BEST, THOMAS HENRY, businessman; b. 17 April 1850 in Perrytown, Upper Canada, son of John Best and Ellen (Elonor) Cory; m. 22 Aug. 1876 Clara Melissa Wiggins in Collingwood, Ont., and they had three sons and six daughters; d. 1 Aug. 1928 in Toronto.
Thomas H. Best’s parents immigrated from Newry (Northern Ireland) and settled on a farm in the Port Hope area of Upper Canada. In the 1850s the family moved to a farm near Dunedin, south of Collingwood. At 18 Thomas travelled to Chicago and Buffalo, N.Y., where, as a department store employee, he gained experience in retailing, marketing, and advertising. By 1871 he had returned to the family farm and was working as a store clerk, likely in Collingwood. Eventually he became manager there of the region’s largest store, the Melville Fair Company. In 1876 he married the daughter of a local dry goods merchant; by 1891 he had his own merchant tailoring business. An active participant in the civic and religious life of Collingwood, he served on the town council, the public school board, and the board of managers of the Presbyterian church. He also held the positions of secretary of the Collingwood Reform Association and superintendent of the Mechanics’ Institute library. “Ever of a literary turn, a persistent reader and a lover of books,” according to a local history, he devoted a good deal of time to the library.
In 1891, for reasons that are not clear, Best moved to Toronto, where he established a tailoring business with John Stone on Yonge Street. By this time he had become interested in making Canadians more aware of public affairs and the literary contributions of their compatriots. In March 1893 he helped launch the monthly Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature under the editorship of James Gordon Mowat. It was published by the Ontario Publishing Company Limited, an enterprise organized expressly for this purpose, with Best as managing director, and formally incorporated in May. Notwithstanding the fact that at the beginning its president, James Colebrooke Patterson, was the minister of militia and defence, and one of its vice-presidents, Thomas Ballantyne*, was the speaker of the Ontario legislature, the key to the magazine’s solvency and longevity would be advertising support and effective business practice, areas in which Best excelled. For the next 35 years the world of publishing and printing would be his focus.
The late 19th century was an inauspicious time for publishing a magazine in Canada. As Best undoubtedly knew, home grown magazines were unable to compete with American journals in Canada, they had limited access to markets in the United States, and increasing customs duties made production expenses prohibitively high. The Canadian Magazine cost 25 cents an issue, a comparatively high price but the same as that of such American models as Scribner’s (New York) and Harper’s (New York). The Canadian Magazine’s founders promised at the outset that “timely articles on political and other public questions of interest to the Canadian people will appear every month from the pens of leading statesmen and writers of various shades of political opinion.” Furthermore, the magazine intended to follow the policy of “cultivating Canadian patriotism and Canadian interests.”
The subsequent mixture of plentiful advertisements, line drawings, quality reproductions of photographs and paintings, articles on politics, travel, science, and art, and selections of poetry and fiction contributed to the survival of the Canadian Magazine, which developed what literary historian Carl Klinck terms a “reliable formula.” Its first volume offered readers the broad range of topics that would become characteristic of the magazine, including pieces by Ontario Publishing director James Wilberforce Longley on coal and fruit-growing in Nova Scotia, John Joseph Mackenzie on bacteria, William Hamilton Merritt* on domestic steel production, George Monro Grant* on the National Policy, the Reverend William Schenck Blackstock on criminology and regeneration, and James Laughlin Hughes* on humour in the classroom.
In 1897, during the editorship of John Alexander Cooper* and after some hard bargaining, likely by Best, Ontario Publishing took over Massey’s Magazine (Toronto) [see Walter Edward Hart Massey*] to encourage “one strong and purely Canadian magazine.” Following this buyout, which doubled the circulation of the Canadian Magazine, Best (“in view of this increase in power”) announced a 50 per cent increase in advertising rates on 1 June 1897. In return, he believed, the takeover would make the Canadian Magazine the dominion’s “best advertising medium,” which could boast more artistry and foreign advertising “than any other two publications in Canada.” In addition, small promotional booklets would be issued to solicit “judicious advertising” and to highlight the authors and topics in upcoming volumes. Subsequent issues would feature advertising from a wide range of clients, including banks, insurance companies, schools and colleges, brand-name producers, and railways.
With the Canadian Magazine running smoothly, Best began to consider other efficiencies. In 1901 Ontario Publishing took on the publication of the Canada Lancet (Toronto), the country’s most prestigious medical journal. As well, an office was opened in London, England. Best also examined the savings to be gained from in-house printing. In 1911, by which time his son Thomas Wilbur had joined the business as a traveller, Ontario Publishing bought the printing firm of Newton and Treloar and renamed it the T. H. Best Printing Company. Guided by Best’s decision to run the two companies as separate entities, Best Printing branched out into business apart from the journals, a move that brought the company into conflict with what Best saw as the printing cartel run by Hugh Cameron MacLean* and William Southam*. Best’s venture was saved by the Macmillan Company of Canada Limited when it contracted with Best Printing to produce all of its textbooks.
In 1913 Best purchased bookbinding equipment, and book production became an increasingly lucrative part of his activities. Eight years later Ontario Publishing was formally taken over by Best Printing, with Thomas becoming president and Wilbur vice-president. Despite his age, Best Sr devoted himself to overseeing the growth of his new printing establishment. In 1922 he sold his interest in the Canadian Magazine, which then had a circulation of 30,000. Six years later he died at his home on Dunvegan Road in Toronto.
Thomas H. Best’s sense of business and his appreciation for culture had enabled him to become the driving force behind one of the few successful popular magazines in Canada, as well as the owner of one of Ontario’s largest printing houses, which would be handed down through two generations. An innovator in methods of business and salesmanship, Best represented that sector of the business class to whom financial gain was the reward for the virtues of efficacy, thrift, public benefit, and progress.
Family information was kindly given to the authors by J. Kirby Best of East Lyme, Conn., a great-great-grandson of the subject, in a March 2000 interview.
AO, RG 22-305, no.60383; RG 80-5-0-60, no.9889. LAC, RG 31, C1, 1871, Nottawasaga Township, Ont., div.1: 30; 1891, Collingwood, Ont., div.2: 28. North York Central Library, Canadiana coll., John Alexander Cooper papers. Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto), 2 Aug. 1928. Globe (Toronto), 2 Aug. 1928. Canadian Magazine, March 1893-September 1924. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Canadian Printer and Publisher (Toronto), December 1895: 1; May 1958: 75. Dict. of Toronto printers (Hulse). Directory, Toronto, 1892-1928. Huron Institute, Papers and records (3v., Collingwood, Ont., 1909-39), 2: 18. Ontario Gazette (Toronto), 1893: 626. G. L. Parker, The beginnings of the book trade in Canada (Toronto, 1985). “Profile,” Quill & Quire (Toronto), 25 July 1969: 4-5. Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2. H. E. Stephenson and Carlton McNaught, The story of advertising in Canada; a chronicle of fifty years (Toronto, ). Fraser Sutherland, The monthly epic: a history of Canadian magazines, 1789-1989 (Markham, Ont., 1989).