Recently, the redevelopment of a lot on the northwest corner of Pape and Gamble Avenues revealed an interesting bit of local Toronto history. The result of the removal of a billboard, an intriguing image on the north wall of 1042 Pape Avenue in East York was uncovered, revealing an intriguing tale of a small business and a city’s fascination with a popular dish: fish and chips.
Signs of the past
Ghost signs are or were hand-painted advertisements located on the sides of buildings, which promoted businesses and products. A key to their placement is often the enterprises and subjects contained in the advertisements were situated or available nearby.
This particular ghost sign at 1042 Pape Avenue is curious in that it promotes multiple elements. The top portion displays a slightly faint but distinct Coca-Cola logo. The bottom half is less familiar and carries much of the mystery. It reads:
BUNT’S FISH & CHIPS
WE DELIVER * GE 5213
POST OFFICE AT 1038
It is a bit of cruel irony that a billboard covered the ghost sign for many years, as billboards replaced ghost signs as a mass marketing technique. With the big banner taken down, however, it allows us to dive deeper into the sign’s past and answer some important questions:
- When was this sign painted?
- Where was Bunt’s Fish & Chips?
- When did it exist?
- What about the post office?
Dating the Bunt’s ghost sign is an interesting task which is aided by a few pieces of context. The heyday of ghost signs as a promotional technique lasted from the early 20th century to about the 1950s or 1960s, with many coming in the Roaring Twenties when Toronto experienced a commercial, industrial, and demographic boom. This sign is particularly well preserved, so unless it was touched up later on as signs sometimes are/were, one can reasonably speculate it originated after 1920. It also may have helped that the billboard was protecting it from the elements. To know for sure, specific details about Bunt’s Fish and Chips and the post office must be uncovered.
A brief history of fish & chips
Working within the first half of the twentieth century, pinpointing the rise in popularity of fish and chips shops in Toronto is a useful exercise. When one thinks of old fish and chips restaurants today, two come to mind: “Len Duckworth’s Fish & Chips” on Danforth Avenue and “Reliable Fish & Chips” on Queen Street East. Both eateries opened in or around 1930. This means the Twenties and Thirties appear to be a good period to learn more about fish and chips restaurants.
In perusing the Toronto City Directories, fish and chips shops first appear as a business type in 1923. 16 shops were listed for that year. Of course, it is very well possible they existed prior to this year. The Globe advertised business opportunities for fish and chip shops as early as 1922. Nonetheless, we can safely point to the mid-1920s as a period they at least became notable. As a point of comparison, in the United Kingdom, the national dish grew in popularity during World War I and hit its apex in 1927 with 35,000 shops across the country. A similar explosion occurred in Toronto: there were 137 fish and chips enterprises in the 1930 City Directory. It only grew from there.
Solving the Bunt’s mystery
From here we can look at the city directories and newspapers beginning the 1920s for any mention of Bunt’s. The first time this occurs is in the 1930s — albeit not on Pape Avenue. A “Bunt’s Fish Store” appears at 908 Broadview Avenue in 1933. Interestingly, The Globe also mentions this shop and address in February 1933, but it is named “Bunt’s Fish and Chips.” In 1937, a separate Bunt’s Fish & Chips opens at 1036 Pape Avenue.
Curiously, there is also a second (or perhaps, third in this case) Bunt’s Fish & Chips at 866 Broadview Avenue in 1937, located several doors down from the original 908 Broadview shop. The original store ceases in the same year, however. The 866 Broadview Bunt’s location does not seem to last long, either; it disappears by 1940.
In 1942, the remaining Bunt’s Fish & Chips at 1036 Pape Avenue moves to 1042 Pape Avenue. At the same time, Sub Post Office No. 109 changes locations from 1042 Pape to 1038 Pape. (The post office was located at 1038 Pape once before until 1935. It moved to 1042 in the following year.) By 1952, the post office closed. Finally, after twenty years in business, Bunt’s Fish & Chips also shut its doors in 1956.
Thus, to date the ghost sign, we must look at the period in which Bunt’s Fish & Chips was located at 1042 Pape Avenue and the Post Office was located at 1038 Pape Avenue. With this, the Bunt’s ghost sign likely went up some time between 1942 and 1952.
A legacy continued?
Unfortunately, few details and memories exist or could be located about the inner workings of Bunt’s Fish & Chips. The Coca-Cola advertisement on the ghost sign is appropriate as it likely would have been a drink available at the shop with an order of food. One local East York history recollection recalls that fish sold for 7 cents and chips sold for 5 cents at Bunt’s.
Despite its short twenty-year life, the Bunt’s Fish & Chips’ story is partially captured through this remaining advertisement at its former location. The relic is not only a marker of the business but by extension, Toronto’s intrigue of the humble dish. Finally, another part of its legacy which continues today: the barbecue-themed restaurant now at 1042 Pape Avenue also serves fish and chips.
Did you ever eat at Bunt’s Fish & Chips or another old fish and chips shop? Leave a comment below!
If you want to read more about the development of this stretch of Pape Avenue in East York, read my article here.
Bateman, Chris. “Toronto’s Ghost Signs: Where to Find Traces of Century-Old Ads.” The Globe and Mail, 2 July 2019, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-torontos-ghost-signs-where-to-find-traces-of-century-old-ads/
“Chipping Away at the History of Fish and Chips.” BBC Travel, BBC, www.bbc.com/travel/article/20130409-chipping-away-at-the-history-of-fish-and-chips.
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