This interesting and remarkable painting is not by a great artist, but I still think it’s a pretty cool picture. It is a depiction of a business, Gooderham & Worts Distillery, on the waterfront of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was painted in 1896 by Arthur H. Hider, not really known as a creative artist but more of a commercial illustrator. Here sailing and steam ships pass each other near the great distillery, which I believe is the gray building at center, while smokestacks of industry happily pump carbon into the atmosphere. I think this picture is more than just a commercial illustration, though it was probably intended primarily as such. It’s really a glimpse of the economic and environmental history of urban Toronto at the very end of the 19th century, and as it’s an eye-catching painting in its own right, I thought it would be perfect for this series.
Gooderham & Worts was a very big business in its time. It was founded in 1837, but that’s a bit misleading, as the progenitors of the distillery had owned a large flour mill on this site even earlier than that. The “Worts” of Gooderham & Worts was transplanted Englishman James Worts, who committed suicide in 1834 by throwing himself into the well that supplied water for the mill. William Gooderham, the other partner, continued on with Worts’s son, and after they found a use for their excess grain in 1837–by turning it into whiskey–they soon grew rich. By 1892, when the complex pictured here was constructed, Gooderham & Worts was producing half the spirits consumed in Canada. As you can see in this picture, the site had not only ship but also rail access, bringing grain in from all over the country and exporting it as booze. Unlike the United States, Canada had no Prohibition, and in fact the company grew even richer on alcohol that was illegally smuggled into the U.S. during the 1920s and early 1930s. The distillery closed in 1990, and the buildings were converted into Toronto’s Distillery District, a complex of pubs, restaurants and tourist sites that preserve much of the area’s Victorian character.
In the late 19th century, the belching smokestack was seen, not as an emblem of pollution, but one of progress, vitality and economic development. Thus, in its proper 1896 context, this painting is meant to communicate the robust nature of the Gooderham & Worts business, its connections to the rest of Canada and the world (by ship and train), and its prominence in the economy of Canada’s biggest port. Of course today we look at a picture like this and see climate change–which was well underway by 1896–but that took a while to seep into the public consciousness.
The artist, Arthur H. Hider, was known primarily for illustrating calendars and, during World War I, military recruitment posters. He died in 1896.