Originally published on Torontoist on January 12, 2007. This was the first post I wrote for the site.
There are many ways to chart a city’s history. One can dig into the city archives, flip through photographs or listen to its citizens tell their stories about its daily life. The evolution of a city can also be traced through a vehicle that drives people crazy when it originally appears, but forms a valuable record when seen with distance: advertising.
Old ads are a valuable tool in looking at elements such as neighbourhood socio-economic changes and passing trends. Absurd concepts, outdated ideas and presentation often bring laughs, but if you’re not careful, you might learn something about past prejudices and wrong turns made in local development.
Often, trolling through old ads reveals parallels with current activities in Toronto. Exhibit A: the expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Frank Gehry-designed remodeling that is the most obvious sign of Transformation AGO is not the first time the gallery has undergone a major redesign. Back in 1972, the AGO geared up for its first expansion in nearly 40 years. The gallery made a record number of acquisitions in the late 1960s, culminating in a large donation of work by Henry Moore. As Ken Thomson’s donations helped spur the current construction, the volume of acquired work meant that new space was needed quickly to display a fraction of these pieces.
Plans developed in 1968 envisioned the expansion of the AGO in three stages. This ad spotlights Stage I, where the beautiful things done with donor money included the Zacks Wing and the Henry Moore Sculpture Court.
Note the percentage of the project paid for by the Ontario government. For Stage I, the province kicked in two-thirds of the $18 million cost. When the province announced its portion for Transformation AGO in 2002, it kicked in less than a tenth of the current $254 million fundraising goal.
The Stage I campaign soon reached its goal, as construction began shortly after this ad appeared. Stage I was opened to the public in 1974, with Stage II (the Canadian historical galleries) following in 1977. Economic problems delayed the completion of Stage III (the Tanenbaum Atrium) until 1993 – ironically the section now being torn away for the Gehry addition.
So much for those coupons.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The following notes on the genesis of the “Vintage Toronto Ads” column were taken from its fifth anniversary edition, originally published on January 13, 2012.
In the beginning, there was a box of back issues of Sports Illustrated in my Mom’s shed.
As a kid, I loved flipping through SI when it arrived in the mail. The articles didn’t always grab my attention, but the ads did. When the time came to clear out two decades’ worth of magazines, I clipped the ads for future use on my blog. Once I started writing about them, I found myself scouring bins at bookstores and thrift shops for magazines yielding treasure galore.
When Torontoist posted a submission call around Christmas 2006, I figured a Toronto-centric version of the ad posts might fit the site. There was plenty of initial material to choose from: a resident on my street had recently left two boxes of 1970s issues of Maclean’s and Saturday Night by the curb, while a research trip to Guelph had unearthed unbound copies of the first decade of Toronto Life that I had photocopied. The editors gave the green light and the rest is history.
As I pointed out in my first column, advertising provides a valuable view of the time it was created. You can follow the development of Toronto through ads for homes and businesses, or discover what fashion sense people did or didn’t possess. The impacts of wars and other world events on Toronto are revealed, as are period prejudices and social concerns. The rise and fall of local landmarks and political careers can be traced. Sometimes ads are the only information remaining about a long-lost business, failed development, or quack cure-all. These ads have also provided a flexible vehicle for writing everything from short historical sketches to fictional tales built around an ad man’s earnest pitch.
While the column has featured many bizarre ads, the craziest was created by perennial 1950s fringe political candidate George Rolland, a man unfamiliar with the concept of modesty. It requires immense ego or extreme self-delusion to declare to voters that you are “the Greatest Canadian of All Times.” Researching Rolland cast a darker light on the ad when I discovered his racist views, along with tales of his carrying athletic medals everywhere and making claims that he was the only musical composer who mattered over the past 500 years.