Toronto by Candlelight

Banner photo is George Morse’s Soap and Candle Factory, Don Station, in the 1870s.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Tonight, millions of people around the world will pause at 8:30PM (in their respective time zones) to turn off their lights in observance of Earth Hour.  As you no doubt are aware, this annual event was created to bring awareness of climate change and to foster in folks a sense of responsibility to our environment.

I still recall, fondly, the first Earth Hour we celebrated in Toronto; sitting in my Parkdale apartment with a bunch of pals, gathering a weird assortment of candles (some scented, some Christmas, some fancy tapered ones I didn’t recall buying), keeping an eye on the clock and jumping up to turn off the lights at the right time.  … Well, that was about the extent of it, but it was really nice.

More fondly still, I recall the unintentional Earth Hour of 2003 – the one that stretched into days during the incredible, now famed, Northeast Blackout of 2003.  Perhaps you remember it too.  If so, what you probably don’t know is that I, initially, thought I’d caused it.  Truly, for a moment I thought I had.

It was an intensely hot summer afternoon and I was lying down to take a nap.  To keep the heavy, humid air moving I’d trained an electric fan on my bed.  A while later I woke up very hot and a bit annoyed to find the fan had stopped.   As I wandered downstairs to see who I could complain about it to, it began to dawn on me that it was unnaturally quiet.  Drifting out to the front porch, I found my sister talking to a large group of neighbours who’d gathered (not un-zombie-like) in the street.  Turning to me my sister said, with great solemnity, “It’s a brown out.”

Well, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I had an icky, guilty feeling that it probably had something to do with the extravagance of my electric fan. You know, sort of like the proverbial straw that lays out the camel.  But of course, and I have to stress this, it wasn’t my fault.   And, in fact, it wasn’t a brown out at all but a proper black out – one which was a whole lot bigger than just our little Toronto neighbourhood.

Anyhow, as always, I bring this up to tell you about our early Torontonians, for whom every day was Earth Hour…

In the early 1800s, while small areas in London and Paris began to light up with the magic of flammable gas, young York lay in darkness.  Well, not complete darkness, of course – there were, after all, candles and lamps to cut away some of the gloom.  But in the early life of this small burg even these simple items could be considered an extravagance.

While candles were sold by some early merchants, many households made their own.  Most often these were formed from tallow – which is a rather pretty word for rendered animal fat.   And as you might imagine the process was not that much fun.

Here is Jared Benedict Graham’s memory of candlemaking in the 1840s, from his Handset Reminiscences, Recollections of an Old-time Printer and Journalist, published in 1915:

“They were made in a cold room, by dipping wicks – a dozen at a time strung on sticks – in a boiler of warm tallow, repeating until they had taken on the required coating.  How I despised that job. “

While Benedict Graham was an American, the process (and tediousness) of the chore was the same as experienced here.

As for the tallow itself, well, it had a few drawbacks.  For one thing – and you might be surprised to hear this – it didn’t smell great.  Being made from animal fat, generally pork, oxen or sheep, it could also go rancid on you.  Another downside was that mice were greatly attracted to its meaty scent and would eat the candles.  According to Susanna Moodie, our early British-Canadian author, in her 1852 Roughing it in the Bush, cats were rather partial to tallow candles too:

“It happened that a pane of glass was broken out of the window-frame, and I had supplied its place by fitting in a shingle; my friend Emilia S——had a large Tom-cat, who, when his mistress was absent, often paid me a predatory or borrowing visit; and Tom had a practice of pushing in this wooden pane, in order to pursue his lawless depredations. I had forgotten all this, and never dreaming that Tom would appropriate such light food, I left the candle lying in the middle of the table, just under the window.

Between sleeping and waking, I heard the pane gently pushed in. The thought instantly struck me that it was Tom, and that, for lack of something better, he might steal my precious candle.

I sprang up from the bed, just in time to see him dart through the broken window, dragging the long white candle after him. I flew to the door, and pursued him half over the field, but all to no purpose. I can see him now, as I saw him then, scampering away for dear life, with his prize trailing behind him, gleaming like a silver tail in the bright light of the moon.”

That this candle-napping was worth recounting goes a long way to showing how treasured a single candle could be.  And in poor Susanna Moodie’s case, the swiped candle didn’t even belong to her – it’d been borrowed from a neighbour because the Moodies had had none of their own.  Worse than that, the neighbour was expecting it back the next day.

Anyhow, as is so often the case, if you had some money there were better options available to you than the lowly tallow candle.  There was beeswax for one, which had the benefit of being harder than tallow, and with a much higher melting point – something that was a major boon in the hot summer months.  Even better than that, beeswax had a wonderful scent.  (I personally have a beeswax candle I’ve never lit.  I just pick it up and smell it from time to time.)  But beeswax was a little harder to come by.  One early merchant actually used his advertising space not only to peddle his wares – in this case mostly liquor – but also as a call-out for any beeswax that a body might be looking to sell:

Beeswax Charles Keller Canadian Freeman February 8 1827
From The Canadian Freeman, February 8, 1827. (Yes, I know it says August 31, 1826 but he’d been running this ad for a while.)

Far more plentiful was your other option, spermaceti oil:

Spermaciti Oil British Colonist Oct 31 1843
From the British Colonist, Oct 31st 1843.

Spermaceti oil was far better than either tallow or beeswax in that it burned brighter and more cleanly, and created a much harder candle by far.  It might not have smelled as delicious as beeswax but it didn’t have the repugnant scent of tallow either.  But where it lost points – as calculated by my own “gross” scale ( a highly sensitive and exacting device) – was in its origins.  Spermaceti oil comes from an organ in the head of the sperm whale.  B. Torrance’s ad above offered 500 gallons of the stuff – an enormous quantity but which, remarkably, was the common yield from just one large whale.

Now I don’t know about you but I’d rather stop thinking about that, so let us move on to a couple of the merchants who lit up young Toronto with their candles:

Freeland Candles 1862-3 TCD
From the 1862-3 Toronto City Directory.

Peter Freeland and his brother William arrived in York (Toronto) from Montreal, by way of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1830 and lost no time in building their large , three-storey candle factory on Front St near Yonge.  It was one of the first large factories built on Front St and one of the largest manufacturers of soap and candles in the city.

freeland (1)
Peter Freeland’s soap and candle factory on Front St, as drawn by his son Robert. From John Ross Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, 1894.

Unfortunately, Peter’s death in 1861 marked the beginning of its end.  It limped on for a few more years under his son Robert’s direction but would eventually close around 1866. But he has not been forgotten – at least not street-wise.  Freeland St  which is east of Yonge, and runs south from Lakeshore Blvd, is named for him – so there’s that.

Another large candle-making concern was Sutherland and Marshall’s.  Alexander Sutherland had started the business in the early 1850s on Spadina Ave, but by 1860 had taken on Samuel Marshall as a partner and moved a tad west to Denison Ave.  Candle and soap-making not being work enough for the two, they added a bakery and flour shop (not flower, flour) next door.

Sutherland and Marshall 1864 TCD
Somehow saying their soap and candles were “constantly on hand” makes it sound like they were irritated by the fact. From the 1864 Toronto City Directory.

Sidelines, such as Sutherland and Marshall’s bakery above, became more common as candle-making technology improved, and soon there were a number of companies that offered a whole range of products where once they’d had to focus their efforts on all the fun stuff they could make from animal fat.  Another company that was branching out was Dalrymple Crawford’s (easily one of my favourite old Toronto names) at Princess St and Palace (now part of Front).

Dalrymple Crawford & Co 1867-8 TCD
Many of these items are still familiar today – though I’ve never had my chicory nibbed, that I know of.  From the 1867-8 Toronto City Directory.

According to Dalrymple Crawford’s ad in the very same city directory:

“The department devoted to the manufacture of candles contains twenty of Humiston’s patent candle machines, all kept constantly in operation.  Each of these machines moulds 96 candles at a time, and this number can be repeated as rapidly as the candles can cool sufficiently to be drawn.  These machines are simple and effective in their working.  Notwithstanding the large quantity of candles turned out, the demand is in excess of the supply.”

Now, if you know me, you know how much I enjoy an old patent application.  So here it is, Humiston’s incredible “candle machine”:

Screenshot 2017-03-25 at 5.25.49 PM
It’s pretty self-explanatory, really.  Willis Humiston’s patent application in New York for his candle machine, July 24th, 1855.

Now you might’ve noticed that, timeline-wise, we’re beginning to head into the 1870s, which might lead you to believe that Toronto was content enough with its candles and that no other form of illumination need apply.  But that really wasn’t so.  Quite early on, way back in 1841, the first gas street lamps began to appear along Toronto’s streets – lighting up the city as never before.  It’s just that it would be a pretty long leap until their magic made its way into people’s homes in …

… oh crumb, I’ve just looked at the clock and realized I should start gathering my candles for tonight’s Earth Hour.   And so I think I’ll  have to save Toronto’s foray into gaslighting for the next installment.  I know it’s hard, but try not to get too excited.

Hope you all have a fun Earth Hour!

15 thoughts on “Toronto by Candlelight

  1. “… our early Torontonians, for whom every day was Earth Hour…” There could be no finer lead in to your candle story than that — it was absolutely perfect!

    And, I loved, loved, loved your tale of Toronto candles. And, what a great ad for the “Cheap grocery, wine, and spirits” store … which seems like the perfect name for a store. (There was a grocery store in my little town here in Virginia — long before my time — called the “Sanitary Grocery” which seems good enough for me. Why would you shop anyplace else that might be filthy? You can still see the faded edges of the sign on the old brick wall where it was located.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SO happy you liked it! And I’m with you – I’d do my shopping at the Sanitary Grocery. I mean, once you mention it’s “sanitary” it raises doubts about the other guys. And I would LOVE to see that ghost ad. I’m glad it’s survived.


  2. Great and timely post. A few years ago, I read Bill Bryson’s “At Home”, which is his look at the history of people’s ordinary lives in their own homes. I recall a line in there somewhere relating to the fact that, prior to gas and electric lighting, it was simply DARK much of the time, especially in the winter. We have no comprehension of this today. It takes a blackout to remind us (fleetingly) how helpless we’ve become…!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Funny, I’m reading Bill Bryson right now – Road to Little Dribbling. I haven’t read At Home – I’ll definitely have to pick up a copy. And yes, absolutely, it must’ve been very dark here – especially because it was so heavily forested in the early 19th century. I’ve read a few accounts in which newly arrived settlers described the massive, darkness of the woods with fear and a sort of horror – so I think there was a kind of psychological darkness they’d have wanted to light a candle against as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! Good old Bill! Actually it’s been a while since I’ve read any Bryson but this exchange has inspired me to re-visit him. I’ve started the Little House series with my kids and the first book takes place in their log cabin in the “Big Woods.” The idea and capability to tackle nature by hand in order to build a home and settlement is beyond most of us now, isn’t it? I enjoyed your post – always do 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Another interesting post, Kate, about the time before. Now I love candlelight, but not to read by! Even now when I think how weak the glow of early light bulbs, I’m glad we have brighter indoor light, and especially during the winter months.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wholeheartedly agree! I spend a lot of time reading old newspapers and these days I can only manage a half hour of reading at a time – and that’s with our modern lighting. I can’t begin to imagine reading that old, tiny script by candlelight!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah yes, here’s the electricity post you mentioned! Sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it! I do vividly remember the Blackout of 2003; I was working at an ice cream shop at the time, and it was one of the few businesses open because we had a backup generator (because ice cream must be saved at all costs!). No power at home though, and I seem to remember that it got to the point where we had to pour water into the toilet to be able to flush it (because apparently toilets use electricity somehow?). I didn’t realise it spread as far as Canada too!
    I own Roughing it in the Bush, but I have to confess that I found it kind of a drag. I seem to remember Moodie being a huge snob, and I don’t even think I ever finished it because I was so fed up with her whining! I was hoping it would be more like the Little House books, of which I am a huge (slightly obsessive) fan (I noticed you were discussing it in the comments above).
    Much as I like the idea of having my own local spice mill (freshly ground mustard powder for my rarebit? Yes please!), I will pass on the horrible sounding lard oil. What even is lard oil (or rock oil, for that matter)? I thought the whole deal with lard is that it is solid at room temperature.
    I just loled at your “self-explanatory” candle-making machine comment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so glad you experienced the blackout too! (Though if you hated it, I’m sorry.) I’m ridiculously nostalgic about it – I even have a joke t-shirt they put out to commemorate it. Anyhow, it’s pretty impressive that your ice cream shop was well prepared. I remember the ones in my area were giving away their ice cream for free just to get rid of it. Wow, having to back fill the toilets is something else though. My area was out for four or five days and I remember the struggle of having to walk to areas with power for all of our meals.
      And about Susanna Moodie, I completely agree. She really was such a snob. Funny though, her sisters back in England practically disowned her because they thought the book so crude and vulgar. Except for her sister Catharine Parr Traill , who also lived here and wrote sweet Nature books, they sure sound like a tiresome lot. So I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with the Little House books – I remember them being much more fun.
      Oh good! So glad you enjoyed that one. I truly couldn’t make sense of the damn thing, though I gather it was meant to be “patently” obvious. (Sorry.) And I had the same thought – rock oil?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t hate the blackout (I think they’re kind of fun if they only last for an evening or so. That calls for candles + scary stories), but I remember being super annoyed that I had to work because I was hoping for a few days off. My boss was such a perverted jerk, and he was so damn smug about that generator. He even made us hose down the picnic tables outside like normal, until someone came and yelled at us for blatantly wasting so much water during a power outage. Of course he wasn’t the one who got yelled at, it was me and my colleague, even though he forced us to do it. God he was a jerk.


  5. Where I live blackouts happen quite frequently, whenever there is a strong wind, not to mention storm or in winter. During the last major cold (not that long ago) I didn’t have even heating or anything else, that was a real test. It’s not better in a hot weather, definitely not.
    The scary part is that we depend to an enormous extent on electrical power and the technological systems it is managed with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that! But I’m glad that you came through the experience okay. And I agree, our dependence on the grid is scary. I hope that the situation in your area improves somehow.


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