by Brian Roulston
In today’s world, the term ‘technician’ has come to imply something very specific. A technician is a person who has a high degree of expertise in a particular field, and who can solve problems and provide solutions in that field. Technicians are often employed in the automotive, aerospace, HVAC, and other industries. The word ‘mechanic’ is used, but it generally refers to a person who works on machines, rather than a person who works in a specific industry. In the 18th century, the word mechanic referred to a person who worked with their hands, and was not necessarily associated with a specific field. Dr. George Birkbeck of the Andersonian Institute in Scotland initiated the Mechanic’s Institute movement in 1800 by giving a series of lectures to local mechanics who wanted to further their education or better themselves. The seminars at the time were free and well-attended. The movement swiftly expanded throughout the British Empire and the United States. The first of these Mechanics’ Institutes in North America was established in New York City in 1822.
In 1843, the Upper Canada legislature fostered the formation of Literary Societies and Mechanical Institutes. As a result, these institutions sprung up throughout the province, in towns and cities like Hamilton, Waterdown (1843), and Toronto (1849), to name a few. Several of these establishments were also called “School of Art.” According to Chad Gaffield’s February 2014 article on Mechanics’ Institutes, in 1895 Ontario had 311 such institutions with 31,195 members. They were also among the province’s first non-religious institutions.
In 1839, the Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute was established as a private venture. Members had to be at least 18 years old and pay a five-shilling admission fee, plus ten-shilling annually. Remember, English currency was used exclusively in Canada up until Confederation.
In 1844, two prominent members of the Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute were Joseph Lister and Allan N. MacNab. The Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute was incorporated in 1847. In 1853, they designed and constructed their own building on James Street North and York Boulevard, across the street from the old City Hall, where the soon-to-be-demolished City Centre now sits. In addition, the Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute was one of the city’s earliest private lending libraries (in many cases they were the first libraries in other cities worldwide as well.) It specialized in non-fiction literature about science and technology. The library was open Monday through Friday from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and was closed on Saturdays and Sundays. One English penny for everyday was charged per overdue book. Payment of the fine was due one week from being incurred. You would also be fined one shilling and three pennies for smoking or bringing your dog into the library or the newsroom.
Among the titles in the library were Cook’s Voyages and the British Cyclopedia of Natural History, Listowel’s Niagara Falls poem and three volumes of Galileo’s Biography. Among the top publications of the day in the Newsroom were Journal & Express-Hamilton, The Toronto Globe, The Montreal Pilot and Montreal Herald, and Journal of Commerce-New York.
These institutions were opposed to a new craze known as ‘fiction’ and retained just a handful of them at first. It should be noted, that when the H & G Mechanics’ Institute was founded, fiction or story telling books were in their infancy and exceedingly scarce. Yet, as time went, fiction grew tremendously popular among the general public. By 1882 when the Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute closed due to financial obligations, the library’s collection contained 35% fiction.
The H & G Mechanics’ Institute had cost £4,000 to build and it was quite an impressive structure for its day. The Mechanics’ Hall was a large hall on the second level of the four-story structure. It would become the city’s main theatre, with seating for 1,000 people. Once the institute closed. Shakespearean plays as well as several bands, opera, and vocal groups were featured here. Some of them are the Dofasco Male Chorus, the 13th Royal Military Band, as well as the world-renowned New Orleans minstrel band, Duprez & Benedict’s.
The building then became Canada Business College in 1885 until 1905. From 1908 it was Central Business College then for the next two year’s it was the Clarke’s School of Business.
On the ground level, a variety of shops and businesses were accessible from James Street North over the years after the Mechanics’ Institute closed through to 1921.
The Arcade Department Store on James Street North also opened in 1911 in the former H & G Mechanic’s Institute. By 1915, they had expanded into the Saint Nicholas Hotel, which ultimately became the Hotel Cecil and then the relatively short-lived Griffin Theatre. With two floors of shopping enjoyment, the Arcade Department Store quickly became one of Canada’s largest and most fashionable department stores. According to the Hamilton Spectator, the Arcade changed the whole dynamics of downtown traffic. Traffic on James Street North surged by 350% when the Arcade expanded. It was nicknamed the “daylight shopping palace” because of its overabundance of plate glass windows. The Arcade became Hamilton’s go to department store until 1927 when Timothy Eaton Company bought the buildings and turned it into an Eaton’s department and catalog store.
Timothy Eaton had passed away in 1907 from pneumonia. His 87-year-old widow Mrs. Margaret Eaton, attended the Eaton’s Store Grand Opening at 9:00 am on June 23, 1927. Eaton’s was the longest-running business in the old Hamilton & Gore Mechanics’ Institute structure until it was demolished in 1989 and Eaton’s moved to the new Eaton Centre a block away. However, Eaton’s only lasted ten years at its new facility before shutting.