Historicist: Delivering the Mail

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Historicist: Delivering the Mail

The first of a two-part look at the back half of the Globe and Mail's name.

Advertisement for the Mail, 1890s  Toronto Public Library

Advertisement for the Mail, 1890s. Toronto Public Library.

What’s in a name? In the case of the Globe and Mail, it’s a combination of two historical Toronto newspapers that clashed politically. Most people are familiar with the Globe as a solo act—founded by George Brown in 1844, it evolved into the unofficial voice of the Liberal party. Yet the 64-year odyssey of the Mail and its offshoots as a conservative counterpoint to the Globe shouldn’t be ignored, even if its present-day descendant rarely acknowledges its existence beyond the masthead.

As the 1860s drew to a close, the Conservative party looked to back a newspaper that equalled the power and journalistic quality of the Globe. “I have long thought that a good paper of Liberal-Conservative cast [as the party was then known] was greatly required in Toronto,” Prime Minister John A. Macdonald wrote to a colleague in February 1869. It took nearly three years for Macdonald to achieve his goal.

Though Toronto had several Conservative-friendly papers in the early 1870s, none appealed to the party. Its traditional mouthpiece was the Leader, which launched in 1852. Publisher James Beaty spread himself thin through his interests in contracting, leather merchandising, and federal politics, which resulted in a paper that was past its prime. “It failed to recognize the journalistic truth that progress is essential to prosperity,” the Mail observed in 1881, “and that this can only be achieved by enterprise and energy on the part of conductors of a journal, combined with a liberal outlay of capital.” The upstart Telegraph, founded by future Telegram publisher John Ross Robertson in 1866 was, according to Macdonald, “a mere blackmail paper, and the sooner it is crushed, the better.”

The first home of the Mail, King Street west of Bay Street  Half Century Anniversary Number of The Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto, Mail and Empire, 1922)

The first home of the Mail, King Street west of Bay Street. Half Century Anniversary Number of The Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto, Mail and Empire, 1922).

Following the Conservatives’ loss in the December 1871 Ontario provincial election, Macdonald canvassed the business community for money to battle the Globe. Defeated premier John Sandfield Macdonald and editor Thomas C. Patteson laid the groundwork for an authoritative, distinguished, lively publication. They purchased a brick building on the north side of King Street west of Bay whose previous occupants included a Bank of Montreal branch.

When the Mail debuted as a morning paper on March 30, 1872, Patteson published a 12-point “abridged prospectus” on the editorial page. He vowed to steer clear of “unthinking partisanship” and the voices of “violent and revolutionary assailants of the Constitution” in favour of moderation. Taking a dig at its rivals, Patteson promised that “parliamentary reporting will be attempted on fairer principles than have characterized the performances of some newspapers.” While editorial writers would toe a pro-Tory line, reporters were instructed to be impartial. Local news and city hall coverage would be presented “with all the zeal and activity consistent with good taste and the privacy of peoples’ own business.” The paper would be rounded out with coverage of arts, business, science, and sports.

Front page of the Mail, March 30, 1872

Front page of the Mail, March 30, 1872.

“It may be well to say that persons interested in the welfare of The Mail are not blind to the obstacles which beset the launching of their enterprise,” Patteson wrote. “But they know that every successful experiment has passed through its period of probationary difficulty…If, growing with our country’s growth, The Mail should ever be credited with having been instrumental in the development of our native strength and resources, the object of its originators will have been served.”

The paper quickly made an impact on the competition. The Telegraph folded within months, while the Leader lingered on another six years. The Mail also benefitted from a major miscue by Globe management. While George Brown led the campaign against the Toronto Typographical Union’s push for labour reforms for printers and its participation in the Nine-Hour Movement, the Mail became a union shop. (Later, the Mail was the subject of a successful labour boycott campaign, which led to the defeat of candidates the paper backed during the 1886 municipal election.)

The Mail’s close ties to the Conservatives proved problematic when the Pacific Scandal broke. The defeat of the Tories in the 1873 federal election turned the Mail into an opposition paper backing a tarnished party. Patteson also had to soothe party hacks incensed by the lack of coverage of their insignificant events. When officials in Cobourg felt short shrift was given to local banquet in May 1875, Patteson shot back that it was difficult to “please everyone bent on self-glorification” and that he ultimately would “offend a larger or smaller number of persons every day, and bear the brunt of it in addition to the other labours devolving on him.”

John and Charles Riordon  Paper in the Making by George Carruthers (Toronto: The Garden City Press Co operative, 1947)

John and Charles Riordon. Paper in the Making by George Carruthers (Toronto: The Garden City Press Co-operative, 1947).

Circulation stagnated and financial losses piled up. Among its largest creditors was John Riordon, whose pulp mill near St. Catharines supplied newsprint to both the Mail and the Globe. In October 1874, Patteson, over the objections of several shareholders, pleaded with Riordon to take out a mortgage on the paper. By November 1877, Riordon, who was owed $26,000, had little choice but to take complete control of the struggling paper. Though Patteson briefly remained as editor, the real power behind the Mail lay with Riordon, his brother Charles, general manager Christopher William Bunting, and treasurer William James Douglas.

The paper’s fortunes quickly improved. John Riordon promised to continue supporting the Conservatives, which proved wise after John A. Macdonald returned to power in 1878. Journalists like E.E. Sheppard and Philip Dansken Ross received early career boosts. The layout was revamped for easier reading. Its advertising base was extended outside Toronto thanks to the efforts of Anson McKim, who was sent to Montreal in 1879 to gather new clients. McKim and the Mail soon found themselves offering rates and circulation numbers for other Ontario papers that out-of-province advertisers hoped to place spots in. When several papers decided they no longer wanted to be represented by a rival publication, McKim broke away from the Mail in 1889 to form Canada’s first national advertising agency.

The Riordons envisioned themselves as paper and publishing moguls along the lines the New York Herald’s James Gordon Bennett (whose paper they had an agreement with to use cable dispatches for breaking international news). The Riordons noted that Bennett successfully launched a separate evening newspaper, the New York Evening Telegram. Their equivalent, launched in May 1881, was the Evening News, which took several years to find its identity as a muckraking working-class journal.

The Mail Building, circa 1891  Toronto Old and New by G  Mercer Adam (Toronto: Mail Printing Company, 1891)

The Mail Building, circa 1891. Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: Mail Printing Company, 1891).

When the News debuted, both papers were housed in the new Mail Building at the northwest corner of King and Bay. Designed by architect Richard A. Waite, who later designed the Ontario Legislative Building in Queen’s Park, it was the tallest building in the city for several years. Its tower included a public observation deck for visitors to take in the growing city. A 35-foot-tall flagstaff topped the structure.

The Mail Building survived three substantial fires during the mid-1880s. The first, which broke out in the basement paper storage area on May 24, 1884, inflicted most of its damage on another tenant, Bell Telephone. Six switchboard operators were rescued by volunteers who erected a ladder from an adjoining building. Among those offering assistance was city councillor Harry Piper, who delayed his visit to the opening of Toronto’s first zoo. “With his coat off, a cigar in his mouth, and wearing his glossy silk hat, he assisted the men to get the hose to work,” the Mail reported, “and when it was found that the water would not reach the roof he piloted the men up the north stairway to the composing room, from the door of which they were enabled to play directly on the flames.”

Befitting all the old stereotypes about how British Torontonians saw themselves, the Mail’s coverage gave the impression that the crowd watching the blaze from King Street was as anxious about the fate of a flag erected to mark Queen Victoria’s birthday as saving the women nearly trapped inside. While the crowd yelled “Save the flag!” one man offered $50 to anyone who grabbed it for him as it fluttered down. The flag survived the ordeal, as did the Mail. Because little of its office space was affected, the paper published its next scheduled edition.

John Riordon barely enjoyed the new building. He retired from the print business in 1882 following a head injury sustained while falling off a horse, and died two years later. Charles Riordon was less amenable to Tory policies than his brother, allowing his staff to display a growing independent streak. This accelerated with the appointment of Edward Farrer as editor in 1885. A man suspected of fabricating his background, Farrer was an advocate of commercial and political union with the United States, which put him at odds with the Conservatives.

The Mail’s first major breach with the Tories occurred with its coverage of the aftermath of the Northwest Rebellion. It disagreed with the Macdonald government’s decision to execute Louis Riel over fear of inflaming nationalist sentiment in Quebec. Both Farrer and Bunting were prejudiced against Catholics and French Canadians, sentiments which soon dominated the editorial page. Farrer, sometimes assisted by Goldwin Smith, argued that a battle was looming between Catholic doctrine and secular control of the legal and legislative apparatus.

Cartoon by J W  Bengough, Grip, September 11, 1886  The monkey on the left is either C W  Bunting or Edward Farrer

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, September 11, 1886. The monkey on the left is either C.W. Bunting or Edward Farrer.

“Looking with a single eye to the future welfare of Canada,” observed a September 20, 1886 editorial, “we believe the time has come for compelling the Roman Catholic Church to keep within her proper sphere.” It argued the church had no right to play a role in government policy or interfering with English-speaking settlers in French areas, and criticized Macdonald for not standing up against the church’s power. The editorial ended with a vow to remain “an earnest advocate of Conservative policy” but one free to criticize party actions.

Macdonald had enough. He green-lit cutting ties with the Mail. “The working relationship between us and the Conservative party has broken down,” a January 8, 1887 editorial declared. “Nothing remains for us but to accept the logical development of our former departure, and make The Mail an independent journal, serving neither party and criticizing both with the freedom born of a complete deliverance from political ties.”

Independence suited the Mail. “I cannot think that Canada has ever had a greater newspaper than was the Mail during this period of separation from the Conservative party,” wrote veteran journalist J.S. Willison decades later. “The Mail,” historian Paul Rutherford has observed, “realized the ideal of quality journalism: full of news and features, boasting a superb editorial page devoted to ‘a cause, and not a party.’ The Mail’s crusades tapped the malaise, the anxiety of a bourgeois public upset by social change and national stagnation, to such an extent that it might fairly be called the leading organ of the ‘classes’ in Ontario.”

The Mail reshaped itself into a proto-modern paper, especially in its Saturday edition. Pages were better defined by subject matter. Photographs were introduced via a special illustrated supplement in 1893. But its greatest innovation was the publication of several of Toronto’s first enduring newspaper columnists.

Left: Photo of Henry Horace Wiltshire, the Mail and Empire, February 15, 1911  Right: header for "The Flaneur," the Mail, January 12, 1895

Left: Photo of Henry Horace Wiltshire, the Mail and Empire, February 15, 1911. Right: header for The “Flaneur,” the Mail, January 12, 1895.

Henry Horace Wiltshire was an English journalist who, after a two-decade stint at the Times of London, joined the Mail in 1884. Three years later, he launched “The Flaneur,” a compendium of commentary on local and world news that would be comparable to a Victorian blog. Wiltshire drew on articles from other publications, observations from his travels, and submissions from readers. “I propose to ask your attention for about half an hour each week while touching in a more or less chatty manner on subjects of social, political, or literary interest forming current topics of conversation in this or in other lands,” he wrote for “The Flaneur’s” debut on December 17, 1887. “I shall express opinions and sometimes speak plainly, but with no intention either to proselytize or preach.” He felt the column’s title reflected “one who endeavours to evolve some interest from the talk at the clubs, the trivialities of society and the badinage and rough humour of the streets.” Those who didn’t care for his content were urged to flip the page. Not many did; Wiltshire, as writer or editor, maintained the column until his death in 1911.

Another popular column was “Woman’s Kingdom.” Initially filled with domestic and beauty hints, the column gained influence after Kathleen Blake Watkins (later known as Kit Coleman) took over in 1889. Kit injected her opinions on literature, politics, religion, and science, demonstrating that female journalists were just as opinionated as their male counterparts. “I simply detest fashion,” she noted in an 1892 column, “and I think it is paying us women a poor compliment to imagine we cannot take an interest in the highest and the very deepest questions of the day.” Kit eventually travelled the world for the paper, covering social issues In England and the battlefields of the Spanish-American War. She held down her Saturday post until a salary dispute caused her departure in 1911.

Farrer continued his anti-Catholic crusade on the editorial page, culminating in the paper’s support of the “equal rights” movement which proposed to curb constitutional protections for Catholics and French Canadians. The Jesuit Estates Act, which compensated the order in Quebec for land the crown confiscated after the British conquest in the 18th century, particularly aroused the Mail’s wrath. The paper backed the Orange Order, whose mission it saw in an 1889 editorial as “defending British and Protestant civilization against the assaults of the Roman Catholic priesthood.” The paper’s fervour cooled after Farrer moved over to the Globe in 1890, as did its support for commercial union with the United States.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives found themselves back in the same situation they faced in 1872: the need for a reliable outlet for their opinions. After contemplating working with other Tory-leaning papers, the party decided to launch a paper that they completely controlled. Enter, on December 27, 1887, the Empire. Over the next seven years, it provided partisan coverage that went to absurd lengths, especially in its fawning coverage of the dying days of John A. Macdonald in 1891.

Front page of illustrated supplement section, the Mail, February 2, 1895

Front page of illustrated supplement section, the Mail, February 2, 1895.

By the mid-1890s, both the Empire and the Mail faced financial difficulties. As the Mail’s editorial stance drifted back toward the Tories, Conservative party officials debated the merits of continuing the Empire in a market where seven daily papers fought for readers. Stories of backroom deals to merge the Mail and Empire circulated among their rivals.

The Empire played down the rumours by presenting a brave face on its editorial page. “The Empire will never betray the trust committed to it, or make any move that might create a danger that it would become a weathercock journal, governed by caprice,” it declared on January 15, 1895. Behind the scenes, despite the urgings of Conservative officials for a merger, there were obstacles to a deal. One was price. The other was a feeling that the surviving paper needed to stand behind the principles of the Empire and remain firmly in the Tory camp.

The rumours carried on until readers opened their morning papers on February 6, 1895.

To be continued…

Additional material from Brown of the Globe Volume Two: Statesman of Confederation, 1860-1880 by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: Macmillan, 1963); Paper in the Making by George Carruthers (Toronto: The Garden City Press Co-operative, 1947); John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain by Donald Creighton (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993); A Victorian Authority: the daily press in late nineteenth-century Canada by Paul Rutherford (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); From Politics to Profit: The Commercialization of Canadian Daily Newspapers, 1890-1920 by Minko Sotiron (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997); The Rise and Fall of the Toronto Typographical Union 1832-1972: A Case Study of Foreign Domination by Sally F. Zerker (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); the January 15, 1895 edition of the Empire; the February 15, 1911 edition of the Globe; the March 30, 1872, July 2, 1881, May 26, 1884, September 20, 1886, January 8, 1887, December 17, 1887, February 5, 1889, February 16, 1889, and September 17, 1892 editions of the Mail; and the January 15, 1895 and October 1, 1927 editions of the Toronto Star.

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

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