Honest Edwardianism

TEXT John Martins-Manteiga
PHOTOS Dody Kiala/John Martins-Manteiga

It’s 10:00pm at Bloor and Bathurst Streets in Toronto. The corner is ablaze in light as the block-long marquee blinks, hums, and twirls. The place could be Las Vegas, but it’s Toronto, and Honest Ed’s–the bargain department store opened by Ed Mirvish in the late 1940s–rages on with its light fantastic long after the customers have gone home.

In Toronto, Honest Ed’s remains a beacon that has touched the lives of Canadians in very real ways. We used to be able to ask almost any immigrant who began life in this city about their first shopping experience and they would invariably tell you that it was at Honest Ed’s. 

Mirvish sold his wares with a barrage of loud neon signs, a carnival atmosphere, witty slogans, and corny jokes–often at his own expense. As a communication tool, the visual style is “funhouse”–loud, colourful, an approach that is “of the people.”

No other brand identity is so visually distilled, prevalent and easy to use as Honest Ed’s ubiquitous hand-painted signs or “point-of-sale show cards,” as the in-house painters call it. The iconography is all Ed. No Madison Avenue marketing here. Ed’s manner and shtick is old-fashioned populism and salesmanship. The typographical shtick has traditionally been expressed through a distinct style of hand-painted tempera signs, decked out in primary colours with gorgeous swirling typography. The signs are busy and fast, while telling you in a not so subtle way to come in, buy, and get out! 

In its heyday, Mirvish employed an army of painters working at a hectic pace to produce the thousands of hand-painted signs assigned to each individual product. Today only two painters remain: Doug Kerr and Wayne Reuben. Reuben says that the style of the signs was developed over time and passed on through apprentices just like him. Reuben was raw talent when he started in 1967; the old-timers taught him from the ground up. He came into his own by developing a star symbol that finishes all of his work. He says, “It was something that I picked. I drew them to fill in the space and it became my trademark.” Kerr says the “casual style” of the signs is a form of freehand style that you “slash” out. “Everyone has a casual style, but no two are ever the same and there are always idiosyncrasies,” he admits.

Kerr and Reuben are what remain of a long-established tradition of the hand-painted-sign industry in Canada. And Honest Ed’s is one of the last remaining retail institutions to employ painters who can generate merchandising, wayfinding and information design.

 Ed Mirvish passed away in 2007, yet he is everywhere. The hand-painted confections found at Honest Ed’s are a delightful anachronism disconnected from our contemporary digital world. These iconic signs awaken the child in us; they speak to us and about us. And as long as they remain, we will always have Honest Ed’s telling us to “buy, buy, buy!” CA

John Martins-Manteiga is the director of Dominion Modern and the author of Peter Dickinson. His new book Métro focuses on the Montreal subway, and is due to be released soon.