The T. A. Lytle Story

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.

From The Canadian Grocer, April 20, 1911.

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:

Vinegar and cigar boxes – that’s a natural pairing. From the Toronto City Directory, 1871- 1872.

At the time, William Wilson was one of just two vinegar manufacturers in Toronto and his Vinegar Works were much admired:

That’s a lot of vinegar – people passing on the street must’ve been blinded by the fumes. But they could take heart, it wasn’t likely to kill you. From Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present, 1877.

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:

From A Dictionary of Everyday Wants: Twenty Thousand Receipts in Nearly Every Department of Human Effort, 1878.  Emphasis on “effort.”

Still with me?  No?  Okay, on we go:

Got your hogshead ready? Good. But the bad news is you’ll need some vinegar before you can make your vinegar. … That last line isn’t instructive, it’s a threat.

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.

Anyhow …

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:

Must’ve been a big day for these fellas – having their picture took and all. T. A. Lytle’s was just past the three-storey building on the right. The NE corner of Richmond and York, circa 1889.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Should you wish to place it, this is the same corner today:

One of the uglier buildings downtown – but of course that’s just my opinion.  Photo by K Taylor.

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:

I think I could do with a half barrel.  From The Canadian Grocer, June 1895.
It was a bold move, using mixed pickles to advertise ketchup (sorry catsup) but then Lytle was that kind of visionary. From The Canadian Grocer, June 1895.
Royal Club Sauce is a bit of a mystery but, as I understand it, was a tomato-based sauce that could be used on anything… So kinda like ketchup’s fancier brother. From the Toronto City Directory, 1899.

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:

From the safety of their industry magazine, we have grocers making assumptions about their customers’ talents.  From The Canadian Grocer, June 1895,

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:

Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 1858.

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:

Mmm, genuine with just a hint of lead. From the Report on Adulteration of Food for the Fiscal Year Ended 30th June 1901.

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.

T. A. Lytle’s enormous new factory on Sterling Road.  From The Canadian Grocer, 1908.

The new street address also worked well for Lytle as the company already had a product line named “Sterling”:

Sterling Brand Jam ad from the Toronto City Directory, 1899.
There’s no way to say that name that doesn’t make it sound like you’re telling someone off. From The Canadian Grocer, 1908.
Sterling Sauerkraut 1911 Canadian Grocer
I for one am woefully unprepared for an increased demand on sauerkraut. From The Canadian Grocer, 1911.
Here a caricature of Lytle poses proudly with his Sterling brand products. From Torontonians As We See ‘Em, 1905.

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:

To use what I assume was industry lingo – look at the size of those things.  From The Canadian Grocer, 1908.
Welcome to the modern age – Effie here hand packs the pickles herself. Obviously that cap is purely decorative; there’s no way it was keeping hair out of the jars.  From The Canadian Grocer, 1908.
That ketchup bottling contraption is pretty neat, though I don’t quite get that periscope/snorkel bit. As for Mr. Copper Kettles, I’m willing to bet no one liked that guy. From The Canadian Grocer, 1908.

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.

16 thoughts on “The T. A. Lytle Story

  1. Glad the building has been preserved, Kate. Interesting story about Mr. Lytle and his factory. And what a great juxtaposition of the same corner, back then and now. (Agree – that’s an ugly modern building. We went through a stage where architects thought cold, square and ugly were beautiful.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve only been blogging for a year and a half? It feels like longer (in a good way!). I don’t know what I did without your thoughtful and delightful comments on my blog, and of course I knew practically nothing about Toronto before I started reading your blog! Now I not only know cool stuff about its history, I get to learn with the benefit of amusing picture captions (the Mr. Copper Kettles one made me lol, as did Effie’s hairy pickles)! I’m not a vinegar fan, but I too could do with a half barrel of maple syrup. Hell, with all the expense of shipping it over, might as well go for a full barrel! Probably still cheaper than buying syrup here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really does feel longer! And thank you so much! That you read my posts, and write brilliant comments, means a lot to me – even more so because I’m such a fan of your site. Makes me wish I had a barrel of syrup to thank you with!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely fabulous piece … I love your “detectivry” (isn’t a word. should be.) And, if I had a band that sounded like a kinda-sorta mix up of Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers I would definitely name my next album “Vinegar and Cigar Boxes.”

    And, hooray for those wise souls who actually see the value in saving and restoring and preserving the history, the buildings, and the signage of our communities.


    1. Ha! I would buy that album. And thank you so much. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it. It means a lot to me – especially because I love the brilliant “detectivry” (agreed, it should be a word) and respect for history in your writing. Wonderful stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I finally had a chance to visit the Drake Commissary last night to see your work, and I was just astounded. Such a wonderful job! I LOVE the new signs – they’re perfect and meld seamlessly with the Lytle ones. It made my heart very happy to see. Bravo!


  4. I loved that I stumbled across this – TA Lytle was my great grandfather and it’s such a treat to have our history documented!!
    Eleanor Lytle


  5. I am renovating an old house in New Brunswick. I came across an old pickle bottle in the wall.

    My online search led me here. I enjoyed reading it. Interesting and informative.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for sharing the info you found about T A Lytle – we made a find yesterday- a T A Lytle & Co , Toronto bottle dug up while digging the soil off the septic tank to have it pumped. I noticed in one of the write up you posted that there were a variety of locations including one in Scotland ( I am assuming Scotland Ontario) and I wonder if you have ever found out anything more about that location as it is about 20 minutes from where this bottle was dug up!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Incredible! What a great find – I’m so glad it led you here! Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the Scotland, ON salting station but I will look into it and see if I can find out anything more for you!


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