In preparation for our exhibition next year in honour of Canada’s Sesquicentennial, I am researching some of the more obscure Canadian labels in the collection and am starting with what may be the oldest. From the waistband of a black satin afternoon dress from the mid 1880s is a gold and black woven tape label reading: D. Gardner & Co., The Argyle House, Ottawa.
This business appears to have begun as a dry goods store founded by misters Gardner, Russell and Leggatt sometime in the early 1870s. A snippet from a 1950s newspaper recollecting the early days of Ottawa refers to Mr. David Gardner travelling to Paris on a buying trip while the city was under siege (c. 1870 – 1871). By 1881 the store had relocated at 66 & 68 Sparks Street – an Italianate commercial building built in the late 1870s. According to one source, the building was called The Argyle (sic) House in honour of the Marquis de Lorne (Duke of Argyll), Canada’s 4th Governor General (1878 – 1883).
An advertisement for the business in 1881 announced a sale of cheap millinery, as well as silks, hosiery, gloves, and parasols – to make room for fall importations (‘cheap’ does not refer to inferior quality in this period, but rather to ready-made items). By 1884 the company was known as Russell, Gardner & Co. but by 1889 the company was identified in the Ottawa city directory as D Gardner & Co. A search through that directory resulted in a staff list that included: a manager, bookkeeper, cashier, porter, 12 dressmakers, 2 mantle makers, 4 milliners, 5 salesmen and 6 saleswomen.
As a well established dry goods and dressmaking firm in the most fashionable shopping street of the country’s capital, business must have been good. However, the Montreal ladie’s tailor of J.J. Milloy was recommended by Lady Stanley, wife of Lord Stanley, Canada’s 6th Governor General (1888 – 1893), saying that Ottawa had no dressmaker of sufficiently high calibre for her. Her words may have been the cause of the demise of D. Gardner & Co.
In the November 22, 1890 issue of the Ottawa Journal, a notice that the:
“…best place at the present time for the ladies of Ottawa… to visit is the balance of the bankrupt stock of D. Gardner & Co… all fancy woollens less than half price, shawls (clouds and hoods from 10 cents each)… whole line dolman ulsters and jackets to one quarter of their original selling price…”
By 1892, 66 & 68 Sparks Street was occupied by John Murphy, a dry goods dealer that would relocate to a new building in 1909 as a partner in Murphy-Gamble, Ottawa’s most successful and chic department store that would remain in business until 1971. A modern bank building, built in 1981, now occupies the site where Argyle House once stood.