170TH ANNIVERSARY THE STORY SO FAR
Today marks 170 years and counting for The Hamilton Spectator, founder Robert Smiley's 'mighty engine'
THE SPECTATOR’S longevity, and the technology that fuels it, would have amazed Robert Smiley, its founding publisher and editor. Or would it? “Where the influence of this mighty engine is to end or what new inventions it may grasp to mould to its purpose, it is idle to speculate upon,” Smiley wrote in his newspaper that was printed on linen, ran four pages, and sold for a penny in Hamilton, population 6,832.
A man of wisdom and vision — a political conservative who in his pages vigorously opposed scourges of his time such as slavery and public executions — he might have offered similar sentiments in 2016.
Each publishing day The Spectator is delivered to 100,000 doorways and 230,000 people put their eyes on its printed pages.
And at least 1.6 million online readers visit thespec.com every month, typically far more than that.
“That which not long since appeared visionary to the rational mind is now simple to a child,” Smiley continued, “and the elements have been made messengers to convey speedy tidings for the Newspaper.”
Everything has changed. And not all that much.
IN THE BEGINNING there was a boy who emigrated to Canada with his family from Ireland, who as a teenager apprenticed as a printer in Kingston, and later worked as a printing foreman in Montreal.
In the spring of 1846, at 29, Robert Smiley was approached by a member of the Conservative Party to launch a newspaper in Hamilton.
Back then, newspapers were openly partisan and the party yearned for a publication in town that would champion the conservatism of a promising young lawyer in Kingston named John A. Macdonald — not yet Sir John A.
The sales pitch might not have sounded terribly attractive to Smiley: Hamilton already had four papers: Herald, Gazette, Journal and The Sentinel, and about 20 others had earlier been tried and failed.
Smiley set up an office on James Street North at York, but first he had to borrow money from a local Tory to pay the freight on the $140 secondhand cast iron printing press he had ordered, that had been delivered by steamship and was stuck on the docks in Hamilton Harbour.
He chose to name his newspaper after The Spectator that was founded in England in 1711 by essayist Joseph Addison and Irish writer and politician Sir Richard Steele. Their magazine’s “prose style, marriage of morality and advice with entertainment were considered exemplary.”
For a masthead motto, he selected the words of Scottish poet Tobias Smollet: “And hearts resolved and hands prepared, the blessing they enjoy to guard.”
One of the stories on the inaugural front page was about problems with the post office, another on free trade.
In later editions, Smiley assailed the city for picking on dog owners with licensing while other animals were not: “One pig is more troublesome than a dozen dogs and yet an imaginary fear causes the corporation to confine the latter whilst the former wallow through the streets with perfect impunity.”
Within a year the Hamilton Spectator and Journal of Commerce, as its full banner initially read, boasted 270 subscribers, more than any of its competitors.
It was a heady time in Canada’s history, in the wake of the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions and union of the two provinces in 1841.
The Burlington Canal was just 16 years old, there was no railway running through Hamilton and the invention of the telephone was 30 years away.
Still, technological advances had allowed newspapering to leap into the future.
Less than a decade before The Spectator was founded it had taken 43 days for the news to reach Hamilton that Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne.
But now Atlantic crossings were reduced to two weeks, and the recent invention of the magnetic telegraph allowed messages to be instantaneously transmitted to Hamilton from Toronto and New York.
It meant the Spec could also access information from European newspapers — although not until those newspapers physically reached New York by ship, because a stable crossocean telegraph link would not appear until 1865.
Access to telegraph information “will doubtless be a great advantage,” Smiley wrote, “but like other luxuries, we must pay for it handsomely.”
ONE OF THE FIRST female journalists at The Spectator was Ella Reynolds, hired in 1912 in the business office, and then named society editor. She also wrote a column she called “The Wren’s Nest,” appearing under the pen name Jennie Wren.
She wrote theatre and music criticism, perhaps the first woman to do so in Canada, according to Hamilton archivist Margaret Houghton.
Later in her career, Reynolds rode street cars to assignments until she got wise to “the young whippersnappers” in the newsroom who were taking taxis, and followed suit.
A Spectator Christmas gift program was launched in her name — “The Jennie Wren Shoe and Stocking Club” — and on Christmas Eve she handed out packages along with other staff to kids tromping through the office.
One of the most colourful personalities to make his name at the paper at the turn of the century was a reporter and city editor named Edward Morrison. He was known for his “vitriolic pen” and for bringing his large greyhound with him on assignments. He also drew illustrations for stories, in the days before photojournalism.
Morrison served in the First World War, commanding Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and other battles, earning a knighthood.
After the war, Morrison related how one of his soldiers had sent him a letter, telling of a poem he had written “partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded and partly to experiment with different variations of the metre.”
The soldier under his command had been Lt.-Col. John McCrae, and the poem was “In Flanders Fields.”
Reporting on Hamilton’s role in two world wars, and the losses suffered, was one of The Spectator’s most critical and sobering tasks. Apart from letters home, and the military itself, the Spec was the prime source of information for families waiting to read of news from overseas fighting.
They were families like the Rankins, who yearned in the spring of 1944 for news about 19-year old son Jack, who was serving as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber over Nazioccupied France.
“R.A.F. Smashes Massing Nazi Armies/British Lose 49 Planes in Great Night Raids,” read a headline on May 4 that year.
Two days later, a teenage boy rode up on his bike to deliver a telegram at the family’s home on Glen Road in Westdale, that told them Jack was gone.
And there had been the headline read anxiously by far too many families, three years into the war: “Canadian Troops Lead Great Commando Raid.” And then the story the next day, alluding darkly to “heavy casualties.”
That was the Dieppe Raid, Aug. 19, 1942, where 200 Hamilton soldiers died, 197 of them from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
THROUGH THE 1950S and 1960s the Spec continued to play the role of prime news provider, in the days before televisions were in every home, and long before the digital age.
A sign above the King Street East office proclaimed “Everyone Reads The Spectator” and that wasn’t far off the mark.
In 1958, a 15-year old copy boy with a red brush-cut named Robert Hanley, hustled through the office in jacket and tie, brogues and fedora, tearing sheets of news and sports results from the Teletype machine.
Then he hung plastic letters that spelled out headlines on a big message board in The Spectator’s window on King Street.
Outside, people read about events of the world appearing magically before them, and later in the afternoon boys hawked the paper on street corners calling “Final!”
“If something big was going on there would be a crowd out there reading the headlines,” says Hanley, who went on to a 44-year career at the paper as photographer and reporter.
“That was at a time when, if you heard a story anywhere else, it was rumour until you saw it in The Spectator.”
Meanwhile, the Spec continued evolving as a project that was more than a newspaper. It even established an employment bureau during a recession in 1913.
“Please Mr. Spectator Employment Man, will you try awful hard to get my daddy some work,” read a letter hand-delivered to the paper a week before Christmas.
EVENTUALLY THE COMPANY
was home to such things as a needlecraft department, credit union and cooking school. It has always been a hub to which Hamiltonians turned for answers to questions big and small, calling the newsroom to ask what channel the hockey game is on, or for legal advice and even during medical emergencies.
Current publisher Neil Oliver says
One of the stories on the inaugural front page was about problems with the post office, another on free trade.
the Spec has always had a “symbiotic relationship” with the community. “Readers let us know what they don’t like and what they do like; many think of our editorial team as family, sometimes they get upset, but at the end of the day they understand our common goal is to make Hamilton a better place to live.”
MAKING THE CITY a better place was also part of founder Robert Smiley’s mission.
He called for personal freedom and tolerance, and published letters urging environmental foresight, for example, to stop dumping raw sewage in the harbour, which had been a policy advocated by the city engineer: “Perhaps the great advocate for deep water pollution, Mr. Whitcombe, when taking his summer vacation at the beach, might like to take a dip. He would find the bay water balmy and lubricating, also refreshing to his ideas.”
Smiley’s newspaper made him a wealthy man, but he never stopped railing against poverty, calling it a “civic disgrace.”
In 1852 the Spec went daily — like other newspapers it had started as a semi-weekly. And on May 10, 1855 it expanded the dimensions of its pages, better to fit more articles and billpaying advertisements.
Smiley moved into a grand home at 16 East Ave. N., near King Street and King William. With his wife, Margaret Switzer, he had a son who died young.
He christened the house “Rose Arden,” built on what was the edge of town, near swampy land and inlets from the harbour that extended as far south as King Street, but the building was commonly known as “Smiley’s castle.”
It has since been converted into a multi-unit affordable housing complex. It is a frayed piece of property, but from a distance, still impressive in its Italianate Revival-stylings.
In a unit overlooking the courtyard and a towering maple, lives a woman and her four children. She emigrated a few years ago from Liberia to escape violence in that country.
A small city heritage plaque hangs on the exterior yellow brick wall commemorating the Spec’s founder, but she has not noticed it. On this day, a man and woman knock on her door. They are from Food4Kids, a nonprofit that helps supply healthy meals and snacks to children.
Smiley would be pleased such help exists, and sobered at the need.
The night before he died, he worked in the newsroom late with a reporter on a story. And then, on the morning his creation had literally grown in size, he succumbed to “consumption” — tuberculosis — in Rose Arden.
“He courted not the favour of the opulent and influential, but was ever ready to seek redress for the injured,” read a Spec editorial.
A procession lining the streets watched his casket transported from his home and filled Hamilton Cemetery — 3,000 people paying respects in a city of 23,000.
It’s not easy finding it in the cemetery’s Section D4, where the inscriptions on some of the oldest stones are illegible.
But here it is, at the base of a small hill. It is not the largest marker in the section, but befits a man who could afford it: several layers and a pillar reaching for the heavens.
Many words and names on the white marble have faded; you feel worn grooves trying to decipher letters.
But the essential news can be read with the naked eye. Smiley Died in Hamilton May 10, 1855 age 38.
THE PEOPLE come and go, and so do the buildings: The Spectator has had nine homes.
After five decades on King East, in 1976 the paper moved to a six-acre parcel of industrial land where the 403 meets Main Street, moving “500 good jobs out to lonely street, to the new Taj Mahal at 44 Frid Street,” wrote columnist Paul Wilson.
The move to a larger building reflected growth in the newspaper business, and projected further expansion — talk of circulation ultimately jumping 150 per cent to 350,000.
That never happened, not with the changing media and industrial landscape in Canada and the U.S.
Ontario Premier Bill Davis attended the ribbon-cutting at the building, which, typical for the era, lacked the architectural flair of its predecessors.
It did boast a 160-seat cafeteria, and the photo department had five darkrooms in the days before digital.
Reporters still wrote on typewriters, but soon “Video Display Terminals” — computers — were wheeled around the newsroom to share.
One carry-over from the King Street office was plastic orange waste baskets, designed to fold into themselves if cigarette butts caught fire inside, from the days when every desk was anchored by an ashtray.
In 1993, a few years before the Internet as we know it took off, the Spec launched an “interactive electronic bulletin board system,” on the brink of a world-changing communications revolution without quite realizing it.
It was hoped the system would create “a community of the mind where people separated by time and distance can exchange information and perhaps become friends” — five years before Google existed, and more than a decade before the iPhone (2007), Twitter (2006) and Facebook (2004).
Today this technology means the Spec is part of a universe of online voices offering myriad information: social media, bloggers, websites — in a culture where people are said to have less time or inclination to read.
The Spec’s challenge was similar but different 170 years ago: newspapers kept popping up in Hamilton; 65 of them came and went in the 1800s. And back then only 11 per cent of the population could read.
LONG AGO, in an editorial marking the anniversary of its founding, the Spec opined that compared to a human being, “a newspaper seems almost immortal. Forging its way through decades of trial and divergent experiences, it reaches not old age and enfeeblement, but performs the miracle of gaining in vitality as it progresses, and at the end of scores of years, is merely entreating upon a lusty youth.”
That piece ran July 15, 1926 (“The Spectator appears before its readers today an octogenarian.”)
While some of that reads like an ad for Viagra — 72 years before it was invented, for those keeping track — there is a philosophical point in there.
Nothing lasts forever, but the Spec has seen its sesquicentennial (150 years), and will no doubt see 175 (called a dodransbicentennial, apparently). And if 175, why not the bicentennial (200)?
Will that anniversary be celebrated at a new Taj Mahal? Back downtown? Or at no traditional street address at all?
Who knows why some businesses last generations.
One of Hamilton’s oldest, that shows no signs of slowing down, is G.S. Dunn, a dry mustard miller, on Park Street North across from the Central Library Branch, in town 148 years.
Enter its unassuming front entrance and in back machines hum and shake, and you can detect the sweet smell of Saskatchewan mustard seeds being ground and processed into a variety of products.
In the office, Luis A. Rivas, VP of sales and marketing, is on the phone, talking Spanish to a client in Mexico.
G.S. Dunn has adapted, evolved, found its niche, and exports to more than 60 countries around the world.
That includes milled mustard product for condiments, but also, mustard is a binder and emulsifier for a variety of food products — a healthy plant-based alternative in an age that demands it, and in recent years this has become a hot market for them.
Rivas says the company has big news coming down the pike, a secret at this point, but a new researchbased initiative that will see them expand mustard as a broad-based food ingredient.
The Spec would seem to have nothing in common with a mustard miller. Or maybe it does.
A natural food product is elemental, timeless, and if produced and marketed effectively can turn a profit and satisfy customers for a very long time.
For The Spectator, the timeless product is news, to appeal to readers and businesses that pay to advertise in the paper and online.
In his engaging book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari argues that a critical characteristic of Homo sapiens that allowed it to become the sole surviving human species was storytelling skills, developed during the cognitive revolution between 30,000 and 70,000 years ago.
He writes that Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), unlike other animals, perhaps through a genetic mutation that changed the inner wiring of the brain, cultivated an ability to tell intricate tales, about the world, gossip about each other, weave myths and fiction, and develop history and understanding.
In that sense news, storytelling, is indeed immortal, even as technology evolves and changes media.
The Spec still prints on paper — wood pulp newsprint, no longer the linen of Robert Smiley’s day — and for many subscribers there is no better way to read than holding the pages in your hands.
But it also conveys information online through stories, photography, audio podcasts and video on home computers and laptops and walletsized devices you can also hold in your hand.
Some have argued, for years, that print newspapers will soon die, all of them, and a few in North America have indeed done so.
On the other hand, consider vinyl. If you visit a record store you’ll inevitably find teenage customers, even preteens, who are into it. They enjoy the retro feel, placing the needle on record grooves, the departure from digital playlists and “favourites.”
Some of these kids, raised on iPads and smartphones, are also into journal and letter writing, on paper. And Polaroid picture-taking, too, part of a trend toward tactile, authentic experience.
Maybe there is not a critical mass of consumers that will make these trends profitable.
Or maybe there is. Consider that TSwizzle (that’s Taylor Swift’s nickname, people) always releases her latest music on old-fashioned, dead, vinyl.
Notably, Spec publisher Neil Oliver does not fall into the camp that says newspapers are finished — at least not his.
“No one knows what the future holds, but we are committed to being around for another 170 years to report on it,” he says.
The Spectator changes, its staff numbers have declined. Design and formats are revisited: many moons ago it was a morning paper, then for 124 years an evening paper, before returning to mornings, which was an unpopular move in some households.
At one point the paper published four editions daily, had a large news bureau in Burlington, and smaller ones in Oakville, Milton, Hagersville, Caledonia, Grimsby, Queen’s Park and Ottawa.
But the essence of what the Spec does, observing, digging, searching for truth, exploring the human condition, and striving, at least, to relay it to Hamiltonians accurately, fairly, and with flair, remains.
ANNIVERSARIES can be melancholic occasions, marking times past to which you can’t return, and wondering about the future.
The Spec is not what it was in the old days, or even recent days. It is more, and less, and different, and will be tomorrow and next month and next year — just as Hamilton keeps changing, too.
In the summer of 1846, when Smiley launched the newspaper, an Act of Incorporation had just been approved in parliament for the town of Hamilton.
And so the paper was born at the same moment as his adopted home “at the head of an important inland sea,” as he put it, officially became a city.
Hamilton is hard-wired into the Spec’s DNA, its past and present, its people, victories and defeats, darkness and light.
Smiley’s “mighty engine” has only ever been as compelling as its city.
And in that respect it had something going for it that no newspaper anywhere else could: its namesake, right there on the banner of The Hamilton Spectator; the city providing its muse, offering not just the canvas, but the colour, to tell the ongoing story.
In 1993, a few years before the modern Internet took off, the Spec launched an “interactive electronic bulletin board system.”
Left: The Spec’s current building on Frid Street. A view of the front, public entrance.
BRICKS AND MORTAR AND THE SMELL OF PRINTING INK:
Above: The Hamilton Spectator building dressed for the 1939 royal tour.