Historicist: Sticky Business
The Peter R. Lamb and Co. glue factory generates a big stink.
“The offensive odours which are wafted into the Necropolis from Lamb’s glue factory are so powerful that they drive people out of the graveyard.” So claimed an item that ran in the Globe on June 21, 1880, typical of the increasing public complaints about the factory. The factory in question was the Peter R. Lamb and Co. glue and blacking manufactory, which for 40 years stood at the eastern end of Amelia Street, directly north of the Toronto Necropolis cemetery, near the Don River. While it provided employment and various necessary industrial products to the city, Lamb’s glue factory was one of the city’s most fragrant, and thus unpopular, industries.
An article by E. Louise Boyd in the York Pioneer suggests that Peter Lamb tried other businesses in the United States before coming to Toronto in 1835. Boyd writes that his earlier ventures included managing a shoe company, which he left upon discovering that the factory employed slave labour.
A description of Lamb’s business in the W.C. Chewett & Co. city directory for 1867/1868 claims the factory first opened in 1837, although other sources suggest it may have started a few years earlier. Sources also disagree about the factory’s earliest locations. Boyd writes that Lamb first set up business at Yonge and Temperance, whereas early Toronto historian John Ross Robertson notes an 1840s site of Lamb’s factory on Front Street, west of the Don. In 1924, an anonymous writer contributed childhood memories of Toronto to the Globe, and claimed that the Lamb factory was initially located at Church and Carlton.
In 1848, Peter Lamb established a new factory at Amelia and Sumach, where it would remain until 1888. Lamb’s factory was the first major industrial site in the immediate vicinity, which was at this time a sparsely populated area on the fringes of Toronto. The move to this location was in line with a then-growing movement to establish heavier industries along the lower portion of the Don River, spurred by cheap, available land and convenient shipping access.
The location also put Lamb in close proximity to industries farther south along the Don, many of which supplied him with necessary materials, or which used Lamb’s glue or other products. In Reclaiming the Don, Jennifer Bonnell asserts that the industrial growth along the lower Don at this time created “constellations of mutually supportive operations. Soapworks in the lower valley, for example, took advantage of local supplies of tallow from nearby animal processing plants, while tanneries produced leather belts used for power transmission in early factories and mills.”
In the days before synthetic adhesives, most glues were made by subjecting hides, bone, hooves, fish, and other animal parts to high heat. These animal parts were usually supplied to glue manufacturers by tanners, meatpackers, and other industries whose processes produced small scraps that would otherwise go to waste. In an 1855 Globe advertisement for Peter R. Lamb and Co., the company directly appealed to other Toronto industries for materials using the line, “Tanners, save your glue pieces! Cash paid for tanners’ size pieces, cattle tails, and horns.”
(Right: Advertisement for Peter R. Lamb and Co. The Globe, August 27, 1855.)
Getting high-grade waste products could prove challenging for glue manufacturers; in a 1929 publication on glue manufacturing, Paul I. Smith lamented that “most tanners simply ‘dump’ their hide and skin waste in a convenient spot and leave it until the glue-maker sends his compliments.” Smith observed that such practices reduce the quality of the glue that could be obtained, and advocates turning over the scrap heaps at least once a day to keep them fresh and thus maintain their quality: “By keeping his hide and skin offal in sweet condition, the tanner not only ensures a better market, but also eliminates some of the bad smells with which a tanyard is usually associated as well as facilitating the entire process of glue production.”
In addition to glue, the Lamb factory also produced a variety of other industrial products derived from animal sources. Advertisements indicate the company also produced “neat’s foot oil” [sic], a substance derived from cattle bones and often used in the preservation of leather. The factory was also well known for its blacking polish derived from animal charcoal, and its bone-based fertilizer, which was often referred to as “manure” in company promotional material. Lamb also produced gelatine; a review of Lamb products in the 1859 Globe observes that “perhaps some of our lady readers do not know that the delicate jelly which they receive from the confectioner for evening parties is made of the same material as the dark sticky glue which they may have chanced to see in a carpenter’s pot.”
Despite producing an array of products, glue appears to have been the product with which Peter R. Lamb and Co. was mostly publicly associated. Advertisements reveal that the company had a variety of types on offer, likely derived from different sources and intended for various purposes. One 1862 advertisement boasts that Lamb made glue “adapted to the use of piano-forte, carriage cabinet, and paper hanging manufacturers, rock oil refiners, printers, bookbinders, etc.” Lamb’s glue was not marketed for home use but for other industrial purposes, and was likely purchased by other Toronto companies, although advertisements suggest that some of the final products were shipped to other parts of the British Empire.
Early descriptions of Lamb’s factory and its products in the Toronto newspapers are positive. A February 1863 Globe article reports recent improvements and expansion on the site, and indicates that Lamb has received several patents for manufacturing techniques and design. In reviewing the company’s products, the same article notes that, “in the manufacture of glue, the greatest difficulty has been to get tanners to save in good state their cuttings or pieces, but gradually they are seeing the importance of properly preserving them, as a much better rate is realized therefore. Mr. Lamb’s glue is well known to the trade [on] account of its good quality.” After the factory was destroyed by a fire a few months later, a Globe editorial rejoiced at the news that it would be rebuilt, writing, “Mr. Lamb has done a great good in making use of the refuse of our kitchens—converting it into a most valuable manure, and also in supplying two very necessary articles of domestic economy, for which we were before obliged to send abroad. We are glad to hear that he is soon to be at work again.”
Peter Lamb died in 1864, and control of the glue factory passed to his son Daniel, then only 22 years old. While Lamb products, particularly the fertilizers, continued to receive positive reviews, the factory soon came under close scrutiny in the Toronto press.
(Left: Daniel Lamb. The Globe, December 27, 1902.)
Turning animal parts into glue over high heat produces an intensely strong smell. In her 2010 thesis Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences, Jennifer Bonnell writes that “the stench of dead animals and boiling flesh would have been palpable to residents as the area south and west of the factory became increasingly built up in the 1870s and ’80s.” In addition to the nearby Necropolis Cemetery and Toronto General Hospital (which was then located near Gerrard and Sumach), residential development had populated the area, some of it housing designed specifically for local factory workers.
A notice in the Globe on July 3, 1878, described the smell coming as a “nuisance,” adding that “every window in [Toronto General] Hospital had to be closed by reason of it Monday night.” Responding to this allusion to the Lamb factory, A.T. McCord, one of the trustees of the Necropolis Cemetery, wrote to the Globe decrying the stench from the glue factory. “It is at times intolerable,” McCord wrote, “and drives away those who desire to visit the remains of the dead….Glue factories are an insufferable nuisance, and should never be permitted within the limits of any city or town.” The City of Toronto was also in the process of establishing what would become Riverdale Park, which McCord claimed “will be comparatively useless if this factory is permitted to remain.”
The Globe sympathized with McCord: “The line has been passed where what in former years was practically inoffensive, owing to a small population in the neighbourhood, becomes a serious grievance to a portion of the city now well populated.” The company responded to the complaints with letters in several of the Toronto dailies, noting that they had taken action to reduce odours after previous complaints, and claiming that this recent incident was an isolated one, brought on by being shut down over a long weekend. Lamb also mentioned the jobs it supplied to the area, and claimed that, despite concerns about the pollution, “there has been not one case of sickness attributed to our works, and in all the epidemics of cholera, small-pox, typhoid fever, etc. there has never been in a case in our immediate neighbourhood.”
Lamb’s letters prompted several rebuttals from the public. One letter to the Globe took issue with the claim that the recent incident was an isolated one, claiming, “not only is it necessary for the Hospital to close its windows, but also evening after evening this spring and summer, and for many springs and summers past, every house in the locality…has been almost hermetically sealed to prevent the disgusting odour from permeating them through and through.”
Another intense round of letters deploring the factory came in the summer of 1887. Again, Daniel Lamb wrote to the newspapers to defend the glue factory, this time suggesting that his factory was being unfairly blamed for smells emanating from other sources. In response, a letter in the Telegram noted that “we know the peculiar sickening odour of his factory too well to mistake any smell arising from a scavenger dump for it.” A Globe editorial concluded that “it appears quite evident that there never was a more favourable time in which to take action for the removal of the nuisance,” and suggested that the complainants “appoint a committee to confer with Messrs. Lamb as to the best means of procuring the removal.” Some meetings did indeed take place, but it appears that no action was taken.
The problem was effectively solved next spring. On May 20, 1888, a police patrolman noticed flames coming from the factory’s main five-storey building. A small crowd gathered to watch the fire, but scattered for safety when it learned that a magazine containing 30,000 pounds of gunpowder used by local industries was a mere 50 yards from the rear of the factory. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from reaching the magazine but were otherwise hampered in their efforts, as only one hydrant existed in the immediate area, and the majority of the works were lost. The Globe noted that the heat from the fire was “so great at times that three of the firemen had their rubber coats melted on their backs.” Also of note, the Telegram reported that “the horses about the factory were turned loose, but a pet bear on the premise had to be dragged out by a rope to a place of safety.”
Despite some early claims by Lamb that he would rebuild his glue works, the City resumed negotiations for the purchase of the site. Although the land was not acquired until several years later, the matter appears to have been effectively settled by the end of the 1888, when the Globe noted that Alderman (and future mayor) R.J. Fleming had been instrumental “in having the Lamb glue factory nuisance abolished.” The factory was not rebuilt, and a 1987 Toronto Star article indicates that bricks from the old glue factory building were used in the construction of houses on Hillcrest Park.
For Daniel Lamb, the fire proved somewhat convenient. Public pressure to remove the factory likely would have escalated, as efforts were already underway to tackle pollution and health concerns in the area by straightening the lower section of the Don River. Only in his 40s, Lamb retired from the glue business; having briefly served as an alderman a few years earlier, he soon returned to city politics, serving again as an alderman from 1892 to 1902. He is best known today, however, for helping to establish and advocating for the Riverdale Zoo, the immediate predecessor of the Toronto Zoo. When Daniel Lamb died in 1920, his obituaries hailed him as a dedicated politician and as the father of Toronto’s zoo; only passing mention was made of the notorious glue factory he once ran.
Additional material from: Jennifer L. Bonnell, Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley, PhD Thesis (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2010); Jennifer L. Bonnell, Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley (University of Toronto, 2014); E. Louise Boyd, “Daniel Lamb: The City Father Who Gave Toronto Its First Zoo” in The York Pioneer (Spring 1976); The Globe (August 27, 1855; September 30, 1859; September 29, 1862; February 23, April 21, May 5, 1863; January 30, 1868; July 3, July 5, July 6, July 8, July 19, August 27, November 1, 1878; June 21, November 3, 1880; May 18, August 18, 1882; November 13, 1885; July 16, August 5, August 6, August 8, August 10, 1887; February 27, May 21, May 24, May 31, June 11, December 28, 1888; August 1, 1890; December 27, 1902; April 19, 1924); Coleen Kelly, Cabbagetown in Pictures (Toronto Public Library Board, 1984); The Toronto Mail (May 21, May 31, 1881); Patents of Canada from 1824 to 1849 (Lovell and Gibson, 1860: Toronto); John Ross Robertson, Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto: A Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833 and of Toronto from 1834 to 1895 (J. Ross Robertson, 1896: Toronto); George H. Rust-D’Eye, Cabbagetown Remembered (Boston Mills Press, 1984: Erin, Ontario); Paul I. Smith, Glue and Gelatine (Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1929: Bath); Toronto Star (August 26, August 27, 1920; May 24, 1980; August 23, 1987; December 29, 1997); The Evening Telegram (July 8, July 10, 1878; August 2, August 4, August 8, August 10, 1887; May 21, 1888; August 27, 1920); United States Department of Agriculture, Forestry Service, Animal Glues: Their Manufacture, Testing, and Preparation (Forest Products Laboratory, rev. October 1937); Toronto World (May 8, 1884; August 27, 1920).
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