Banner image is from Toronto: Past and Present: A Handbook of the City, by Charles Pelham Mulvany, 1884.
In the 1860s, building your own private library, studded with literary classics, was a pricey endeavour. Not everyone could afford to spend three dollars for, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. Much easier was getting ten pennies together to buy a completely different kind of book – in both content and material. Printed on cheap, acid-rich paper and featuring a splashy cover, dubious characters and even more dubious storylines, these were of course dime novels. The first of this type to be printed (and which set the genre’s tone for several decades) was called Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter in 1860.
The dime novel started to gain prominence around the same time that a fellow named Andrew Scott Irving moved to Toronto and opened a bookstore. Born in Annan, Scotland in 1837, Irving moved to the U.S. with his parents as a little boy. He married Eliza Morgan in Pennsylvania, and moved to Hamilton, ON in the late 1850s. It was in Hamilton that he got into the book-trade, working for a Detroit-based dealer named W. E. Tunis.
Tunis was a pretty serious mover and/or shaker, remarkable for having had control of all reading material sales on the Great Western Railway. Also remarkable (at least to me), Tunis’s bookstores had their own privately minted copper nickel made up. Known as a “store card” it was used when actual, government-issued coins became scarce during the Civil War.
But I’m straying from Toronto and my story …
I imagine Irving learned a fair bit from Tunis before moving to Toronto to open his own book store at the corner of Toronto and Adelaide Sts, because it wasn’t too long after that he opened a second, wholesale business on King W.
Like many book sellers of the time, Irving was also in the stationary and publishing game, printing a number of periodicals including the 1865 Toronto City Directory. But what proved particularly popular was his own sheet music line known as Irving’s Five Cent Music.
While he was happy to sell songs for a nickel, he did not relish the thought of anyone buying a novel for a dime. With gaudy covers and titles like Dare-Devil Dick, Dingle the Outlaw (which gets my vote for the least ‘Outlaw’ name ever) and The Fire-Eater, or the Texan’s Revenge, the serious book lover in Irving must’ve reeled. And he wasn’t alone. At the time there was a growing portion of the population that was horrified that anyone would pollute their minds with such fluff. As fellow Torontonian Charles Pelham Mulvany put it: “We can fill ourselves with trash and derive nothing but harm from it, or we can fill ourselves with the knowledge of wise men, and ourselves become wise.”
But it wasn’t just straight-laced Torontonians who were appalled by the dime novel. In the U.S., Postal Inspector-turned-maniacal tyrant, Anthony Comstock took a decidedly dim view of the books. Comstock had created a group called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice – “vice” being a one size fits all condemnation of anything he found objectionable. In addition to trying to pin George Bernard Shaw on obscenity charges, prohibiting anatomy textbooks from being sent to medical students by mail (those filthy anatomical drawings, you know) and seizing 1,000 art catalogues from the American Society of Fine Arts (fine art, need I say more?), he also arrested a publisher named Frank Tousey for printing a dime novel called The Mysteries of the Court of London.
By contrast, A. S. Irving’s efforts were a whole lot more subtle. Convinced that the prohibitive price of “real” literature was driving dime sales, Irving looked for a way to bring down the cost. In 1876 he joined forces with the Copp, Clark and Co publishing house and a number of smaller publishers and booksellers to create the Toronto News Company. Their partnership, combined with money-saving advances in printing technology, allowed them to push “a better class of literature” and discourage the sale of “trash.”
Well, you need only a glancing familiarity with publishing history to know that Irving’s war on the dime novel would fail. Even when his pal Mulvany crowed about Irving’s inevitable success, he couldn’t quite pull it off when he wrote “Years ago there used to be tons of dime novels sold, but Mr. A.S. Irving, managing director of the Toronto News Co., assures us that, in spite of newspaper stories, all that is changed-“ … Okay. But then maybe you shouldn’t have brought up those pesky contradicting newspapers.
Irving may have lost the Canadian campaign in the Great Dime Novel War, but his Toronto News Company was wildly successful in other ways. Irving’s Five Cent Music continued to be a hot item, with a new piece of music published each week. And he had another surefire product line that brought customers in in a steady stream: postcards. Not just any cards, mind you – these were Prang’s postcards.
Louis Prang was a German-born, Boston-based publisher of chromolithographs. Considered the most prolific publisher of chromos, as they were called, he was renowned for his fine colour prints of famous oil and watercolour paintings which he advertised thus: ‘THE DEMOCRACY OF ART’ . . . Our Chromo Prints are absolute FACSIMILES of the originals, in color, drawing, and spirit, and their price is so low that every home may enjoy the luxury of possessing a copy of works of art, which hitherto adorned only the parlors of the rich.’
I don’t believe the mention of democracy was mere ad copy. In the late 1840s, while still in Europe, Prang had been involved in revolutionary activities which led to his being pursued by the Prussian government and his eventual move to the U.S. Once there, at least one of his chromolithography subjects hinted at his progressive beliefs. In 1870, Prang published a print of Theodore Kauffman’s painting of the Mississippi Senator Hiram Revels, the first African American Senator. It was so momentous at the time that Frederick Douglass wrote to Louis Prang to commend the work and thank him. He wrote: “Whatever may be the prejudices of those who may look upon it, they will be compelled to admit that the Mississippi Senator is a man, and one who will easily pass for a man among men. We colored men so often see ourselves described and painted as monkeys, that we think it a great piece of good fortune to find an exception to this general rule.”
I wouldn’t imagine that the Hiram Revels chromo was amongst those sold at the Toronto News Company (for regional reasons alone), but they certainly must’ve had a great number of his other popular images available. As the “exclusive agent” for the much sought after items, sales of Prang’s postcards brought in over $27,000 in 1884 alone. That’s a lot of postcards.
There is another facet to Andrew Scott Irving and the mark he left on Toronto, but I think I’ll save that story for another day. In the meantime, I’m very pleased to be able to tell you that the wonderful Toronto News Company building at 42 Yonge St is still standing, and just as handsome as it was when Irving and his cohorts took up residence in 1882.