Distributors, Agents, and Publishers: Creating a Separate Market for Books in Canada 1900-1920. (1) Part I

By Parker, George | Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Distributors, Agents, and Publishers: Creating a Separate Market for Books in Canada 1900-1920. (1) Part I


Parker, George, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada


If books are to be distributed to Canadian readers, the work must be done by Canadian publishers. --George N. Morang, "The Development of Publishing in Canada and the Canadian Copyright Question," 1899 (3)

I. "Toronto's Wholesale District Swept by Flames"

Around 8:00 on the evening of 19 April 1904 the most disastrous fire in Toronto's history broke out in the downtown core. A tiny electric wire, "imperfectly insulated," (4) started the fire in the elevator shaft at E. & S. Currie Neckwear, at the northwest corner of Bay and Wellington Streets. That night the fire made a u-turn down and up Bay Street and its surrounding area. First, the fire jumped south across Wellington Street to the firm of Rolph, Smith Lithographers, where tons or paper began to burn. Fanned by strong northwest winds, the flames spread down the west side of Bay Street, from Melinda Street south to the Esplanade near Lake Ontario. At Front Street the fire moved westward almost to Lorne Street at the Queen's Hotel, where the Royal York Hotel now stands. Ladies were removed from the hotel while the male guests helped control the fire here. By 9:30 the conflagration also swept east along Front Street, almost reaching the Bank of Montreal on the corner of Yonge and Front Streets, that elegant rococo building that now houses the Hockey Hall of Fame. There were fears that the fire would leap across Yonge Street to the Customs House, where $1 million worth of goods were stored. At 9:45 pm the first building collapsed, the Davis & Henderson Stationery Co. on the east side of Bay Street near Front Street. Now the fire moved north, up the east side of Bay Street. It reached the Telegram Building on the southeast corner of Melinda and Bay Streets, where it was halted by the efforts of the Telegram employees. The mayor phoned Oshawa, London, Hamilton, and Buffalo for fire brigades, which were transported by special trains on the Grand Trunk Railway.

There were many dramatic incidents. When the street front of the Buntin Reid paper company crashed, it took down electric wires on Wellington Street. Blue and purple flames shot from the trolley and electric wires. Some observers said flames shot hundreds of feet in the air. At Warwick Bros and Rutter, A.M. Dymond (the Law Clerk) and Mr Grant (the assistant Queen's Primer) managed to save the manuscripts of recent provincial bills and reports, but decades of provincial government materials were lost forever. William Rutter glumly told the Globe reporter, "the stationery trade of Canada is ruined." (5) By midnight the crowds behind the barricades at Front Street were getting out of hand and there was some pillaging.

Despite assistance of fire companies from Hamilton and Buffalo, and the efforts of many local firemen and citizens, they were no match for the gale-force winds, Toronto's low water-pressure, and the Dantesque searing heat of the flames. Among the few injured persons was the fire chief, who fractured his leg falling from a drain pipe. Two weeks later a dynamite expert died from injuries received when a dynamite charge exploded in his face at the W.J. Gage building on Front Street. Post-mortems also revealed that the fire brigades could have been better organized. There was need for even more fire-resistant materials in these warehouses because the flames ignited the wood in window frames, open staircases and elevators, empty cupolas, and mansard roofs. Two buildings that resisted the heat had new sprinkler systems, which did not stop their destruction but slowed down the flames.

By morning as the flames subsided, newsboys hawked fire numbers of the Toronto papers replete with drawings and on-the-spot accounts. The Star was the first to issue a photo of the devastation, which later was documented with hundreds of photographs and a three-minute movie. Twenty acres were cordoned off where venerable firms, some of them in business for over half-a-century, were reduced to rubble overnight. …

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