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SMITH, JOHN, merchant and politician; b. c. 1819 in the United States of America, of German parents; m., probably c. 1849, to Mary, and they had at least ten children; d. 29 Sept. 1881 at Toronto, Ont.

John Smith arrived in Toronto from the United States in 1841, reputedly without capital. Commencing business as a retail grocer, by the late 1850s he had become a wholesale grocer and commission merchant and had already amassed a considerable fortune. In 1860 he joined the new wholesale grocery firm of Alexander Mortimer Smith, in which he invested approximately $60,000. The A. M. Smith Company successfully carried on an extensive trade with Halifax and throughout Ontario. John and A. M. Smith were also connected with the prosperous Ontario lumber trade and probably cooperated with Alexander’s brother, John B., who was actively involved with a sawmill and timber stands in Simcoe County and a planing mill and sash and door factory in Toronto. Although the details of the business success of the A. M. Smith Company remain unclear, it can be noted that in 1863 it was assessed by R. G. Dun and Company as “cautious, economical and reliable.” In 1865, when Alexander Smith retired from business, John Smith purchased the company and gave it his name. He entered new partnerships in 1867 and 1868 before apparently leaving the grocery business entirely by the end of the decade.

In the early 1870s John Smith invested his capital in real estate and banking securities, and in Sessions, Turner and Cooper Wholesale Boot and Shoe Company, the city’s largest shoe factory. Founded in the mid 1860s by J. D. Sessions, John Turner, and James Cooper, this company had expanded rapidly and it opened new factories with modern machinery in 1870 and 1872; capital for the second expansion came from Smith, who invested $50,000, and he placed his son, John C., in the firm as a partner. When Turner retired in 1874, the firm was renamed Sessions, Cooper and Smith. Employing over 500 men and women, the company did a massive business throughout the 1870s but found its profit margins shrinking in a highly competitive industry which was plagued by overproduction. Smith’s capital was crucial to the firm, as the astute R. G. Dun and Company evaluation frequently noted during the depression of the 1870s. Stating that he was “in too deeply with them to get out easily,” Smith loaned the company an additional sum in excess of $50,000 before the end of the decade.

In the 1850s Smith had purchased extensive property on Isabella Street, just south of Bloor Street and then far north of the city’s major activities. He built a substantial three-storey brick house for himself and later developed the surrounding area as the city grew. By 1880 he owned eight other large houses on the same street. He had also joined the board of directors of the Imperial Bank, the British America Assurance Company, and the Freehold Loan and Savings Company. In 1877 Smith entered municipal politics and was elected alderman from St James’ Ward for three terms; he did not seek re-election in 1880. A Reformer in politics, he was known at city hall for his caution and as “a voice for honesty and economy.” He was also a freemason, especially active in the 1860s.

Smith met his death accidentally under the wheels of a Toronto Street Railway car. His estate was valued at almost $350,000. He had prospered as the city grew. In most ways he was a typical Toronto merchant, unusual only in his claim of rising from rags to riches and in his marriage to a Roman Catholic though himself a Presbyterian.

Gregory S. Kealey

Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 26. CTA, Toronto assessment rolls, St James’ Ward, Isabella Street, 1861, 1871. PAC, RG 31, A1, 1861 and 1871, Toronto, St James’ Ward (mfm. at AO). York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.4374, will of John Smith, 12 Oct. 1881 (mfm. at AO). Toronto City Council, Minutes of proc. (Toronto), 1877–80. Evening News (Toronto), 30 Sept. 1881. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 30 Sept. 1881. Globe, 18 Nov. 1870, 30 Sept. 1881. Toronto World, 30 Sept., 1, 2, 4 Oct. 1881. Toronto directory, 1846–83. G. S. Kealey, “The working class reponse to industrial capitalism in Toronto, 1867–1892” (phd thesis, Univ. of Rochester, N.Y., 1977); “Artisans respond to industrialism: shoemakers, shoe factories and the Knights of St. Crispin in Toronto,” CHA Hist. papers, 1973: 137–57.

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Cite This Article

Gregory S. Kealey, “SMITH, JOHN (d. 1881),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_john_1881_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_john_1881_11E.html
Author of Article:   Gregory S. Kealey
Title of Article:   SMITH, JOHN (d. 1881)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 28, 2023