drew from personal savings, Maclean quit the Mail in 1887 to launch his own publishing company. He considered running a livestock industry trade paper, but associates at the Mail suggested he should cover the entire food business. Maclean narrowed his focus to the grocery industry, and bought the title of his first publication from the defunct house newsletter of pickle manufacturer Bryant & Gibson. From a tiny office at 9 Jordan Street, Maclean edited, wrote, and printed the 16-page debut of Canadian Grocer, dated September 23, 1887. Over 11,000 free copies were mailed out. Paid subscriptions soon rolled in for the trade journal that, besides detailed commodity price listings and industry news, included editorials attacking supporters of a commercial union with the United States and a grocery combine threatening to control the market.
Maclean’s stable of trade publications grew to include titles like Books and Notions, The Hardware and Metal Merchant, and The Dry Goods Review. He briefly moved to New York in 1893 to work on Art Weekly, a newspaper supplement that showed off new photoengraving technology. There he developed long-standing friendships with major American publishing figures like Frank Munsey and S.S. McClure.
This interlude illustrated his lifelong habit of collecting friends the same way other people collected books or postage stamps. Chalmers felt he had “an unconscious urge, the active expression of an inner need to meet, learn, discover, communicate, and then, finally, to remember.” Maclean quickly grew suspicious of anyone who refused to engage in conversation with him. He developed lists of people he liked or hated:
Like: Americans, Catholics, civil servants, Clementine Churchill, European royalty, French Canadians, Jews, municipal politicians, Presbyterians, Scots
Dislike: international bankers, Baptists, British politicians, Winston Churchill, Communists, heavy drinkers, intellectuals, missionaries (“Often the heathen led really better and happier lived before missionaries arrived”), teetotalers
Maclean could be snobbish, and loved dropping names—he happily informed others that his wife Anna was the niece of King Ferdinand II of Portugal. Yet at the same time, despite driving his employees crazy at times, he was approachable, happy to stop and chat. He also held women in high regard, assuming they were as up on current events as men. Maclean provided work opportunities for pioneering female journalists like Ella Cora Hind. He was also a serial joiner, achieving high positions in organizations like the Canadian Press Association, the Canadian Red Cross, and St. John’s Ambulance.
By 1905, Maclean felt ready to launch a general interest magazine. He purchased an ad agency house publication and relaunched it as The Business Magazine in October 1905. The debut issue included a disclaimer apologizing for printing mistakes in some copies. The contents resembled a prototype of Reader’s Digest: articles fully excerpted or condensed from other publications, notably Ellis Parker Butler’s short story “Pigs is Pigs” (later made into a Walt Disney cartoon). Maclean sourced the material for free from both sides of the border in exchange for crediting the original publication. By year’s end the publication was renamed The Busy Man’s Magazine, which bore the subtitle “the cream of the world’s magazines reproduced for busy people.” Original material was introduced and, outside of fiction, dominated the magazine by the time it was renamed Maclean’s in March 1911.
The magazine settled into a potpourri of features, some written by Maclean. His epic rants occasionally caused trouble. “He was convinced he had a vocation to expose any weakness, dishonesty, or injustice threatening the world, the nation, or his fellow citizens,” Chalmers observed. Such motivation fueled the February 1918 issue’s lead story, “Why We Are Losing the War.” For seven pages, Maclean lashed out at the incompetence he perceived among British officials during the First World War. He praised America’s recent entry into the conflict, noting they weren’t afraid to take advice or screw up:
They expect to make mistakes, but they boldly and publicly investigate them. They eliminate the incompetents and expose highly place offenders. We have refused right along to consider a policy of conscripting our experts, and we reward incompetents. Because of this, and through no fault of our army, we are losing the war.
Officials in Ottawa weren’t amused. Canada’s chief censor ordered editor T.B. Costain to submit any similar articles to the censor’s office for clearance, and persuade Maclean to halt any reprints.
Though Maclean resisted publishing a daily newspaper, he sensed a void for a weekly financial paper that didn’t put its readers to sleep through complicated, jargon-filled language. Assisted by editor Stewart Houston, who had no financial background, Maclean developed the Financial Post. The paper, which debuted on January 12, 1907, defined its purpose as “a weekly newspaper aiming to present to the public in a popular manner accurate information relating to the financial interests and the legitimate investments of Canada.”
The company grew through reinvestment of its profits, expanding to 16 titles by the end of the First World War, 34 by Maclean’s death in 1950, and a large head office at 481 University Avenue. Beyond its trade titles, the company expanded into the mass market during the 1920s through magazines like Canadian Homes and Gardens, Chatelaine, and Mayfair. Though Maclean eventually became a millionaire, his personal wealth came from outside investments. He gained a reputation for frugality stereotypically associated with his Scottish background. Stories abound about his thriftiness, from personally turning out any lights left on at the office to pulling 20-year-old cheque stubs from his coat pocket to use as scrap paper. During the 1930s, Maclean filled his Rolls-Royce limo with homegrown eggs and produce to sell to employees at head office.
Maclean took a paternalistic view toward his workers, often referring to them as “my boys and girls.” This mindset was possibly spurred by family misfortunes. He took his younger brother Hugh on as partner during the early years, but personal disagreements led to a split in 1899. They spent the rest of their lives alternately fond of each other and bickering through correspondence (Hugh would run his own trade publishing firm, eventually taken over by Southam). Maclean’s wife Anna developed mobility issues after being stricken with polio in 1911. Their son, Hector, died at age 16 from an intestinal ailment during a camping trip in 1919.
Anna’s illness also affected construction of the mansion he planned to build on Wells Hill at 7 Austin Terrace. The family moved into what was intended to be the gatehouse in 1911, designed in Georgian Revival style by architect John Lyle. As a result of Anna’s mobility, the structure became the family’s permanent two-storey home. Following Maclean’s death, the property was, after briefly belonging to his nephew, sold and divided into apartments. A developer’s attempt to demolish the property incensed the community and resulted in a stop-work order from the province in December 2009. It was only the second time such an order was ever issued. A subsequent owner has, as part of a conversion to townhouses, replaced heritage features that were removed from its north facade.
Maclean began easing out of daily operations when he handed the presidency to long-time business aide Horace Hunter in 1933, a move that eventually led to the firm’s renaming as Maclean-Hunter in 1945. Maclean remained as chairman of the board until his death on the eve of his 88th birthday in 1950. “Though the burden of his work had in later years fallen on other shoulders,” the Globe and Mail reflected in an editorial tribute upon Maclean’s passing, “he won for himself a secure niche in publishing history, and an admirable memorial.”
Additional material from A Gentleman of the Press by Floyd Chalmers (Toronto: Doubleday, 1969); Maclean Hunter at One Hundred (Toronto: Maclean Hunter, 1987); The Monthly Epic by Fraser Sutherland (Markham: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1989); the April 24, 1998 edition of Canadian Business; the September 27, 1950 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the February 1918 edition of Maclean’s.
Heritage Toronto is unveiling a plaque honouring the John B. Maclean House at 7 Austin Terrace on Monday, May 12 at 4 p.m.