HILTON, JOHN, furniture manufacturer; b. late 1791 or early 1792 in England; m. Elvira Healy (Healey) on 31 Dec. 1816 in Montreal, and they had a large family; d. 19 June 1866 in Montreal. Sons with him in his business were William, John Fisher, and James Henry.
John Hilton seems to have been related to Henry Hilton, a cabinetmaker from England, who was working in Montreal by 1808. (John named two of his sons Henry, both of whom died in infancy, and another James Henry.) By 1820 John Hilton had his own business. Three years later he took James Baird as partner. Hilton and Baird set up in Place d’Armes; Edmond Baird replaced James in 1833. In 1845, when the partnership was dissolved, the business style of Hilton’s firm became J. and W. Hilton (John and his son William).
For the next quarter of a century Hilton’s was one of the most prestigious furniture establishments in the country. The showrooms alone occupied six floors in the building that Hilton eventually acquired on Rue Saint-Jacques. In 1856 the firm had more than 80 employees – the weekly payroll was then £116 – and a yearly output that was valued at £20,000 to £30,000. What newspapers referred to as the “well known reputation” of the firm was due to the fact that John Hilton, by his own definition, was a man who “would rather do than talk.” This craftsman, born in the 18th century, who successfully adapted to the mechanical developments of the Victorian age, summed up his business philosophy at a banquet given him by his workmen in 1864: “I . . . never hesitated to invest all the means in my power in those appliances to labor, so necessary to keeping pace with the requirements of the age.” His factory was distinguished by its “numerous engines.”
Yet there was still a place for hand work; and here Hilton made an incidental contribution to the history of Canadian literature: he employed the woodcarver-poet Charles Heavysege*, who composed at his workbench and wrote his work down at home. He is even said to have brought Heavysege to Canada from England in 1853. John Reade*, the poet and journalist, saw it as the mistake of Heavysege’s life that he left Hilton’s employment.
Rich carving in accordance with Victorian taste, fine woods (rosewood, mahogany, black walnut), and fine polishing characterized Hilton’s best furniture. It was to be seen in the most fashionable houses: Peter McGill [McCutcheon*], president of the Bank of Montreal, had Hilton furniture; Hugh Allan* furnished the library of his mansion, Ravenscrag, from Hilton’s. When the Ottawa Hotel opened on Rue Saint-Jacques, Hilton supplied the furniture. Harriet Beecher Stowe stayed at the hotel and was so struck by its “finely furnished” appearance that she noted it in her published impressions of Montreal.
Hilton was one of those whose furniture represented Canada at the Great Exhibition in London, in 1851. Sir William Logan* records that when Queen Victoria was shown the chairs of another Montreal manufacturer, Reed and Meakins, she had difficulty suppressing a smile of amusement. The quick-witted attendant on duty in the Canadian section hastily explained that Canadian furniture was not intended to compete with English manufactures. Hilton’s furniture, however, received favourable notice in overseas journals for “bold carving” and a felicitous harmony of design and wood. Moreover, while other Montreal furniture manufacturers of the period were often in reality more importers than manufacturers, Hilton emphasized his own production, attempting to match Canadian furniture against an increasing flood of imports from the United States.
In community as well as business affairs Hilton was a prominent figure. He was one of the original incorporators of the Montreal Mechanics’ Institute in 1845. He was also a trustee of St James Street Methodist Church, a generous contributor to its building fund in 1846, and a staunch supporter of other Methodist causes.
After his death in 1866 his sons continued the furniture business, but, with John Hilton gone, it dwindled, and ten years later was out of existence. Several of Hilton’s workmen branched out on their own, including James Morice, his onetime foreman, and Frank Smith, another foreman, to whom his association with John Hilton was an advertising asset long after the great warehouse on Saint-Jacques was closed.
John Hilton was to Montreal what the firm of John Jacques* and Robert Hay* was to Toronto. In the transition of a craft to an industry he was an innovator with mechanization and mass production, and the only one of the earlier cabinetmakers of the city to survive the growing demands of industrialization. Indeed he played a major role in establishing furniture-making as an industry of considerable importance for Montreal in Victorian times. In the words of a testimonial presented to him two years before his death, he “led, rather than followed in the wake of improvement, and . . . acted upon the principle, that the appliances to labor are progressive.”
ANQ-M, État civil, Anglicans, Christ Church, 20 Dec. 1808; Presbytériens, St Gabriel Street Church, 31 Dec. 1816, 18 Oct. 1817. Archives of the Mount Royal Cemetery Company (Outrement, Que.), register of burials, 10 April 1825, 15 Feb. 1837, 21 June 1866. St James United Church (Montreal), Register of births, marriages, and burials, 19 Aug. 1830, 10 Nov. 1832, 19 June 1866. Canadian Courant and Montreal Advertiser, 14 Aug. 1809. Gazette (Montreal), 27 Aug. 1833, 21 May 1845, 8 April 1846, 12 April 1861, 30 March 1864, 10 Dec. 1869. Montreal Herald, 21 June 1866. Times and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Montreal), 23 April 1845. Great exhibition . . . official descriptive and illustrated catalogue . . . , ed. Robert Ellis (4v., London, 1851), II, 965–66. The illustrated exhibitor . . . comprising sketches, by pen and pencil of the principal objects in the Great Exhibition of the industry of all nations, 1851 (London, 1852), 278. Montreal directory, 1842–76. [T. M. Gordon], The Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal founded 1840; one hundredth anniversary, 1840–1940 ([Montreal], n.d.), 11. B. J. Harrington, Life of Sir William E. Logan, Kt., first director of the Geological Survey of Canada (Montreal, 1883), 271–72. G. E. Jaques, Chronicles of the St. James St. Methodist Church, Montreal, from the first rise of Methodism in Montreal to the laying of the corner-stone of the new church on St. Catherine Street (Toronto, 1888), 8, 84, 90. Montreal business sketches with a description of the city of Montreal, its public buildings and places of interest, and the Grand Trunk works at Point St. Charles, Victoria Bridge, &c., &c. (Montreal, 1864), 77–81. A sketch prepared for the celebration of the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Montreal, 1856). C. M. Whyte-Edgar, A wreath of Canadian song, containing biographical sketches and numerous selections from deceased Canadian poets (Toronto, 1910), 35–36. L. J. Burpee, “Charles Heavysege,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., VII (1901), sect.ii, 21. Elizabeth Collard, “Montreal cabinetmakers and chairmakers: 1800–1850,” Antiques (New York), CV (1974), 1132–46.