The novel “There Never Was A Better Time” is a story of two young brothers, Jack and Ernie, who arrive in Toronto in 1921 as emigrants from Newfoundland, in the days prior to confederation. The cover of the book depicts the old Union Station, where the railways serviced their passengers in the years before the present-day station was constructed.
The quote below tells of their boarding a Yonge streetcar in front of the train station, travelling east along Front Street, and north on Yonge Street to Queen Street.
Having been born in a small fishing village on the east coast of Newfoundland, the sights and sounds of the city’s main avenue both thrilled and intimidated them. It was to be an event in their lives that they were never to forget. The description of their journey provides insight into Toronto during the early years of the twentieth century.
On this evening in May, Jack and Ernie waited in front of Union Station for the streetcar. To reach the station, the Yonge streetcars travelled south on Yonge to Front Street, west on Front, south on York Street, west on Station Street, and then north on Simcoe to travel along Front Street once more. Journeying east on Front, the streetcars stopped at the station and then proceeded to Yonge.
Their brother Wilbert, who had come to the station to meet them, motioned with a nod of his head when he saw the streetcar approaching. The click-clack sound on the tracks and the odour of the engine oil were both familiar aspects of the city scene. It wasn’t until years later, when these old wood-framed streetcars had disappeared, that people nostalgically recalled their sounds and smells.
When the streetcar doors opened, Jack climbed up into the tram, and Ernie followed behind. Due to the late hour, and because they were at the beginning of the line, many seats were empty. To attain an unobstructed view, Jack and Ernie each chose a window seat . Wilbert sat beside Jack. Like boys on the first day of the school term, they sat erect and proud on the hard wooden seats. Ernie leaned out the window to stare at a pretty girl, who pretended to ignore his bold glances.
As they travelled along Front Street, Jack observed the construction in progress on the new Union Station and glanced at the Queen’s Hotel on the north side of the street. The streetcar’s metal wheels screeched noisily as it negotiated the left turn onto Yonge Street and proceeded northward.
Jack heard an older couple across the aisle complaining about the weather, which varied greatly during the month of May, temperatures often warming and then suddenly dropping. Every year, it was the same—people solemnly declared they had never suffered through such varying weather, their short memories forgetting that it had been the same the previous year, and the year before. By this time of the evening, the temperature hovered a little below fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and the winds were out of the southeast. Accustomed to the cool climate of Burin, Jack found the night air agreeable.
As the brothers peered out the streetcar windows, images whizzed past at an alarming pace. Ernie wondered if everything in this city moved at such speed. He fervently hoped it did.
As the Yonge Streetcar rushed northward in the evening traffic, Ernie glimpsed the city’s downtown restaurants, which, by world standards, were quite humble, but were viewed by Torontonians as fine establishments serving sensible, delicious cuisine. It would be several more decades before people moved beyond traditional cooking and embraced the more varied and spice-laden foods of the world.
Storefronts remained brightly lit, even though most of the shops were closed by this hour. Billboards, banners, and illuminated signs advertised gadgets, fashions, and products, attempting to elicit money from a population eager for the latest goodies.
Above the street was a jungle of telephone, streetcar, and electrical wires. A myriad of birds flew everywhere, with flocks of fat pigeons and messy sparrows competing for perching space. They relished being unnoticed by the people below. Men wearing straw hats and women in stylish bonnets provided the birds with excellent targets on which to drop their slopping missiles. Judging by the number of successful hits, the birds possessed a guidance system more advanced than the military technology of the age.
The financial section of Yonge Street impressed Jack and Ernie. They leaned out the streetcar windows, gawking upward at the money temples of Toronto. Soaring buildings of handsome red or yellow brick and others of wondrously white stone lined the thoroughfare, hugging the narrow sidewalks. Ornate carvings and stone pilasters decorated their façades, creating an aura of power and wealth.
It was said by some that bank balances and financial ledgers were the most popular religions of the city, their creeds stating that whatever was beneficial for the corporations was automatically good for the citizenry, whether they knew it or not. The acquisition of money was the driving force of the city, but not to the exclusion of classical architecture, judicious city planning, and gracious amenities. It was an age when the finer aspects of life did not end at the office doors of the corporate elite.
Though the city had slums and areas with working-class tenements, it also possessed buildings of elegance and attractiveness. In Toronto’s youthful years, builders had imagination and flair. Business firms, anxious to create an image, realized that the attainment of fat corporate wallets went hand in hand with grand edifices, well-planned thoroughfares, spacious parks, public fountains, and civic squares. Unfortunately, developers demolished most of these during the years ahead, their destruction sanctioned by elected officials. Even the preservation of the old City Hall of 1899 and the present-day Union Station was a struggle. No era has ever been free of greed, but the latter part of the twentieth century refined it to a state of sanctified purity that would have shocked those who lived in the 1920s.
Monotonous, faceless structures lacking individuality and grace replaced the old buildings. The new edifices possessed endless walls of barren glass and sterile steel. The glories of the past had faded away. The new towers belonged to architectural styles with pretentious names and an equally pretentious vocabulary: minimalism, simplicity of line, unified parallel shapes, symmetry of solidity, and utilitarian façade. In reality, they were from the schools of “neo-junk” or “tasteless revival.” Corporate powers no longer considered it worthwhile to employ an architect with ability, and thus many of Toronto’s finest architects abandoned the city and practised their profession in foreign lands. Politicians did little to prevent the devastation.
Citizens mostly ignored the destruction, conditioned to believe that what was old was not worthy of preservation—and besides, as it was Canadian, it was of dubious value. Any politician who wished to modify the ambitions of the developers was vilified as against progress. When citizens attempted to save a building from destruction, politicians and developers argued that it was impossible to save everything. When they applied this idea to almost every building, it meant that very few were preserved.
In the Toronto that greeted Jack and Ernie, on every main street-corner, underage boys in rumpled, well-worn attire hawked the six o’clock editions of the newspapers, shouting the day’s headline: “Murderer—Garfield of Toronto Still at Large.” Norman Garfield had killed a man and escaped his unguarded cell in the Woodstock Jail, where he was under sentence to hang on the second day of June. He was on the lam somewhere in the Ontario countryside. People feared that he might arrive in Toronto, because his wife and infant child lived in the city. “A murderer on the loose” was the hot topic in the newspapers, with everyone speculating about how the man had escaped. Garfield’s spiritual adviser had claimed that he was not to blame, as he was his pastor, not his jailer.
Ernie had never seen a murderer and wondered if such persons’ faces revealed the evil in their hearts. He remembered that whenever he had been untruthful with his mother, she always sensed it. Maybe the face was indeed the mirror of the soul.
From the windows of the streetcar, Jack and Ernie continued to absorb Toronto. It was a world of extreme commercialism. The shops on Yonge Street displayed the era’s newest products and latest fashions. The window of the United Cigar Store advertised Black Watch Chewing Tobacco and touted that Sir Haig Cigars provided a “real smoke” for only five cents. The brothers knew that Job would revel in the luxurious varieties of tobacco and wished that he were with them in Toronto to partake of the delirious delights.
Signs prominently declared that Ridgeway Tea was eighty cents a pound and that Salada Tea cost five cents less. Heinz Beans in Tomato Sauce was but one of the famous fifty-seven varieties. At the Huron and Erie Bank, deposits earned three and a half per cent. A sign declared that Carter’s Little Liver Pills were small pills requiring a small dose and were available at a small price. A package of Adam’s Black Jack Gum contained five sticks for five cents. Brass Clothiers at 148 Yonge Street was holding a “Too Much Stock Sale.”
Eaton’s advertised Castille Soap at thirty-seven cents for a dozen cakes—shoppers were to phone Adelaide 4941. Lux Soap, red Lifebuoy Soap, Ivory Soap (which floated in the tub), Ganong’s Chocolates, Peroxide Tooth Paste, and castor oil—all competed for advertising space on the street. At the corner of Yonge and Adelaide was Sheffield’s Lunch, where a full meal, including dessert, cost forty-five cents. The advancement of consumer products, with all its benefits and evils, was relentlessly marching across the nation.
At Queen Street, the streetcar stopped, and weary late-shoppers climbed aboard. Heavy with parcels, they filled the empty seats and most of the standing room. While at Queen Street, Jack noticed that the Robert Simpson Company—site of a Hudson’s Bay Store today—would offer a special sale on the following Saturday for those shoppers in the store at exactly 2:30 pm. “Be on the right spot at the right time,” the sign stated.
On the north side of Queen, the T. Eaton Company was selling phonograph machines in a stand-up, polished, wood cabinet for $63. Jack whistled in amazement at the price. “His Master’s Voice” recordings were $2.00 each, and featured the Rags Orchestra, the Garden Orchestra, and the Diamond Trio, as well as the voice of Enrico Caruso. The tenor’s adoring public was unaware that the Neapolitan opera star had only three months to live, his recordings even more treasured after his demise following surgery. The voice of the world’s greatest tenor, though silenced by death, would live forever through his recorded discs.
At the Loew’s Theatre, just north of Queen, Canada’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford starred in Through the Back Door. The admission price included six vaudeville acts. At the Pantages, there was a dance contest offering thirty dollars in prizes.