Historicist: An Illustrated Business Quartet

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Historicist: An Illustrated Business Quartet

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Cover of Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Illustrating, 1893).

“Towering triumphantly on the northern shore of the majestic Lake Ontario, Toronto…presents in her commercial history a record of advancement, an epitome of industrial progress and a chapter in itself redundant of individual and collective instances of energy and enterprise to which few communities of the New World can rightly lay claim.” So opens the introduction to Toronto Illustrated 1893, a guide to merchants and service providers in the Queen City that offers insight into familiar and forgotten titans of industry. Following a background sketch of the city’s history and economic development, profiles of bankers, corset manufacturers, chewing gum distributors, doctors, hoteliers, industrialists, and not-so-starving artists fill out the book. The profiles are fawning and often contain generic information that could apply to anyone (“one of our most deservedly popular and successful business enterprises”) but provide an interesting glimpse of the local business community during the “Naughty Nineties,” including the four that follow.


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Parker’s Dye Works, 787-791 Yonge Street. Toronto Illustrated 1893.

The first business to merit a profile is among the few still in operation. Robert Parker established his first cleaning and dyeing operation in Ottawa in 1876, originally focusing on adding colour to ostrich feathers. The book noted that “Mr. Parker is an Englishman by birth and a young man of exceptional business ability who, by close application and carefully attending to the interests of his patrons, has built up a business of such magnitude that he finds it now almost impossible to keep pace with growing demands made upon him. Such a condition of affairs certainly speaks for itself.” By 1893, Parker’s Dye Works operated six locations around the city, plus branches scattered from London to Hamilton where one could have sung the company’s jingle “We Dye to Live.” The main office and processing facility took up several storefronts along Yonge Street where the Toronto Reference Library now stands. By the end of the decade, Parker’s was the second company in Toronto to use motorized delivery vehicles, an achievement recognized on a postage stamp a century later. The dyeing portion of the business decreased over time, though it might be amusing to watch the clerk’s reaction if you brought ostrich feathers in for dyeing at any current location of Parker’s Cleaners.

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John Abell Engine and Machine Works. Toronto Illustrated 1893.

Spectators of the wars between preservationists and developers may remember the battle a few years ago over 48 Abell Street. Long before its use as a space for artists, the complex turned out boilers, engines, threshers, and other agricultural implements under the careful eye of John Abell. Born in England, Abell established his company in Vaughan Township in 1845 as the Woodbridge Agricultural Works. Despite the occasional hiccup, such as a fire in 1874 that nearly destroyed the business, Abell was highly regarded for the quality of his machinery and his community involvement. Before moving his operations to Queen Street in 1886, Abell served as a justice of the peace, the president of several agricultural societies, and, for a term, as the first reeve of Woodbridge. By 1893, the John Abell Engine and Machine Works employed 150 skilled workers whose toil included the boilers for Massey Hall and machinery sold to exotic locales like the Ottoman Empire.

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Portraits of John Abell and Elias Rogers. Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: The Mail Printing Company, 1891).

The Globe praised Abell’s personal qualities in an editorial published shortly after his death in 1903:

[He] was a man of singularly engaging personality. He had a strong scientific bent and exceptional mechanical aptitude. He was by nature an inventor and by temperament a student…His main interest in his work was not the amount of money he could make out of it, but the amount of good he could accomplish by relieving the toilers through the improvement of the implements with which they have to work…He was, in spite of his modesty, a charming conversationalist, because of his keen sagacity, intellectual originality, and generous sympathies. He was a conspicuous example of the enterprising capitalist who successfully resists the narrowing and hardening tendency of intense application to mechanical or commercial pursuits.

Abell’s company was purchased by two American interests shortly before his death and operated for another decade as the American Abell Engine and Thresher Company.

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Elias Rogers advertisement, The Toronto World, February 13, 1914.

For years, the Elias Rogers coal bucket and its promise of the “very best” in heating fuel was a familiar sight to Toronto newspaper readers. Born near Newmarket, Rogers entered the local coal business with his brother Samuel in 1876 after buying mines in Pennsylvania. Toronto Illustrated claimed that Rogers owned “the largest yards and the most improved facilities for handling coal in Canada,” used “one of the best arranged telephone systems in the city,” and compared his position in the coal trade to that of Macy’s in retail. By the end of 1890, Elias Rogers Coal operated a variety of offices and yards around the city and a pair of large docks along the Esplanade near St. Lawrence Market that could process 725 tonnes of coal a day.

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Elias Rogers Coal & Wood Co. – property, south side of Esplanade East (near foot of Berkeley Street), 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 30, Item 33 .


Rogers entered the political arena as a city councillor for the St. Lawrence ward in 1887. He was positioned as a reformist candidate for mayor later that year, but his campaign faltered after an attempt by teetotalling Quaker Rogers to tar opponent Edward Frederick Clarke‘s ties to the liquor industry. Clarke responded by accusing Rogers of being part of a price-fixing coal cartel. Rogers left the political realm after his defeat, but remained a key figure in local business organizations (including a stint as president of the Board of Trade in the 1890s). He sold his interests in the coal business to his son Alfred around 1912 and died eight years later.

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Wesley Buildings, Richmond Street side. Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor (Toronto: William Briggs, 1892).

One of the oldest businesses in Toronto Illustrated was the Methodist Book and Publishing House, which first cranked up its press in 1829. By 1893, this branch of the Methodist Church was one of the country’s largest publishers, and its offices at Richmond Street West and Temperance Street pumped out educational, religious, and secular literature under the watchful eye of Reverend William Briggs. One of Briggs’ main policies was to use profits from foreign publications to fund the printing of Canadian authors like Charles G.D. Roberts and Catherine Parr Traill.

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Methodist Book Room, southeast corner of Queen and John streets, 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 761.


By 1913 the church and book company (later known as Ryerson Press) required more space for its head offices; a facility was built at 299 Queen Street West, later the home of CITY-TV.
As for the future of Toronto’s business community, the anonymous author believed, “It is safe to predict that the historian of the industries of the future will be able to point back to those of today as the auspicious beginnings of a greater and brighter destiny.”
Additional material from the August 10, 1903 and April 12, 1920 editions of the Globe.

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