Vintage Toronto Ads: Opulent Penthouse-Style Living

Originally published on Torontoist on February 23, 2007.


When searching for a new place to live, what is the first thing you look for? Location? Lifestyle compatibility? Enticements? A blank slate to shape in your unique style? Groovy wallpaper?
Judging from today’s ad, the latter may have been a key condition in North York back in 1970.

This was the era of “swingin’ singles” apartments, promoted in areas of the city like St. James Town. Think of this ad as the late 1960s equivalent of lifestyle ads pitched to upwardly-mobile condo buyers, without the benefits of ownership—replace “penthouse living” with “loft”, “condo” or “lifestyle community” and the text could be slotted into the next project to hit the weekend paper.

Depending on decorating taste, your eyes may be thankful for the decision to make this a black and white ad, given the loudness of the “luxury wallpapers” in this “opulent bathroom.” Is the tenant pointing into space, admiring her new surroundings or relieved that she found the mirror in the midst of everything? Conversely, the decor may provide cozy memories of homes you grew up in or your first snazzy pad.

Note the prominent placement of the toilet paper dispenser—was the photographer passing subliminal judgement?

While current enticements to potential tenants include free TVs and time-restricted reduced parking rates, this company capitalized on the recent opening of Fairview Mall (then anchored by Simpsons and The Bay) by offering a shuttle service. Today, residents further south in Don Mills have use of a shuttle to the mall in the wake of the demolition of the Don Mills Centre.

Source: Toronto Life, September 1970

Vintage Toronto Ads: Carpet with Civic Fibres

Originally published on Torontoist on February 16, 2007.

Next time you visit the library, take a look at the carpeting and furniture. Does it make you want to linger with a good book or run through the checkout as fast as possible?
2007_02_16MRLcarpet.jpgThe Toronto Reference Library, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in November, was breaking itself in when today’s ad appeared. Judging from the number of people seen sleeping there, the carpet colours may be too easy on some readers’ eyes. Architect Raymond Moriyama’s design, with carpeted walls, easy-to-browse open shelves and the 70s see-through elevator, lends a comforting, cozy feel, turning short trips into lengthy stays, especially in winter. Moriyama’s firm is still involved in the building, contributing to its renewal plan.
The Reference Library’s roots date back to 1830, with the establishment of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute (originally named York, until the city changed its name in 1834). Modeled after similar groups formed in Great Britain during the 1820s, its aim, according to Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, was “the mutual improvement of mechanics and others who become members of the society in arts and sciences by the formation of a library of reference and circulation, by the delivery of lectures on scientific and mechanical subjects embraced by this constitution from which all discussion of political or religious matters is to be carefully excluded.”

Originally located on Colborne St, the Institute moved to the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide in the mid-1850s. By 1858, the library consisted of 4,000 books, available to 800 paying members. A city bylaw passed in 1883 established a free public library system, which the Mechanics’ Institute was folded into. When the library opened to full public access the following spring, the rush of people wishing to use it quickly led to increased staff and multiple copies of popular titles.

In 1903, the city received a Carnegie grant to build a new central library and several branches, including Yorkville, Queen/Lisgar (now used by the city’s Public Health department) and Riverdale. When the new Toronto Reference Library opened at St. George and College in 1909, it contained nearly 100,000 books. The Institute building remained a branch through the late 1920s, the was used as offices by the city’s public welfare department until it was demolished in the late 1940s.
In 1967, the Metropolitan Toronto Library Board was established to handle the reference library and special collections acquired over the years. Moriyama presented his design in 1970, with construction underway by 1975. The old library was sold to the University of Toronto and now serves as the Koffler Student Services Centre, which includes the main branch of the U of T Bookstore.

Source: Saturday Night, March 1978.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Baseball’s Back at the Simpsons Dugout

Originally published on Torontoist on February 9, 2007.

Depressed by the current deep freeze? Here’s something to make you feel warmer – next week, the boys of summer (or at least the pitchers and catchers) report for spring training for the Blue Jays’ 30th anniversary season.
2007_02-09simpsons.jpgSimpsons was one of many businesses eager to show their support when the Jays prepared to take the field in 1977. The “Simpsons Dugout” concept almost sounds like the Olympic section at The Bay (also located on the second floor of the Queen-Yonge store), though it’s doubtful you can buy an Olympic ashtray. Note the happy family in their Jays finery, except for mom, who looks as if she can’t wait to tear her cap off.

Professional baseball has a long history in Toronto, dating back to the 1880s. The longest-lasting team was the Maple Leafs (1895-1967), who played in the Eastern and International Leagues. Under media mogul Jack Kent Cooke’s ownership in the 1950s, the team led the IL in attendance, winning four championships that decade. A Boston Red Sox farm team for its final three seasons, the team moved to Louisville after the 1967 season. Among the Maple Leafs’ home fields were Hanlan’s Point Stadium (several incarnations from 1897 to 1925) and Maple Leaf Stadium (built in 1926 at the southwest corner of Bathurst and Lakeshore, demolished 1968).

Major league baseball nearly made its TO debut in 1976, when the San Francisco Giants announced that January that a deal had reached to sell the team to a group primarily financed by Labatt’s, who intended to transfer the team here. A court injunction brought on by San Francisco mayor George Moscone delayed the deal long enough that buyers were found to keep the team in the Bay area. Within a month, the American League voted to expand to Toronto and Seattle for the following season.

Toronto was not the first major league team to carry the name “Blue Jays.” The Philadelphia Phillies officially changed their name to the Blue Jays in 1943, when new owner William Cox tried to shake up a team that had finished in last place six out of the seven previous seasons. The name never caught on with fans or sportswriters and was dropped after the 1944 season. Cox was gone before that, having been thrown out of baseball after the 1943 season when he admitted he placed “sentimental” bets on Philadelphia games.

The debut scorebook this ad appeared includes articles on previous major league expansions, the first American League game in 1901, the Baseball Hall of Fame, etc. Oddball feature: a guide on how to dine out in Toronto by longtime Globe and Mail restaurant reviewer Joanne Kates. Top ticket price in 1977? $6.50.

Source: Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine, Vol 1 No 17, 1977

Vintage Toronto Ads: Enjoy the Light Show, Leave the “T-Shirt” at Home

Originally published on Torontoist on February 1, 2007.

Source: Toronto Life, November 1985

Judging from today’s ad, a blinded-by-the-light good time was to be had on the east end of the Danforth in the mid-1980s, as long as you weren’t wearing a “t-shirt”. The quotations around this standard piece of North American apparel makes one wonder how quickly a potential patron would have been tossed for this fashion faux-pas, or if dressier types of non-button-down apparel were OK.

The 1950s sci-fi movie light poles look as if they could have emitted death rays in case the yuppie crowd grew uncontrollable, or as a method of mind control to convince patrons to move to bar #4 after several drinks at bar #2.

2714 Danforth had a long history as an entertainment venue, beginning with its original incarnation as the Grover Theatre. Named after the local phone exchange, the Grover operated as a neighbourhood cinema from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. After its Spectrum period, it was the Thunder Nightclub, complete with appropriately cheesy sign.

By 2001, Thunder’s days were numbered, with two suspicious fires breaking out before the city provided funds to the Dixon Hall social agency to run the site as a homeless shelter. While there was some community opposition, the site was reopened as Heyworth House. Jeans, “t-shirts” and running shoes were more than welcome.

A case of a building repaying society for its past excesses?

Vintage Toronto Ads: Great Depression Hospitality

Originally published on Torontoist on January 23, 2007.

Vintage Ad #133 - King Edward Hotel 1934

Source: Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934

TO. Hogtown. The Queen City of Canada. The Centre of the Universe. Centennial City. All names applied to Toronto over the years.

Centennial city?

That was the nickname tossed around when Toronto celebrated its 100th birthday in 1934. To commemorate the event, a Centennial Committee was put together by city council, whose lasting work was Jesse Edgar Middleton’s book Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934. The book includes a variety of sketches of the city’s first century, as well as a program from a “service of thanksgiving and prayer” (and Wagner and Rachmaninoff) held on March 5th to mark the anniversary. Among the sub-committees formed for the celebration: permanent memorial, song judging (which included poet E.J. Pratt), drill corps display and stamp exhibition.

The last 60 pages of the book feature ads from leading institutions and businesses of the city. One of those still surviving is the King Edward Hotel, recently displaced as the city’s most fashionable place to stay by the newly-built Royal York. Opened in 1903, the King Edward was built on the former site of the Golden Lion department store. The hotel was designed by architect E. J. Lennox, who also worked on Old City Hall, Casa Loma and the Massey Mausoleum in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The original eight floors were joined by an 18-storey addition on the east side of the hotel in 1921.

In 1932, the hotel entered receivership, which probably accounts for the rates “keeping with the times” at the height of the Great Depression. Using the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, based on the Consumer Price Index, shows that the starting rates for those rooms would be $45-120, or your average roadside chain hotel today. The 50 cent breakfast? $7.50.

Note all the elements designed to lure a posh crowd, even as they began to recover from financial ruin. A floor just for the ladies! Not just any run-of-the-mill French chef, but one honoured by the French government! Not just a house band, but “an internationally famous 15-piece orchestra”! The latter claim had some merit – Luigi Romanelli, who led the hotel’s house band from 1923 until his death in 1942, made radio appearances with his Monarchs of Melody on CBC and NBC.

Weak management and competition from newer hotels downtown led to proposals to raze the building in the mid-1970s. Instead, much of the hotel was restored by the early 1980s, though the Crystal Ballroom on the upper levels remains in ruins, used to teach fly fishing.

UPDATE (June 2017): The Crystal Ballroom eventually underwent renovation, reopening for public use in April 2017.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Great Art Has No Price…Or It Didn’t In 1972

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.

Vintage Ad #84 - Great Art has no Price, Give Us A Building!
Source: Toronto Life, February 1972

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.


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.


Hi there. My name is Jamie Bradburn, and you may remember me from such websites as…ok, maybe that’s not the best introduction to this site.

How about this: I’ve written a lot about Toronto’s history. If you scroll through my back catalogue of posts for Torontoist, you’ll find a list of my writing over the past decade which runs 53 pages. Some of that stockpile best remains buried deep in that list, while others are award-winning pieces I’m proud of.

You can read some of my thoughts about writing for Torontoist in my farewell Historicist column. The site resurrected my writing career, helping me shift from being an office drone to a full-time writer/historian. What began as sometimes silly looks at Toronto’s past via old advertisements turned into longer, more reflective pieces. Editors along the way prodded me into new directions, producing great stories that both explored Toronto’s past and provided context for current affairs.

I’m ready to start reviewing that body of work. One can argue I should have doing that all along, but there were always other distractions or things to work on. C’est la vie.

The current plan is republish my work chronologically, updating stories when it seems appropriate. I don’t know if doing this reduces the likelihood of much of this material ever being released in print form (hint hint to publishers!), but at least it keeps it in circulation.

I hope you rediscover old favourites, or enjoy reading pieces you missed the first time around. My writing style has evolved, so there’s a risk browsing the early pieces might prove cringe-inducing.

If you have ideas for a better title for this site, send them along. Otherwise, on with the stories!