Historicist: Turn of the Century
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Historicist: Turn of the Century

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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Image of Frederick Barnard Fetherstonhaugh by Newton McConnell.


In 1905, a group of editorial cartoonists produced a volume of caricatures of the city’s leading businessmen, politicians, and public servants. Torontonians As We See ‘Em was published under the auspices of the Canada Newspaper Cartoonists’ Association. The participating cartoonists were Elisha Newton (Newt) McConnell, J.W. Beatty, Newton McConnell, Victor C. Wright, John D. (Jack) Innes, and Jack Radford.
Building on the popularity of early cartoonists, such as J.W. Bengough, Canadian newspapers regularly featured editorial cartoons by the turn of the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, newspaper cartoonists were rarely vicious towards their subjects, as noted by Peter Desbarats in The Hecklers (McClelland and Stewart, 1979). The caricaturists of Torontonians, the book’s introduction stated, intended to picture each subject “with a penetrating yet a friendly eye.”
A far cry from the acerbic wit Canadian caricaturists would become especially known for after the Second World War, those in Torontonians were depicted in a straight-forward manner, “emphasizing their most prominent characteristics.” In an era when, as Desbarats put it, “even their victims generally applaud [the caricaturist’s] work,” the social and business elite would’ve been enthusiastic to subscribe to the publication and be immortalized among its pages for the benefit of posterity.
And so, Torontonians was more commemorative than cutting, and had much in common with the biographical dictionaries that became popular in the post-Confederation period, such as Henry James Morgan’s The Canadian Men and Women of the Time, Second Edition (William Briggs, 1912).
The caricatures included in the Torontonians rogues gallery, as Robert Lanning said of biographical dictionaries in The National Album (Carleton University Press, 1996), say much “about the culture, time and place in which they were written [or, in this case, drawn], as well as about the particular social contexts of their subjects and the contributions they made to society.” Torontonians is a time capsule of Toronto society at the turn of the twentieth century.


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Image of John Macdonald by Jack Radford.

The city’s established families—or at least those of the merchant class—are well-represented among the pages of Torontonians. Among such figures was John Macdonald, head of John Macdonald and Company, a wholesale dry-goods firm founded by his father. Through a keen eye for accounting and a tight-fist on credit, the senior Macdonald had built the company into the largest dry goods firm in Canada by the 1860s. And along the way, the elder Macdonald extended abundant credit to a struggling young merchant—and fellow Methodist—Timothy Eaton. In addition, the father had been a Confederation-era politician elevated to the Senate, and a philanthropist.
Born with all the advantages, the younger Macdonald grew up in “Oaklands,” one of the city’s finest mansions, at 116 Farnham Avenue, and was educated at Upper Canada College. Whether through lack of interest or the unbearable weight of expectations, Macdonald had a less successful career than his father. He was a director of Confederation Life and a member of the Board of Trade, as well as being involved with the British Empire League and the Caledonian Society, among other groups. But he made little attempt to diversify the company’s interests. Under the younger Macdonald’s tutelage, the dry goods firm’s profitability dwindled until closing in the 1920s, surpassed by Eaton’s more innovative business model.

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Image of Albert Edward Kemp by J.W. Beatty.


Raised in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Albert Edward Kemp had developed business and accounting acumen as a bookkeeper in a Montreal hardware store before opening his own shop at age twenty-one. Seeking to expand the business, he and his bride, Celia Watson, relocated to Toronto in 1885. Kemp and his brother eventually bought out partners and turned a struggling tin and stamping firm into Canada’s largest manufacturers of graniteware and tinware. Buoyed by the tariff protection of the Conservative government’s National Policy, the success of the Kemp Manufacturing Company spurred the establishment of branches in Winnipeg and Montreal.
“Canadian society has always been less egalitarian than that of the United States,” Desbarats argued about the importance of “[b]irth, education and social connections” in this country’s business and politics. Kemp understood this well and cultivated connections with the city’s “cloistered, often smug business and political elites” through membership in the Sherbourne Street Methodist Church, and acting as president of the Canadian Manufacturing Association (CMA) in 1895–1896 and the Board of Trade in 1899–1900. Through these and other social clubs, Kemp became, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (D.C.B.), “a recognized figure among the ‘better elements’ of Toronto society.”
An avid Conservative, and a leading member of the Albany Club, Kemp’s wealth and influence helped rebuild the Conservative Party, left tattered by the death of Sir John A. Macdonald. Kemp entered active politics himself in 1900 with election to the House of Commons, although he was seen as a bit of an elitist and cold to the common man. A close relationship with Robert Borden ensured Kemp a place in cabinet when Borden became prime minister in 1911. During the Great War, Kemp’s business skill was essential in ensuring the efficient management of the war effort, and he would eventually be elevated to the Senate. Kemp was one of a handful of millionaires included in Torontonians.

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Image of J.J. Wright by Newton McConnell.


In addition to the established merchant class, those involved in the development of new technologies figured prominently in Torontonians. An English-born machinist, John Joseph Wright became interested in the promise of electricity while visiting the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Entering the employ of Thomson and Houston, Wright helped install North America’s first electric street light. Returning to Toronto, Wright opened the first commercial power station in 1882, using equipment provided by his former employers, and strung transmission wires across rooftops to power some electric arc lamps in downtown businesses. Having set up a demonstration track and train at the Industrial Exhibition in 1884, he was credited for constructing the first electric railway in Canada.
Wright’s career as an entrepreneur came to an end in 1884, when he became superintendent and manager of the Toronto Electric Light Company and, after a merger, the Toronto Power Company Limited. Working in a field of such rapid technological development, the self-taught Wright seems to have struggled to keep up with advances. While others promoted long-distance transmission from Niagara, he continued to promote the usage of steam power and was left behind as hydro-electric power emerged. He died in 1922.

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Image of Frederic Thomas Nicholls by Newton McConnell.


Other than being English-born and receiving some of his education in Stuttgart, Frederic Thomas Nicholls’ origins are somewhat murky. But by 1880, the ambitious young businessman—by now relocated to Toronto—launched a business magazine that became the official publication of the Canadian Manufacturing Association, of which he was secretary between 1886 and 1891.
Acting as a bridge between finance and engineering, Nicholls used personal contacts at the CMA to develop a syndicate to invest in the growing electricity business. From 1889, the Toronto Incandescent Electric Light Company Limited used technology provided by proven American firms rather than developing proprietary technologies. As noted in the D.C.B., the company brought together “the three men who were to dominate the industry in the city for the next decade: Nicholls, [Henry Mill] Pellatt, and William Mackenzie.” The three looked to develop hydro-electric power generation at Niagara, leading to a monopoly that, in turn, prompted calls for public ownership of utilities.
Nicholls later became instrumental in the management of Canadian General Electric, a conglomeration of the Canadian operations of at least five electrical and electric supply companies. As a result of his connection to Mackenzie, Nicholls was appointed as executive officer to no fewer than thirty companies by 1905, including a great number of Mackenzie’s railway properties. He was a perfect example of the interlocking composition of the city’s boardrooms.
Nicholls was not the only businessman who benefited from associating with Mackenzie, who was also depicted in Torontonians and had an indelible impact on Toronto business. Noel G.L. Marshall, manager of a coal company since 1879, took over the firm with Mackenzie’s financial backing in 1893, renaming it the Standard Fuel Company. Now president of the new company, Marshall sat on the boards or was director for Sterling Bank, Title and Trust Company, Toronto Industrial Exhibition Association, Imperial Guarantee and Accident Company, and the Buffalo, Lockport & Rochester Railway. By 1911, he was considered a millionaire. In civic affairs, he sat on the board of education and Board of Trade, and was president of the National Club from 1903 to 1906. A sportsman, he was involved with the Ontario Motor League, Royal Canadian Yacht Club, Toronto Hunt Club, and the Ontario Jockey Club.

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Image of Samuel Nordheimer by Newton McConnell.


Demonstrating another side of the city experience at the turn of the twentieth century, Samuel Nordheimer was included in Torontonians.
Born in Bavaria, of Jewish descent, Nordheimer and one of his brothers, Abraham, immigrated first to New York, and then to Kingston where they opened a music store. In 1844, the brothers relocated their store to Toronto. With Samuel as president from 1862 to 1912, the A & S Nordheimer Company specialized in the retail of music books, pianos, and sewing supplies. In 1890, they began manufacturing pianos of very high quality—producing more than twenty thousand pianos between 1890 and 1927.
The company began to publish sheet music, largely as a means of stimulating demand for their pianos, and enjoyed overwhelming success as exclusive copyright holders for the first edition of “The Maple Leaf Forever” (1871). Providing a distinct level of much-needed worldly refinement in post-Confederation Toronto, Nordheimer arranged shows by prominent foreign singing stars, such as Jenny Lind. He was, for many years, a director of the Toronto Philharmonic Society.
It was rare for an immigrant (from somewhere other than the British Isles) to rise to such prominence, but the Business Man’s Magazine declared him to be: “More widely known than any other man in Toronto.” Although listed as being of Jewish descent in The Canadian Men and Women of the Time, his religion was listed there as Anglican. He certainly ingratiated himself in Toronto society, marrying Edith Boulton, scion of one of the city’s oldest families. As if imitating a Scottish laird, Nordheimer named his Davenport Hill manor Glenedyth.

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Image of James E. Roberts by Victor C. Wright.


The book of caricatures also featured less well-known, middle-class characters, including James Edward Roberts, one of many engaged in the insurance business. Hailing from Nantwich, England, a seventeen-year-old Roberts came to Canada and found a job with the London Guarantee & Accident Company. He rose through the ranks from cashier to inspector, superintendent, and acting manager before becoming manager of Dominion of Canada Guarantee & Accident Insurance Company in 1897. Around the time Torontonians was published, he had risen again to become a managing director. “A quiet but able guide in insurance matters,” according to the Toronto Globe, Roberts does not seem to have been very active in social or club life. If not for the caricature and a very brief entry in Morgan’s tome, it is doubtful he’d be remembered beyond family and friends.
Others included in Torontonians were not deemed important enough for The Canadian Men and Women of the Time, which appeared at around the same time. Ironically, a number of the cartoonists themselves didn’t merit inclusion.
Although editorial cartoons frequently require the news-of-the-day context to decode their symbolism and meaning, they remain accessible, decades later, as art. Although the people depicted would’ve been known publicly when Torontonians was first published, and therefore were presented with little explanation or commentary, combining these images with information from biographical dictionaries offers a glimpse into the varieties of experience in Toronto at the turn of the twentieth century.
Although having achieved a certain degree of success in a given field, most of those depicted in Torontonians were ordinary, middle-class (or upper-middle-class) citizens. Most would not have been fodder for the caricaturist on the newspaper page for anything short of outright scandal. “The cartoons often stay alive,” Desbarats concludes, “long after the dense columns of print have lost their relevance for all but a few historians. The words fail, but the pictures still speak.”

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