Long before the Rob Ford bobblehead doll, you could own a bust of the prime minister or a print of the premier.
It’s possible that some lucky souls will find a Rob Ford bobblehead doll under their Christmas tree this year. Whether hoarded by Ford Nation loyalists or re-gifted as a joke, these novelty items join the long line of political memorabilia that’s been available to Torontonians over the years.
Had the Ford administration been in office during the heyday of the party press, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers backing Ford would have offered supporters many mementos. Portraits and busts allowed readers to make known their political allegiances, and at election time were akin to modern-day lawn signs.
Had the 1887 federal election been scheduled earlier than February 22, the Mail might have offered its bust of Sir John A. Macdonald to true-blue Conservatives as a stocking stuffer. This fine terracotta likeness of Canada’s first prime minister would doubtless have taken pride of place in the homes of Tory supporters. Supporters of Liberal leader Edward Blake, meanwhile, might have used his bust as a decorative doorstop, tapped a hole in its head to convert it into a flower pot, or used it as a target for shooting practice.
Photographic prints of Sir James Pliny Whitney served as a “get well soon” gesture. In late 1913, after serving for a decade as premier of Ontario, Whitney was ordered by doctors to take a vacation. On January 4, 1914, attorney general James J. Foy received a telegram indicating Whitney had suffered a massive heart attack in New York City. Though initially he was not expected to live, Whitney rallied. He was brought back to Toronto via train on January 19, and spent several weeks in hospital regaining his strength. By the time the above ad was published, Whitney was able to go on daily walks.
Those who bought a print might initially have been motivated by sympathy, but they soon found another reason to keep Whitney’s portrait handy—Conservative officials were convinced that, despite his health, Whitney would lead the party to victory in the upcoming provincial election. Whitney, realizing it would probably be his last hurrah, agreed to run. Though he barely campaigned, the premier’s appearance at a June 23, 1914, rally at Massey Hall left few eyes dry.
Coming back, my friends, as I have, by God’s mercy, from the shadow of the dark valley, I am constrained, nay, compelled, to express the thanks I owe to the people of Ontario. They have given me an opportunity. I think I may say, of being some service, and they have given me their confidence in full measure—in full measure heaped up, pressed down, shaken together, and running over—and as long as my renewed health and strength are vouchsafed to me I shall be at their disposal, and endeavour to give them the same faithful service I have in the past.
Whitney led the Tories to their fourth consecutive victory, and with an overwhelming majority of the vote. He performed some administrative work over the summer, and issued an official statement regarding the outbreak of the First World War in August. He died suddenly on September 25, 1914, from a cerebral hemorrhage; we imagine his portrait was displayed out of respect around the city.
Additional material from ‘Honest Enough to Be Bold’: The Life and Times of Sir James Pliny Whitney by Charles W. Humphries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), and the September 25, 1914 edition of the Toronto Star.