20th Century, Businesses

Kingston in the 1920s: Familiar Problems


Editor's note from the 3 January 1928 Daily British Whig

Editor’s note from the 3 January 1928 Kingston Whig-Standard

For my last short post in this series, we’ll look at some complaints the Kingston Whig-Standard had in 1928 about the progress of the city that will no doubt sound very familiar. The first paragraph of this editor’s note is concerned with the lack of industry in Kingston, and hopeful that the new mayor will follow up on his promise to encourage industries to settle in town. They write,

There is no good reason why Kingston should not become a far more important industrial centre than it is at the present time. With the new block of power that it [sic] to be available to Eastern Ontario, Kingston should concentrate in a serious and businesslike way on the matter of securing new industries and encouraging those already established.

And yet here we are in the twenty-first century, lamenting the loss of yogurt factories and such. (Okay, that one wasn’t our fault, but still.) At least in 1928, the Canadian Locomotive Company was still in full swing in Kingston, but by now its days are long gone, the land replaced by – what else? – condos. Today, Invista (DuPont) and Novelis (Alcan) are virtually the only significant industries in Kingston, and much reduced from earlier days. After nearly a hundred years with little industrial development, it seems that Kingston is destined to remain an institutional town.

Next, the 1928 mayor of Kingston, William H. Craig, was concerned about chain stores wanting to set up in Kingston. The chain stores of 1928 would probably seem quaint in comparison to the depressing Walmart Superstores of today, but the problem was fundamentally the same: large retail chains pull money away from smaller, local businesses and the city’s own merchants and distinctive character may suffer. The newspaper saw it differently, however, and argued that “big chain stores” were evidence of healthy development in Kingston, and that they could attract more shoppers who normally wouldn’t shop in town. (They don’t mention where these people would be coming from though…)

Another benefit which isn’t often applicable today was that chain stores leased “main street” (likely Princess Street) business spaces from Kingston owners, which prevented them from sitting idle. Today, chain stores are more likely to set up big box locations in the suburbs, and store fronts sitting idle in downtown Kingston remain a big problem. There is also a strong whiff of snobbery in Mayor Craig’s talk of “outsiders” coming into town, the exact context of which is unspecified in this article.

Looking back through the twentieth century, it’s interesting how many of Kingston’s essential characteristics have remained the same. It seems like Queen’s University, KGH, the military, and tourism will remain the big players for a long time to come. I wonder what Kingston will be like ninety or a hundred years from now?


Editor’s note. Kingston Whig-Standard, 3 January 1928.

KEDCO. Kingston’s Major Employers (click pdf)

List of Kingston’s mayors

20th Century, Culture

Kingston in the 1920s: Girls (and Veterans) and Cars


Article on Frederick Sawyer's car accident in the 20 May 1921 Daily British Whig.

Article on Frederick Sawyer’s car accident in the 20 May 1921 Daily British Whig.

By the 1920s, people knew automobiles weren’t going away anytime soon. Judging from the Kingston papers of this time, which sometimes had an entire page devoted to talking about cars, it seems like automobiles were to the 1920s what bicycles were to the 1890s: a fun new pastime as well as a good way to get around, and one that began to specifically target women as consumers. However, the invention of a new technology is also the invention of its accident, and that is exactly what began to occur in and around Kingston at this time.

The above example of a car accident in Kingston, although it doesn’t appear to have resulted in a fatality, is quite tragic as it was apparently caused by a drunk-driving shell-shocked veteran. Frederick Sawyer, travelling south on Montreal Street, lost control of his car at the intersection of Princess Street and crashed right through the plate glass window of Marshall’s Hardware Store (now the Rocking Horse toy store). The car, the shop, and Sawyer himself were seriously injured, and two bottles of liquor were found in his car. Of course, the article doesn’t state whether he really was drunk, but considering he lost control on a downtown street at 3 p.m. on a pleasant May afternoon, it seems an unfortunate likelihood. Frederick Sawyer does not appear in the Kingston directories of the time and there are no soldiers I can find with that name who have a connection to Kingston. He may have just been passing through town.

Cataraqui Village (the area around Princess Street/Highway 2 and Sydenham Road) was a common scene for car accidents due to the amount of traffic on the highway. Particularly, the railroad crossing in Cataraqui was a problem. Today, Princess Street swoops up onto a bridge that goes over the tracks that lie just south of Taylor-Kidd Boulevard, but in the 1920s the street lay on the ground and necessitated an intersection with the train tracks. Sadly, in 1928 there were a number of deaths here, ostensibly because a house nearby blocked the view of oncoming eastbound trains and there were no crossing gates. Page 9 of the book Cataraqui Village includes a newspaper clipping from 31 December 1928 about the deaths of two French Canadian families who were “enroute to new homes in Ontario.” The clipping goes so far as to include photographs of the crushed automobile and wreck scene with the helpful directions “Crossing here – Wreckage carried 1000 feet.” (As we learned in my previous post in this series, vintage journalism didn’t skimp on the details of tragedies.) However it also shows that the view-blocking house was definitely in the way, sitting just to the left of the crossing, and it was demolished in 1930. It does make me wonder though – weren’t there whistles that could have alerted motorists to oncoming trains?

Cars were quickly becoming necessities, however, and in particular they gave women a new sense of freedom as well as recognition of their growing power in society. This advertorial-type article, published in the 21 January 1928 Daily British Whig, is entertaining and represents cars as part of the changing modern world that includes independent, “intensely efficient” women. I am quoting it in full (although it ends rather abruptly) because it’s funny. Enjoy!


Feminine Driver Will Not Tolerate Mediocrity

by E.L. Cord

President Auburn Automobile Co.

The greatest change that affects the motor industry is the change in people – in the public’s attitude toward motor vehicles. This change is so vast that it is almost impossible to grasp it. It is hard to define. Yet it is more pronounced this season than in any previous year of the automobile industry’s history.

While a motor car is fundamentally an utilitarian vehicle for personal transportation, it has always been and always will be a style vehicle. By that I mean pride of ownership. The decided trend is toward finer cars; toward better performance than has ever been available before.

Others besides automobile manufacturers are baffled by the changing status of women and young girls. It is a common sight to see women touring the entire United States alone in motor cars. They come and go with safety and comfort. Note the increasing number of women at the wheels of motor cars on our city streets. And it is well known that women are shrewd buyers. They will not tolerate mediocrity. Men might put up with certain inconveniences, they might know the “old bus” was not what they really should have, but still they endure its handicaps.  Women are intensely efficient. They demand a car that relieves them of all possible effort, work and worry. They want a car to do what they want done the way they want it done and to be reliable and enduring. This influence in the sum total cannot be measured. Obviously we expect a woman to express preference about such things as beauty of design, color and upholstery. But it is not to these things that I refer. It is rather to the fundamental performance and service of motor cars, because the woman of today is a user of cars and not a mere passenger.

Every year sees our methods of living more and more predicated upon the motor car. Distance must be overcome quicker and more comfortably, with greater safety and with less expenditure of personal effort.

The new type of car that will enjoy public preference must be capable of lifting the driver to a totally higher and different plane of experience. Today’s car must relieve the drivers and passengers of all effort. It must operate so smoothly and efficiently that the driver is practically unconscious of its mechanism. It must steer with such hair-trigger ease and [travel?] all manner of roads with such [illeg.] and safety that the driver will feel fresh and rested after a long drive.


“Ran Car Into a Store, Is Seriously Injured.” Daily British Whig, 20 May 1921.

Smithson, Gordon D. Cataraqui Village: An Illustrated History of Cataraqui, Ontario. Amherstview, ON: published by the author, 2003.

“Women Want Best in Cars.” Daily British Whig, 21 January 1928.

20th Century, Miscellaneous, People

Kingston in the 1920s: Collins Lake Picnic Tragedy

Collins Lake north of Glenburnie. Photograph from blog The Wilds of Ontario (click image to go to source)

Just a heads up: this story is sad, and while I was researching it I felt depressed and creepy, so you might want to queue up some happy, holiday-themed articles to read after you’re done. (Then again, I live a ten minute drive from where this happened, so the feelings are literally closer to home for me.) Also, I forgot my USB when I was looking at the library microfilm, so I don’t have any actual images from the Daily British Whig newspaper articles that accompanied this story. Sorry about that – a headline or two would have been great.

I discovered this story by looking through some Kingston death records from the 1920s – as one does on a Tuesday night – and noticed two girls amongst them who were the same age and both worked at a “confectionery” store. Then I noticed they died on the same day, in the same place (my own community of Glenburnie), and shared the same cause of death: drowning.

I was interested, and the next day went to check contemporary newspapers to see if I could find any information about this story. Turns out, it was the biggest story in Kingston during that cool, fateful August of 1923, and although not scandalous or particularly remarkable as tragedies go, its very ordinariness and preventability is what makes it so sad.

So without further ado…

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20th Century, Buildings, Institutions

Kingston in the 1920s: Rideau Public School Built

From the 3 October 1925 edition of the Daily British Whig.

Excerpt from the 3 October 1925 edition of the Daily British Whig. (not the full article)

December 27, 2015 update: The book Williamsville Revisited has tons more on Rideau Public School. Like, way more than I remembered. As well as photographs showing the still semi-rural nature of this area of town into the twentieth century.

I’m back! Last time I was here I was planning on doing a series on 1920s Kingston; as it’s been a while since I looked at the microfilm newspapers it may take me a while to get back into the swing of things, but I’d still like to do a few posts on this topic. Here’s one I was working on before my blogging time was tragically cut short by grad school applications.

It’s about an article I found on the construction of Rideau Public School in 1925. As you may know, Rideau Public School is located at Dundas and Macdonnell, in an area of town considered pretty central today. In the 1920s, it was an emerging suburb that came out of the village previously known as Williamsville, which had at one time been considered separate from Kingston.

The size of the school shows the population of children the neighbourhood was dealing with. (click image to go to source)

The size of the school shows the population of children the neighbourhood was dealing with. (click image to go to source)

The historic centre of Williamsville was at the intersection of Princess and Victoria, and while there were several streets laid out in that area by the late nineteenth century, there wasn’t a lot of development. However, with the turn of the century, Kingston began expanding westward towards Williamsville, with homes designed for middle-class families. (You can easily see this going west on Johnson Street from downtown. Older limestone buildings shift to red brick Victorians, which shift to boxy, plain Edwardian houses, which shift to 1920s and 30s bungalows, especially after Macdonnell.)

There was a previous Rideau School on the corner of Princess and Nelson, but probably it became too small to meet the needs of the neighbourhood. So a new one was built:

[Mrs. Newlands, chair of the Board of Education] rejoiced with the people of Rideau ward that they were to have a model school, and said that no longer would their children need to wander afar in search of accommodation. She claimed that a fine building aroused in the children a feeling of pride in their school. She rejoiced to think that the objective which had been hers since she had been elected to the Board six years ago had been attained.

It’s interesting to read her statement that schools should be educating “true citizens,” defined as “loyal, honest, kind, intelligent, industrious, thrifty, healthful, self-reliant and progressive.” Would we say the same thing about the purpose of elementary schooling today?

Principal Taylor of Queen’s was also there, and had some… interesting remarks to make:

He contrasted the wonderful structures and facilities found in Canada . . . with those of the Old Country, where, as in Glasgow, half the children are bow-legged and the average height is five foot two. Here in Canada everyone had the opportunities for developing a healthful life.

Okay… anyway, Principal Taylor also stressed the need for a religious atmosphere in the home (not just Sunday school), the “besetting sin” of lack of punctuality, and manners. Plus this: “The boy who had learned loyalty to women would keep his head up in life.” He finished up his comments by saying this neighbourhood was headed to be one of the best in the city (probably the least weird remark he made that afternoon).

Finally, school board Trustee Elliott (research has shown him to be Joseph G. Elliott, at one time the president of the Whig newspaper) said that he had long hoped for a new school in this district, and that this one would be architecturally superior “to any other in the city.”

His next remarks are interesting to note, as they will certainly sound familiar:

Was there over-education? Were too many seeking “white collar” jobs? Mr. Elliott believed that even a drain digger would be better off educated than ignorant, getting more joy out of life, and doing his work to better advantage.

I don’t know much about labour in the 1920s, but apparently there must have been concerns, like today, that people were forgoing the trades for “white collar” professions. Although it seems like a strange topic to address at the opening of an elementary school, this was an era when it wasn’t unheard of to drop out of school. Trustee Elliott was stressing that a good education wasn’t just for people seeking professional careers, and that over-education shouldn’t be a worry.

Finally, the national anthem was sung and the ceremony ended. However, the article notes that inside the cornerstone (inscribed with “Erected 1925”) a time capsule was inserted, containing copies of the two newspapers of the day, the Standard and the Whig, plus a list of civic officials and the Board of Education members, and “the coins of the realm.”

This area of town was once very different than it is today – photographs of the Williamsville area from the early twentieth century show large trees, lawns, pretty houses, and the occasional cow – but the increasing popularity of cars fundamentally changed the landscape. First, as Highway 2 became the main automobile artery across eastern Ontario, Princess Street began to sprout gas stations, restaurants, and auto repair shops. Then, when traffic was diverted after the construction of the 401, these businesses began to move out to more lucrative locations. Essentially, the street never fully recovered from this change in fortune and we’re still trying to figure out how to “revitalize” Williamsville (which has also reverted to its old name). The neighbourhood is no longer full of families, however this article reveals a time when the upper Princess Street area was still up-and-coming, hopeful for the future and awaiting its next chapter. And in fact, with the new attempts to improve the area, you could say it’s in a similar place today.

Additional Source

Williamsville Heritage Overview

20th Century, Culture, Institutions

Kingston in the 1920s: Queen’s Initiation

Kingston Hall circa 1922. From a pamphlet produced by the Alumnae Association. (click image to go to source)

Kingston Hall circa 1922. From a pamphlet produced by the Alumnae Association. (click image to go to source)

A while back, I remember thinking that you don’t hear much about Kingston in the 1920s. (Well actually, most scholarly interest in Kingston drops off after about the 1860s, but that’s another story.) However, the idea of the 1920s – loosened social mores, flappers, jazz, consumerism, abundance – holds a great deal of cultural caché for us, and it’s hard to not be interested in the kinds of things that might have been going on in your own city.

In this blog series, I’ll find some interesting things that were going on in Kingston in the 1920s and post about them. Finding Kingston news during this period is a tedious process, because it involves rolls and rolls and rolls of microfilm, and just as many hours. So I’ll only be going through an item or two a week. This week I’ve got for you one of my favourite topics that I’ve written about before – Queen’s history, specifically around the beginning of the school year.

From the 6 October 1925 Daily British Whig.

From the 6 October 1925 Daily British Whig.

What we now call Queen’s Frosh Week was rather more spirited in days gone by, and this description is representative of what went on for years, and I imagine even decades before 1925, when the article was published. Note that at this time, the American terms “freshmen” and “sophomore” were still being used, and also note that this article came out in early October, when the school year used to start at Queen’s.

The initiation took place at Richardson Stadium with over 200 first-years. It’s not clear whether women were initiated as well as men, but I doubt they would have taken part in the same kinds of activities. And I don’t think it would have seemed appropriate to talk about women this way at the time:

The sophomores, working on the theory that a freshman must be impressed with a sense of his unimportance, prepared a very extensive programme which was enjoyed by all but the freshmen. The human sacrifices were annointed with oil molasses [sic], eggs and a number of other disagreeable things, but they bore up well under their trials and presented smiling faces at all times.

One activity involved all the first-years’ shoes being put into a pile, which they were then forced to pick through to find their shoes while rotten eggs were thrown at them. However, the frosh were also able to throw eggs back!

There was also the “submarine dive,” a rather dangerous event where you had to slide down some kind of greased incline into a “tub of mud and slime” at the bottom.

Next, the first-years were presented with their tams in a faux ceremony. I have to say the ironic style of writing at this time makes me smile, so I’m quoting:

To wind up the proceedings what was announced to be “the senate of the university” appeared on the scene in a cloud of tobacco smoke. The various noted personages were robed in gowns of office, and their facial adornments were fearful and wonderful. After addresses by some of the dignitaries, the freshmen were called forward and as they bowed the knee before the pro temp chancellor, they were presented with a tam in the Queen’s colors, which they are to wear until further notice.

The writer of this article went to some length to assure readers that there was “a total lack of any animosity” between freshmen and sophomores, suggesting that maybe there actually was, or there had been in the past. Photos of Queen’s initiations during this time show the (male) students enjoying themselves, often shirtless, a bit surprisingly for the time, and covered in muck. However it’s possible a situation had played out with angry parents, or initiation rites gone too far, as sometimes happened at RMC.

Those of you who have taken part in university orientation/initiation events of any kind (I chickened out of mine, and also didn’t want to pay the stupid $100 fee, sorry Queen’s): how does this compare with what you experienced?

20th Century, Buildings, Institutions, Neighbourhoods

A 1920s Driving Tour of Kingston

what to see in kingston_Page_1_Image_0001I found this vintage driving tour of Kingston over a year ago on archive.org, and now it appears to be gone (or at least I can’t find it) so I can’t link to it. Instead, I’ll reproduce each page of the PDF I saved here.

The tour is undated, but it’s likely from after 1927 due to the inclusion of the Military Headquarters on King St. as a “place of interest.”  The style of the document suggests, to me, a publication date roughly around this time, as does the corkscrew route the tour takes, evoking a time when there were probably less cars on downtown streets.

Many of these sites are still existing, but some of them aren’t or have different uses today. I’m going to go over the sites that are now different or obsolete, although I’ve been a bit choosy about what I present. For example, the Whig building is fairly well-known appellation in Kingston even though the offices are no longer located there. Rockwood Hospital, empty now for a number of years, is another well-known though obsolete site. I’ll be limiting myself to structures that are totally gone today, ones that have changed completely in function, as well as the more obscure sites. Unfortunately, there are several I don’t know much about, so I’ve just tried to do my best.

Something to keep in mind: the dates beside some locations do not always denote construction. For example, the present St. George’s Cathedral wasn’t built in 1791; it was founded at that time.

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