On a bright and warm afternoon with the sun nearly overhead, the water of the Humber River rippled southward over the shallow and stony riverbed. Shouts and splashes from wading children and echoing calls from parents nearer the bank reverberated between the stationary herd of Fords, Maxwells, Overlands, McLaughlins and more, all parked haphazardly in the water. Gentle currents burbled along, pulling away layers of mud from wooden and wire wheels, while a quick pass with a wet rag may have removed more debris from varnished hoods, doors, and grimy windows. Though few details of this moment have survived the years since its photographer snapped the shot, some historical significance can be gleaned if we look a little closer and bring it into broader context.
According to archival photo data, this fragment of family fun and community connection occurred in 1922, somewhere in the middle of the Humber River.1 While the exact location is still cause for speculation, it appears to be consistent with a southward view from the Old Dundas St. Bridge, given the flow of water away from the photographer, the road on the western bank which would likely be the current Home Smith Park Road (then Humber Blvd), and the relative height of the shot from an elevated location. Gazing at this window into the past just shy of a century distant, the act of intentionally driving into the middle of the river for a causal swim seems a bit peculiar. However, using the river as a recreational parking lot held several advantages for Toronto residents of the early 20th century, one of which was automotive care and cleanliness.
In the late 1910s, Ontario’s road network comprised approximately 50,000 km of gravel roads and 40,000 km of “macadamized” dirt roads, with the first concrete highway between Toronto and Hamilton opening in 1917.2 Though rapid expansion of hard-surfaced roads would characterize the coming decades, early 20th century driving would still include dusty, muddy, rutted, and unimproved routes. Good Roads Associations that dated back to the pre-automobile era advocated for better surface conditions for cyclists, or “wheelmen,” and would again call for improvements for the growing automobile craze.
Thomas Wilby, automobile enthusiast and first to cross the length of Canada by car, described the conditions of roads in both urban and rural spaces as he journeyed through the provinces in 1912. Within Toronto itself, there already existed many functional streets accustomed to automobile traffic. Yet as Wilby left the city center to continue his westward journey, “we passed through a country that slowly transformed itself from a landscape dotted with manufacturing towns, and threaded by fine roads, to a pastoral and rocky one… no car could preserve its sweetness of temper on these Mid-Ontarian grades.”3 With rural roads still difficult to navigate, and even the urban “fine roads” subject to rapid deterioration in foul weather, driving in the 1920s was still too often a difficult and dirty business.
For 1920s car owners, washing a vehicle was more than simply an act of pride or vanity, but an effective form of practical maintenance. Early automobile paint was far more fragile, temperamental, and inconsistent than the myriad of coats and colors we observe today in any common parking lot. In 1917, author F.N. Vanderwalker wrote extensively on the challenges of automotive painting:
The automobile finish today is subjected to a far more destructive service, and receives less care than the carriage of former days. The slow moving carriage with its wood surface offered a much better foundation into which to anchor paint and varnish coats than the present day steel surface. The auto finish must now withstand gravel, dust and mud driven against it by the great speed of the moving car, it must stand the grease, oil and careless washing, the heat and vibration from the engine, the hot summer sun beating down upon it, driving rains, hail and snow, to say nothing of quick temperature changes caused by running the car from a warm garage in freezing weather.4
Lacquer-based paints, which would come to dominate vehicle coating by the mid-20th century specifically to address concerns like Vanderwalker’s, were still experimental in the 1920s, with DuPont’s “Duco” lacquer formula only released to General Motors production plants in 1923.5 Based on these damaging road and environmental conditions, numerous articles were published to inform automobile owners of the correct method to keep their cars clean and blemish-free. In the tri-lingual publication The Automotive Exporter, owners were advised that:
The engine of a car can be mistreated frequently before it begins to complain, but the finish can be mistreated once or twice—then there is no finish left. The varnish of a new car is benefited and hardened by washing with clear cold water, but mụd that is allowed to dry upon the body takes the oil from the varnish and leaves the finish mottled and streaky. Dirt is not the only enemy, for gases from the garage and even the atmosphere of some towns attack the finish of the car that is not frequently washed.6
With these practical concerns in mind and the tremendous value that these vehicles had for their owners, one could ask why wouldn’t a trip to the local carwash be a better option than a casual rinse in a river? These, though, were still rare businesses and an expensive luxury service. The first “Automobile Laundry” business in the United States is generally credited to Frank McCormick and J. W. Hinkle of Detroit in 1914; it cost customers $1.50 and at least thirty minutes of their increasingly precious time.7 The story of Canada’s first commercial car wash is still seemingly elusive in the historical record, but it is clear that few existed in all North America until much later in the century. With only one automobile washing business registered within the Toronto city-limits by 1922, and domestic water prices having been raised to cover infrastructural developments in 1918, driving a dirty car directly into a river becomes a much more practical decision than it may first appear.8 Looking down from the rail of the Old Dundas Street Bridge, the photographer managed to capture the informal business of the Humber River communal self-service auto-laundry.
Beyond all the automotive reasons for this mid-river gathering, the Humber also clearly drew locals to a natural space for leisure. Among the cars and dotting the banks, over one hundred individuals are taking advantage of the cool waters on a warm day in 1922, enjoying the relief of the river and company of friends and family. Within the Toronto archives are interspersed similar moments of recreation and joy, such as this exuberant group of boys scratching their initials on the river’s ledge rocks in 1911, or these young adult swimmers enjoying the current in 1912.
It is tempting to focus just on the curious arrangement of vehicles in the photo picture, and it is too easy to forget the human moments taking place alongside. Though the mud, oil, and grease has long since washed into Humber Bay, the old Dundas St. bridge no longer spans the river, and few details remain of that large gathering so long ago, the monochromatic exposure still holds unique value in the historical record for those willing to take a longer look.
Feature Image Credit: City of Toronto Archives, William James Family Fonds 1244, Item 12377.
1. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 123
2. Ministry of Transportation Government of Ontario, “History of Ministry of Transportation,” MTO 100 History, October 25, 2013, http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/about/mto-100/index.shtml#1920s.
3. Thomas W. Wilby, A Motor Tour through Canada (London: J. Lane, 1914), 114-117, https://ia800206.us.archive.org/24/items/motortourthrough00wilb/motortourthrough00wilb.pdf
4. F. Norman. Vanderwalker, Automobile painting and carriage and wagon painting (Chicago, Ill.: The Textbook co., 1917), 26, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t5db8xb8w
5. Matt Denning, “Organizing a Campaign for a New Product,” in Marketing Executives’ Series. No.29 (New York: American Management Association), 8, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015036614462&view=1up&seq=30&skin=2021&q1=%22duco%22
6. “How to Wash an Automobile” in The Automotive Exporter. Volume IV (New York: A.E. Publishing Co., 1921), 42, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433090782776&view=1up&seq=50&skin=2021&q1=washing
7. National Public Radio, Michigan Radio Stateside Staff, “Detroit Was Home to Nation’s First Automated Car Wash,” Michigan Radio, accessed August 20, 2021, https://www.michiganradio.org/post/detroit-was-home-nations-first-automated-car-wash.
8. Might Directories Limited, The Toronto City Directory, 1922. Volume XLVII (Toronto: Might Directory Co., 1922), 725, https://archive.org/details/torontodirec192200midiuoft/page/724/mode/2up?q=laundry and R. C. Harris, “The Toronto Water Works System,” Journal of the American Water Works Association, 21, no. 12 (1929): 1609-619, accessed August 15, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41225523.
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