Banner photo is of the T. A. Lytle factory on Sterling Road in 1912. From the City of Toronto Archives.
When I first began this page, a year and a half ago, I wasn’t quite sure where to start. For several years previous I’d been taking photos of old buildings I loved and feared for and so (given Toronto’s reckless building boom) I’d amassed quite a collection.
In the spirit of laying seed for something better in the future, I quickly put together a few posts just to get it going. The first one just happened to be the old T. A. Lytle factory on Sterling Road, very near where I grew up. At the time, I had no idea that it would become the most searched for site I’d write about. So it kind of pains me that I never gave Lytle and his company a proper look. But that’s something I hope to remedy today.
Thomas Alexander Lytle was born in Northern Ireland on November 6th, 1844. He arrived in Canada in 1871 and began clerking in William Wilson’s Vinegar Works:
At the time, William Wilson was one of just two vinegar manufacturers in Toronto and his Vinegar Works were much admired:
That Wilson’s factory was held in high esteem may not seem that interesting a tidbit on the face of it, but when you consider how important vinegar was for food preservation (especially in the pre-home refrigeration era) you begin to get a sense of what it meant in the city.
Oh sure, people weren’t entirely dependent on vinegar makers like Wilson, as they could certainly make their own – but it wasn’t exactly the easiest chore:
Still with me? No? Okay, on we go:
I don’t know about you, but I know I’d have saved myself the cost of lumber and hardware and just bought a jug of the stuff.
Though just a clerk at Wilson’s, Thomas Lytle gained some vinegar know-how and in 1882 he struck out on his own, opening his own factory. Well, he wasn’t entirely on his own. With the partnership of a fellow named Samuel Crane, Lytle opened the T. A. Lytle & Co factory on Richmond St. W. It was just a stone’s throw from William Wilson’s place – something that I suspect must’ve been vinegar in the wound for the former employer. …sorry, couldn’t help myself there.
Here’s a look at the neighbourhood while Lytle was in residence:
Should you wish to place it, this is the same corner today:
But getting back to Lytle … The same year he and Crane opened their vinegar factory, they also opened a coal and wood business called Samuel Crane & Co – this time with Lytle acting as the “Co.” I imagine there must’ve been a crossover and some of that wood and coal made it’s way over to Lytle’s on Richmond.
Though Lytle was listed as a vinegar manufacturer, he was actually much more than that. Here are just a few examples of what was on offer from the company:
In an age when many households did their own pickling and canning, Lytle was one of many who were looking to capitalize by taking the chore off their hands:
Despite what the grocers’ association believed, I’d say that it was more likely people turned to store-bought condiments because it was a heck of a lot less work. Also, presumably, factory sterilization meant not worrying about poisoning your family with botulism anymore. … Of course, that was just jams – pickles presented an entirely different danger:
Sure, Miss Beecher’s advice was printed shortly before the glass Mason jar came along – but its arrival didn’t really diminish the threat much. Actually, it really hadn’t diminished it at all, as we discover from this 1901 report:
I’m sorry to say that the second last chemical analysis there – the one with lead and high in empyreumatic substances – was from a jar of Lytle’s pickles. I won’t even tell you about his vinegars. But hey, his jams checked out fine…
Just the same, by 1908 Lytle’s business was booming and a larger factory was soon necessary for the production of the company’s many products. He moved out of the busy downtown core to the west end of the city, which was then only just being developed. There he built a large factory on Sterling, a short road which had been cut through land owned by a lumber merchant named William Leak.
The location was perfect for Lytle, snuggled as it was between the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railways.
The new street address also worked well for Lytle as the company already had a product line named “Sterling”:
While I haven’t any photos of the interior of the T. A. Lytle factory, I can share these illustrations of what it likely looked like – thanks to the industry reveling in the modernization of pickle factories:
One would imagine that running a large pickling plant, as well as partnering in a coal concern, would’ve been enough work for anyone (here I mean me.) But not for Lytle. He also found time to serve on the Collegiate Institute School Board and the City Counsel, as well as act as president of the Westminster Publishing Company.
So it’s hardly surprising that one day, in early April of 1911, after his usual workday at the Sterling Road factory he suddenly died. He was just 66 years old.
Following his death, the company continued on under his sons’ leadership but appears to have closed down sometime in the mid to late 1920s. The factory then became home to Scythes Inc – a flag and banner maker which has been rebranded as Flying Colour Internationals, but which used to manufacture canvas and cloths.
Ages ago, at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the T. A. Lytle factory is the most searched for site I’ve written about – and I think I know the reasons for this. For one thing, it is absolutely covered in ghost signs for the Lytle and Scythes brands. Secondly, a foot and bike path was built a few years ago which runs past the site, providing a great view of the old signage. Third, there is the mystery of one of these signs reading “Fountacanvas.” More than any other, it’s this word which seems to fire people’s interest.
Well, thanks to a comment on my first Lytle post, I found out that a wonderful company called Muralform was enlisted to restore the fading ads and a palimpsest – one portion of which was Lytle’s ad for fountain supplies and the other Scythes’ for canvas – which is how “Fountacanvas” came to be.
Here’s a look at some of the century old Lytle signs – pre-restoration:
As I mentioned earlier, I originally took these photos years ago when I feared for the building. Growing up just a few blocks away, it was like a long-time neighbour who’d always been a part of my world, and I worried I’d come home one day to find it no more. Happily, I now find I needn’t have worried – it’s not only being well looked after, it’s long history has been embraced and celebrated.