Always Fresh: an art history analysis of Tim Hortons

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Jules Turner (graphic contributor)

Tim Hortons is a Canadian institution—which recently merged with Burger King, which is ultimately owned by a Brazilian multi-billion dollar investment firm. Nevertheless, throughout its history, Tim Hortons not only reflects, but creates Canadian identity. By analyzing Tim Hortons’ visual and material culture, we reveal “fresh” insights into a heretofore little examined half-century of Canadian society: the years 1964 to 2014.

The first Tim Hortons opened in the picturesque town of Hamilton, Ontario in 1964. The awning read: “Tim Horton Donuts.” Hamilton residents were confused as to why the restaurant would serve doughnuts that tasted like esteemed hockey player Tim Horton. Curiosity and the love of hockey drove locals to sample the Horton flavour. Some simply licked Horton, and complained that he was “too salty,” but those who ate the doughnuts were impressed.

Tim Hortons gained popularity during the 1960s and ‘70s as a place to smoke indoors. Archival images reveal that the typical Tim Hortons decor during this period was brown and red—mimicking the inside of customers’ lungs. However, doughnut sales remained low. Customers complained that they could not smoke while biting into a full sized doughnut. Corporate then introduced the Timbit, perfectly sized for eating and smoking simultaneously. Profits increased dramatically.

Archaeologists have discovered Roll Up the Rim to Win cups that date as early as 1986. Roll Up the Rim cups are identified by arrows pointing towards an area which, when unrolled, unveils the cryptic message: “Please Play Again / Réessayez S.V.P.” The arrow is an immensely important symbol in Canada. In 1957, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker implemented the use of arrow-shaped signs to guide people towards towns. Until that time, most of Canada’s population wandered around in circles in the prairies, due to a lack of orienting landmarks. Then, in 1959, Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow program to alleviate confusion. Until then, instead of taking direction from arrow-shaped signs, Canadians climbed on top of them, thinking they were airplanes.

“Double Double” is a term that survives from Tim Hortons oral tradition. Those fluent in the language are long-since dead (due to lung cancer), so the term’s significance is now lost. However, we know that the number two is significant in Canadian mythology. Early Canadians worshipped the prophet Jacob Two-Two, who delivered sermons in pairs. The Canadian two-dollar coin, the Toonie, bears Jacob’s name. Tim Hortons reflected this numerical reverence by briefly being not only one restaurant, but two. Fossilized waffle-cones in Tim Hortons trash-middens reveal their ill-fated pairing with Cold Stone Creamery in the 2010s. Previously, ice cream was unknown in Canada. Introducing ice cream to this northern nation was questionable, as Canadians knew to never put coloured snow in their mouths.

In conclusion, through this visual and material analysis, we draw many insights into Canadian culture. Previously all that was known about Canadians during this time was derived from two sources: the texts of noted scholar, Dr. Red Green, and documentary footage of trailer park dwellers. To this day, Canadians still honour Tim Hortons’ rich contribution to their heritage. Each year, hundreds visit Toronto’s York Cemetery to place “Please Play Again” cups on Horton’s tomb.

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