A Toronto ghost sign explained (with a side of tartar sauce)

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.

Bunt’s Fish & Chips ghost sign, October 2020. For a detailed image, click here. Credit: Google Maps.

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.

A ghost sign promoting Quaker Oats and others was revealed in the Honest Ed’s redevelopment in May 2018. Credit: Bob Georgiou.

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

1038-1042 Pape Avenue in 2019. Credit: Google Maps.

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?
Pape Avenue and Gamble Avenue, before redevelopment. A gas station has been at the corner since the 1950s. Credit: Google Maps.

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.

Two fish and chips institutions in Toronto. Credit: Google Maps.

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.

As fish and chip shops rose in popularity, there were new technologies to make frying more efficient. The Globe, October 9, 1924. Credit: Toronto Public Library and Globe & Mail Archives.
The Globe, March 19, 1937. Credit: Toronto Public Library and Globe & Mail archives.

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.

The Globe, February 24, 1933. Credit: Toronto Public Library and Globe & Mail Archives.
Might’s Greater Toronto city directory, 1937. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

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.

Might’s Greater Toronto city directory, 1942. Credit: Toronto Public Library

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.

Might’s Greater Toronto city directory, 1942. Credit: Toronto Public Library

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.

The Bunt’s Fish & Chips ghost sign as it appeared in June 2021 unfortunately with a graffiti tag. Credit: Bob Georgiou.

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.

Further reading

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.

“Did You Ever Eat at Bunt’s Fish & Chips?” Facebook, Vintage Toronto, www.facebook.com/VintageToronto/posts/5596904233712848

Edwards, Zachary. “Ghost Signs.” MuralForm, Zachary Edwards http://Muralform.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2014/02/Muralform-Logo-2-300×137.Png, 15 Apr. 2020, muralform.com/2015/ghost-signs/

Hopkin, | By Jeremy. “Sleuthing a Ghost Sign on River Street.” Spacing Toronto, 31 May 2021, spacing.ca/toronto/2021/05/31/sleuthing-a-ghost-sign-on-river-street/.

Jmaxtours. “Toronto Ghost Sign.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 11 Nov. 2020, live-fts.flickr.com/photos/30711218@N00/50588025733/in/pool-tonroto-on/.

Redway, Alan. “East York 1924-1997.” Google Books, Google, books.google.ca/books?id=8TpyDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281&dq=bunt%27s%2Bfish%2Band%2Bchips%2Beast%2Byork%2Bredway&source=bl&ots=QLFlua6CiS&sig=ACfU3U3iuBytSMq1BuFlA-q7gMdX-FIcCw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjVtd3kyqLxAhUaX80KHY_pDZMQ6AEwCXoECBIQAw#v=onepage&q=bunt’s%20fish%20and%20chips%20east%20york%20redway&f=false.

Whyilovetoronto. “Why I Love Ghost Signs: The Fading History of…” Why I Love Toronto, 18 Dec. 2015, whyilovetoronto.tumblr.com/post/135400102992.

One thought on “A Toronto ghost sign explained (with a side of tartar sauce)

  1. Excellent article! But I would really love to know everything you can find out about Reliable Fish and Chips on Queen St. East between Logan and Carlaw (if I recall correctly). During the years that I worked at Colgate-Palmolive (corner of Carlaw and Colgate Aves.) which would be from 1976 to 1980, I frequently would (rather than bring my lunch or eat in the company cafeteria) drop in to Reliable Fish & Chips with a co-worker or two. I was immediately struck by how excellent in every way their fish and chips were! And this coming from a little, very Spartan, hole-in-the-wall eatery (I don’t think there could have been room for more than 2 or 3 little tables (seating no more than 2 or 3) in the place, so one pretty much had to settle for take-out. But the food was so good, nobody cared! The place was always crowded–and not just with Colgate employees, either.
    Eventually I moved on in my working life…years later, (the winter of 1995 to be exact) I was driving back to Ottawa from a week of study in Kitchener-Waterloo, when I suddenly (must’ve been my pregnant state at the time!) got a craving for fish and chips when passing through Toronto. I immediately drove straight south into the city to try to find Reliable Fish & Chips (and, as a side interest, to see if the old Colgate-Palmolive factory was still standing…I knew the company had moved out of there about a decade earlier). How things had changed…nothing left of the factory but an empty space covered with rubble–and, no sign of Reliable Fish & Chips either. I cannot recall what was taking its place, certainly nothing that struck me as notable–as I have now forgotten…
    Thank you again–and I do hope you will find the time to do a little detective work on Reliable Fish & Chips. If by chance they have simply moved elsewhere, I shall arrange a trip back for one more lunch!!

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