The views of Hamilton Market published in Toronto Star Weekly with the caption “Toronto has nothing like it.” featured farmers selling directly from wagons or trucks. The glimpsed conversation among the fruit celebrated the direct face-to- face exchange between food producer and consumer that Torontonians yearned for a century ago. With these 1912 photographs William James was adding to a public conversation on how to make farm produce accessible for city residents, the trust that exists between food vendors and shoppers, and the importance of a market to community.
Eliminating “the middle man”
Food prices rose and fell daily according to seasonal availability and a host of other factors. By 1913 the process by which food went from field to city tables and the variables affecting the local cost of fresh produce was confusing to most consumers. What was clear was that the cost of feeding the family kept going up.
The Toronto press highlighted the popular opinion that the culprit was not only the neighborhood grocer but also the abstract “middle man” who manipulated the food supply.
Toronto Wholesale Fruit Market Yonge & Front streets
As cold storage became part of the food distribution system the suspicion was that wholesalers created false shortages by holding back such items as butter, eggs and poultry to artificially raise their price.
Leading the charge against corrupt and unfair practices was the Toronto Housewives’ League. The group’s focus was the creation of a network of neighborhood markets throughout the city where trade could be open and transparent. (Learn about this by clicking here.)
Scandals exposing food adulteration by manufacturers increased the desire to deal directly with independent food producers. William James’ portrait of grass-roots egg and butter trade at the Hamilton Market would have been read in a nostalgic light: With the farm wife, you know exactly what you’re getting.
The Movement for Toronto Markets
Toronto Housewives League members had successfully produced two independent sales of fresh produce in Toronto when they passed a motion in the spring of 1914 condemning the city financed junket to Atlanta, Georgia by the same elected officials who had countered their request for support of local markets with a lecture on thrift.
The League also pointed the finger at the unsanitary conditions and shady practices that prevailed at St. Lawrence Market.
“Filth” was the word used to describe the market. Meat was left exposed on low shelves and in places where poultry plucking went on. Scales used by inspectors and vendors were alleged to vary. There is no registration of sellers so that the woman who is cheated, or thinks she is, can have no redress.
St. Lawrence Market
Whatever its failings, St. Lawrence Market had long been the city’s food hub. Its open hall North building was the traditional location of the formally elegant, gas illuminated agricultural and horticultural exhibitions.
The Saturday morning market attracted the well-heeled to the competitive sport of getting the best fresh-from-the-farm goods before others. Among the arguments made for creating markets in the city’s outer districts was the perception that St. Lawrence was spoiled for the working classes by the rich driving up prices there.
A Star article on the farmers’ or “curbside market” lobby underscored that access to affordable food is a class issue.
Workingman Has No Chance
Mr. H. Bartholomew complained that the working man had no chance to get cheap food at the St. Lawrence Market. “The ladies from Rosedale,” he said, “Come down in their motors and pay all kinds of fancy prices for the butter and eggs, and the working man has to take the leavings, if any. St. Lawrence Market is not the workingman’s market and it is up to the city to establish a workingman’s market where we can get food at a reasonable price.”
WANT DISTRICT MARKET TO REDUCE COST OF FOOD, The Toronto Daily Star, Jan. 17, 1914 p.7
The World, another local paper actively covering the push for farmers markets, published a satirical piece presenting the Saturday St. Lawrence Market as as a society event. In the style of social reporting the article noted who was seen at the market, how discerningly they selected produce and what type of car they drove.
St. Lawrence Market Interior (North building)
Society Basket in Hand Snubs the H.C. of L. At the Market
If you have a neighbor, friend or acquaintance, if you know anyone by sight, you are almost certain to see her at the market, any Saturday morning between the hours of nine and twelve. … St. Lawrence market is the meeting-place of the best Toronto society.
It does not take the market keepers long to learn who are the regular frequenters. It does not take them long to know what are the regular necessities of the frequenters. Necessities, like church, often become a habit. …
The names of the shoppers can be seen in Toronto’s social registry, the 1913 Society Blue Book. This publication, a directory of “elite families of Toronto and numerous smaller municipalities” reveals the geography of privilege through listed addresses. The basket toting ladies resided in such neighborhoods as Rosedale, the Annex, Forest Hill and High Park; they belong to a select list of clubs and have summer residences.
Many families have been buying vegetables, eggs and butter from the same woman for years. An example is Lady Melvin-Jones. Although she does not attend the market herself, her daughter, Mrs. Crawford Brown, may be seen there every Saturday morning. Sometimes there are two cars belonging to her.
The little woman who has sold butter for the last five or six years said: “Good morning. I’ve kept your butter for you. And I haven’t much left. Butter seems scarce this morning. I have some nice Devonshire cream today, too, and plenty of eggs; but I kept your share out. “
She delivered the large crock of butter, also the eggs then turned to interview the next customer.
“That’s a regular customer of mine, Mrs. W.K. Murphy. Every Saturday I bring in her butter and eggs. That shows they’re reliable ma’am. Would you like to try the butter?” …
People who have the idea that the luxurious classes live in indolence and indifference to practicalities, should pay a visit to the market some Saturday. They would change their views. They might see Mrs. A.P. Burritt choosing the next week’s vegetables, or Mrs. G. F. McGuire transacting the business of the Sunday dinner. They would have the satisfaction of knowing that Mrs. Gerhard Heintzman personally saw to it that her next weeks supply of fruit was not neglected, and that Mrs. A.R. Clark ordered her Sunday roast herself.
The snapshots of market vendors trading on the status of their customers and reserving the best for them as reward for being “steady” clients was calculated to stir up resentment. It was the commonly felt that the food retail system was geared to offering only inferior and marked up produce for workers through their local grocery stores. The glimpses of preferential service and choicest produce for those in power was excellent tabloid copy.
… it would be difficult to mention anyone in Toronto’s motor set whose car does not visit the market every Saturday. …
Playing to its working class readership The World lampooned the affectation of wealthy women who wanted to be seen to be carrying out household tasks typically done by their servants. However, beyond appreciating the fashionable air of resourcefulness that independent driving and market shopping conferred on them, the “ladies” were doubtlessly motivated by being part of widespread concern over the quality of food.
Although government regulations against food adulteration and some inspecting was in effect, authorities pressured consumers to be always on guard for dangerous or abusive food processing and retail practices. In this climate of food anxiety, the “receiving line” of the producers handing pure and fresh food to the privileged would have provoked indignation along with mocking laughter among World readers.
“Markets that Get Close to the People”
Two months after publishing the satirical piece the same daily offered highlights of a recently published study on how different types of markets and street vendors in world capitals provided affordable fresh food for the working class. In Markets for the People, the Consumers’ Part, J.W. Sullivan proposed that it was everyone’s responsibility to advocate for affordable food and accessible markets. The standard measure of a fair price for fresh produce, according to the author, was the farm price plus the lowest freight rates and the cost of the “most direct and freely competitive methods of handling.” (p.35)
Sullivan decried the slavish attention to visual presentations of food that added to its cost and detracted from its nutritional and taste value.
Describing the trade at the New York City market, Sullivan outlined the elaborate system of transaction geared to maximizing profit. “Jointly, the commission men, wholesalers, jobbers, and exchange members have direct command of the trunk channels through which New York obtains from the producers its perishable food supply.” (p.50)
The study outlined how once the produce arrived at the open market the best was skimmed off in sequence beginning with high-end restaurants and hotels followed by the grocers of various classes. Taking advantage of rock bottom prices, the last to buy were the food retailers on which affordable fresh produce for the working class depended. These were pushcart vendors who set up daily temporary street markets within high density neighborhoods.
Recommendations on how Toronto could promote the breadth of food retailing that guaranteed accessibility to fresh produce at street level for the working poor were published alongside the feature article.
Arstcape Wychwood Barns, The Stop’s Farmers Market and Community Life
Today there is a heightened awareness of the power of street markets to contribute to healthy neighborhoods. Food festivals and farmers markets are regarded as essential means to revitalize run-down areas, encourage interaction between socio-economic groups and initiate community life in new developments.
Artscape Wychwood Barns through The Stop Farmers’ Market draws thousands of local residents to the complex on a weekly basis. “The barns” is considered an outstanding example of Artscape’s place making expertise.
Six years after opening the complex the organization is undertaking a series of consultations to “asses its strengths and weaknesses and to take an unclouded view of the limitations, challenges and opportunities.”
Join me at market square and provide your feedback on the successes and challenges of Artscape Wychwood Barns as a community hub.
Does “the barns” work as a community hub?
It would be nice if the art part would be activated in the covered street barn.
During the week it feels like private and not public space.
Why not use the covered street barn as a drop-in indoor play space for kids in the winter. (ride-on toys, street games, etc.)
Keep the Market Cafe open during the rest of the weekend and the week. + 2
More outreach to and activities for low income and cultural communities. +1
Offer more classes for kids.
Have a big winter vintage garage sale, tables for rent at reasonable price.
Offer a sliding scale food prices for low income families.
Is there a way to create modular spaces within the covered street barn? This would provide more accessible spaces for such activities as dance and yoga classes.
Makerspace would work well here but it would need some storage space for its equipment/machines.
This is a great community space because it gives customers the opportunity to ask food producers and farmers about their products.
It would be great to see art and cooking classes for adults.+1
The covered street is under-used during the week. There might be more activities offered such as a skills exchange.
Can we create a drop-in community kitchen for the community with community group meals?
Pat yourself on the back. You are doing so much right. Take a moment and appreciate that!
I would like to see more interaction between the market visitors and the tenants.