The Oldest Known Photos of Toronto

Originally published as a gallery post on Torontoist on February 25, 2013.

For the earliest known photographs of Toronto, we have a sales pitch to thank.

Following the union of Upper and Lower Canada as the United Province of Canada in 1841, Canada’s new parliament drifted from city to city. Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto all hosted the wandering colonial government. On April 14, 1856, the legislature voted 64 to 54 in favour of ending its recent practice of alternating parliamentary sessions between Toronto and Quebec City. The job of determining a permanent capital was handed to Queen Victoria, who examined presentations from those two cities, along with presentations on behalf of Kingston, Montreal, and Ottawa.

While Toronto’s pitch failed to sway the queen (she named Ottawa the capital in 1857), it preserved a record of what the growing city looked like. The photographic and civil engineering firm of Armstrong, Beere and Hime was hired to provide a set of 25 photos for Victoria’s consideration, which were forgotten until an archivist found them by chance in 1979 while researching images of the British Columbia gold rush at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library in London, England. The photos were exhibited at the Market Gallery in 1984, and a set of copies were presented to the City archives as a gift for the city’s 150th birthday.

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King Street East, south-side, looking west, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 1.

At the left of this row of buildings is the Golden Lion, which rivalled Eaton’s and Simpson’s as one of Toronto’s major department stores during the late 19th century. Officially known as Robert Walker and Sons, the store earned its lasting name when a golden lion statue was placed above its entrance soon after moving to the location shown here in 1847.

Renovated in 1867 and expanded in 1892, the store appeared to have a healthy future. But when no one in the Walker was left to carry on the business, it closed in 1898. Some observers, such as the Hamilton Herald, were dubious about the site’s future when the store was demolished in 1901: “In Toronto they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.”

The replacement? The still-operating King Edward Hotel.

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King Street East, south-side between Yonge and Church streets, looking east, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 2.

Among the businesses seen in this view is the British Colonist, one of Toronto’s first enduring newspapers. Launched in 1838, it was originally backed by supporters of the Church of Scotland. Considered “a staunch but not rabid Conservative paper” by the book Early Toronto Newspapers 1793-1867, it graduated from semi-weekly to daily publishing in 1851. The paper was sold to rival Conservative paper the Leader in 1860.

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Bank of British North America, north-east corner of Wellington and Yonge streets, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 3.

Opened in 1846, the limestone Bank of British North America was designed by John Howard, whose personal property later became High Park. Howard also designed the adjoining warehouses, which were initially occupied by a grocer. The building was rebuilt into its present form in the mid-1870s. The site later housed branches of the Bank of Montreal and CIBC, then a variety of tenants before the Irish Embassy pub settled in.

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The Exchange, Wellington Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 4.

Modelled on a similar exchange across the Atlantic in London, the Toronto Exchange was established in 1854 for speculation traders specializing in produce. One-time Toronto postmaster Charles Berczy donated land he owned at the present-day northwest corner of Wellington Street and Leader Lane to the organization. Opened in 1855, it was renovated in 1877 and renamed the Imperial Bank Chambers when that financial institution moved in. Damaged by fire during the 1930s, it was demolished during World War II.

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Second United Presbyterian Church under construction, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 7.

Established in 1851, the Second United Presbyterian congregation renamed itself Cooke’s Presbyterian Church in 1856 in honour of Irish minister Henry Cooke. After holding services at several downtown locations, including St. Lawrence Hall, the congregation moved into its permanent home at Queen and Mutual streets in 1858. A Romanesque-style replacement was built in 1891 and became one of the city’s most popular churches—during the 1920s, you had to get there early to grab one of its 2,250 seats. When the church closed in 1982, its congregation had dwindled to 150. Despite a last-minute heritage designation, the church was demolished in 1984. Though there were hints of future office/residential development, the site became a parking lot.

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Normal School building, Gould Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.

Founded in 1850 by Egerton Ryerson, the Normal School served as training institution for teachers who would populate the province’s emerging public school system. Its home in St. James Square was opened in 1852 and expanded a few years later to include the Model School, where boys’ grammar classes were held. Among its amenities was a museum of natural history and fine arts which evolved into the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Normal School was moved out in 1941 to make room for an RCAF training centre. After World War II, the site was used to prepare veterans to return to civilian life via a school which evolved into Ryerson University. Demolished to make way for the present Ryerson quadrangle in 1962, only a portion of the central façade remains today.

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Osgoode Hall, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 9.

Built between 1829 and 1846, Osgoode Hall served as the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Shortly after this picture was taken, the central section was reconstructed by the architectural firm of Cumberland and Storm.

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Parliament Buildings, Front Street West, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 10.

The third set of parliament buildings erected in Toronto, three separate blocks were built on the north side of Front Street between John and Simcoe streets between 1829 and 1832. Architect John Howard was brought in to finish off the interiors. The complex was used intermittently during the United Province of Canada era (1841 to 1867), when legislators also sat in Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec City. When this picture was taken, work had begun to fill in the spaces between the blocks for offices in case Toronto became the permanent capital. Post-Confederation, the buildings served as the home of Ontario’s government until the present Ontario Legislative Building in Queen’s Park opened in 1893. The Grand Trunk Railway purchased the site and demolished the buildings a decade later. The site currently houses the Canadian Broadcast Centre.

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Trinity College, Queen Street West, north side, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 11.

When the University of Toronto declared itself a secular institution in 1850, Bishop John Strachan felt an institute of higher learning with ties to the Church of England was still required. He established Trinity College and hired architect Kivas Tully to design a Gothic-styled school, the first section of which opened in 1852.

Trinity joined U of T in 1904 and moved to the main campus in 1925. The buildings it left behind in what became Trinity-Bellwoods Park were briefly used as an athletic centre, then demolished in the mid-1950s. The only remaining portions are part of the gate at the park’s entrance and the former St. Hilda’s College building on Shaw Street, now John Gibson House.

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Rossin House Hotel, southeast corner of King and York streets, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 12.

Introduction to an article on the opening of the Rossin House, the Globe, May 5, 1857:

The want of proper hotel accommodation has long been a standing reproach to Toronto, and the boasted enterprise and energy of our citizens has often been called into question by visitors from other places. No longer, however, will this be needed, for by the completion of the Rossin House, ample accommodation can be afforded for as large a number of guests as are likely to visit the city at any one time, and, as far as the house is concerned, satisfaction will be given to the most fastidious.

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Toronto from the top of Rossin House Hotel, looking northwest, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 14.

This image formed part of one of three panoramas of the city shot from the top of the Rossin House, which were meant to impress Queen Victoria with how much the city had grown.

As for the Rossin House, though a fire in November 1862 gutted its interior, fire safety measures included by architect William Kauffman left the walls intact and resulted in only one fatality. Rebuilt by 1867, it remained one of Toronto’s most fashionable hotels until the King Edward opened in 1903. Later known as the Prince George Hotel, the building was demolished in 1969.

Sources: Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993), Early Toronto Newspapers 1793–1867, Edith G. Firth, editor (Toronto: Baxter Publishing, 1961), Choosing Canada’s Capital by David B. Knight (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1991), the May 5, 1857 edition of the Globe, the March 22, 1984 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 12, 1901 and May 22, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star.

Souvenir Views of Toronto, Canada

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 2, 2010. Because the original links to the postcards vanished from Torontoist following a site redesign, and because I don’t appear to have any related Word documents, I have no idea if any text other than subject identification appeared under these images, nor what order they were originally presented in. Comments written under the postcards were written in 2020.

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Usually when preparing Historicist, we dig through local archives and libraries to find the pieces of Toronto’s past that are brought to you every weekend. Sometimes the material finds us, as is the case with today’s gallery of postcards submitted by reader Todd J. Wiebe.

The postcards were among a large collection of items donated by the estate of fine art scholar Richard Wunder to the Van Wylen Library at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where Wiebe works as a librarian and assistant professor. “It is a very large collection,” says Wiebe, “and this past summer was the first we really got around to going through it.” As the materials were being processed and appraised, a worker in the library found the postcards and passed them on to Wiebe “because I’m from Southern Ontario.”

The set contains twenty-two postcards attached to each other accordion-style. They were produced by the Canadian branch of Scottish postcard maker Valentine & Sons. Based on the age of the landmarks depicted, we’re guessing that this package was produced in the mid-to-late 1920s due to the presence of Union Station (opened in 1927, though it had stood largely completed since 1920) and, given the presence of the city’s tallest buildings in the set, the lack of postcards for the Royal York Hotel (opened in 1929) and Commerce Court (opened in 1931).

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Streetcars carried commuters over the viaduct until the Bloor-Danforth subway line opened in 1966.

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That Casa Loma is referred to as Henry Pellatt’s residence makes me wonder if some or all of this series was produced in the early 1920s, as Pellatt was forced to leave the premises in 1923.

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Judging from this view, it appears Lippincott Street was open to traffic in front of Central Tech.

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All five of these churches remain active as of 2020, though the landscapes around them have changed radically.

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Opened in 1899, City Hall was the heart of Toronto’s municipal dramas until city council moved across Bay Street in 1965.

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Completed in 1913, the Canadian Pacific building is currently used for office space.

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North Toronto station closed in 1930. It became the Summerhill LCBO.

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Built in 1914, the building at the southwest corner of King and Yonge was the headquarters of the Dominion Bank until it merged with the Bank of Toronto in 1955. In 2020, it houses the One King West Hotel & Residence.

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Toronto General moved to College and University in 1913. As of 2020, portions of the building fronting College Street houses MaRS.

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Chorley Park, 1915-1961.

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Originally opened in 1903, the King Eddy gained its tower in 1922.

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Several of the buildings in this postcard series seen together.

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The Cayuga was one of several steamers owned by the Niagara Navigation Company. It was retired in 1957 and scrapped four years later.

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Located in St. James Square, the Toronto Normal School trained several generations. Its site served as an incubator for OCAD, the ROM, and Ryerson University. Most of the building was demolished by 1963.

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Not pictured: the iron gates. Or cows.

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Two premiers presided over the proceedings at Queen’s Park during the 1920s – E.C. Drury’s UFO (United Farmers of Ontario) government gave way to Howard Ferguson’s Conservatives in 1923.

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This appears to be an artistic interpretation of the Red Ensign, used as Canada’s flag through 1965.

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Opened in 1915, the Royal Bank Building still stands at 2 King Street East.

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Was the front of Union Station ever this serene during the day?

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“University College” would be a more appropriate description for this postcard. Major additions to the U of T campus during the 1920s included Trinity College and Varsity Arena.

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University Avenue was still a genteel, tree-lined street south of Queen’s Park when this postcard was produced. Laid out in 1829, it was originally conceived as a genteel park boulevard which would lead up to the intended site for the King’s College campus. It was closed to commercial traffic, and no streets were allowed to cross its path. The road was opened up for full use in 1859, and expanded south of Queen Street.

Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.

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Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.

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Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

Trash Panda Thursday: “City No Spot for Raccoons”

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Toronto Star, May 22, 1952.

The trio’s temporary home, Merton Street Gospel Mission, was a non-denominational church which stood at 399 Merton from 1899 to 1970. The site is currently commemorated with a parkette and historical plaque.

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Toronto Star, August 13, 1952.

Meanwhile, from the same year, news of raccoons in the hinterlands…

Goodbye 1918, Hello 1919

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Toronto World, December 31, 1918.

As 1918 ended, Torontonians contemplated a year which had seen the First World War end, celebrate what would hopefully be a cheerier year ahead, and engage in the usual political bickering which accompanied the annual voting rites of a municipal election on New Year’s Day.

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The Globe, January 1, 1919. Unfortunately, chunks of the rest of this editorial are missing. 

The Globe‘s New Year’s editorial spent the most time on any of Toronto’s opinion pages contemplating the general state of the world now that the war was over.

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Mail and Empire, January 1, 1919.

The Mail and Empire expressed hope for the future, and encouraged everyone to help with the reconstruction of the post-war world.

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Toronto Star, December 31, 1918.

The Star‘s editorial looked back to the genteel customs of New Year’s Days of yore.

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Toronto World, January 1, 1919.

The World‘s editorial focused on the top story item as the old year gave way to the new: the municipal election. Mayor Tommy Church ran for his fifth one-year term against Board of Control member John O’Neill, former city councillor William Henry Shaw, and York East MP Thomas Foster.

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Mail and Empire, December 31, 1918.

Long before Rob Ford preached zealous penny-pinching, Thomas Foster took frugality to extremes. A self-made millionaire known for visiting tenants in person to collect rent or fix problems, Foster spent two decades as an elected official at the federal and municipal levels. It would also appear, based on this campaign ad, he dabbled in post-war xenophobia. While Foster finished a distant fourth in this campaign, he retained his federal seat. He narrowly won the mayoralty in the 1925 municipal campaign over W.W. Hiltz, and served three terms. His legacy is the giant mausoleum he built for himself near Uxbridge.

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Toronto News, December 31, 1918. Click on image for larger version.

A sampling of candidates vying for council seats. Three of the four Board of Control winners (Charles Maguire, Sam McBride, and William Robbins) later served as mayor.

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Toronto Star, December 31, 1918.

Church’s campaign appealed to returning soldiers and their families. During the war, the mayor saw off as many departing soldiers as possible. “For many soldiers,” historian Donald Jones noted, “the last thing they remembered about Toronto was the sight of their mayor running beside the train shouting goodbye and wishing them good luck.” After the war, he welcomed them back and championed various measures to provide vets with financial benefits.

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Evening Telegram, December 31, 1918.

As it would several times during Church’s career, the Telegram supported his re-election campaign with ridiculous zeal. Editorials blasted anyone who criticized Church, especially the Star.

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Evening Telegram, December 31, 1918.

One of many Telegram articles extolling the virtues of Tommy Church. The key issues the paper was concerned about was public ownership of the hydro system and the ongoing battles with the Toronto Railway Company as the end of its 30-year franchise to run many of the city’s streetcars neared its end.

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Evening Telegram, December 31, 1918.

Even the women’s page turned into pro-Church propaganda.

Church received his fifth term, beating O’Neill by nearly 10,000 votes. He remained in office through 1921.

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Toronto News, January 2, 1919.

Election day was a good one for female candidates for the Toronto Board of Education, as four of the five who ran became trustees.

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The Globe, January 1, 1919.

The Globe ran an interview with the outgoing year before it disappeared for good.

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Toronto News, December 31, 1918.

The most covered party to welcome 1919 was held at the King Edward Hotel. Wonder how that meeting of the Canadian Society for the Protection of Birds went.

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Toronto News, January 2, 1919.

This would be the last New Year’s celebrations the News covered, as the paper rebranded itself as the Toronto Times in March, then folded for good in September.

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Evening Telegram, January 2, 1919.

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The Globe, December 30, 1918.

The city’s Protestant ministers had plenty to say about the events of the past year, and looked forward to the momentous events they felt would come in 1919.

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Mail and Empire, January 1, 1919.

How people reverently celebrated New Year’s…

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Evening Telegram, January 2, 1919.

We’ll end with a hint of the year to come, with this tiny item about the distribution of “Bolshevik pamphlets” in the west end.

***

And so ends 2018 for this site. Thanks for reading and supporting my work over the year, whether it’s here or for the many clients I’ve produced material for. The major (and minor) events of 1919 will play a large role in my work for 2019, so stay tuned here and elsewhere for how those events happened, and what their long-term legacies were.

Scenes of Toronto: Winter 2009

You Can’t Please All of the Riders All of the Time

Originally published on Torontoist on January 2, 2009.

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Our transit planners try. They really try.

System-wide service improvements unveiled by the TTC in November included extended hours and the addition of bicycle racks to many routes. While this was good news to many passengers, as with most things in life there are users who feel their needs were glossed over.

Hence the frustrations poured out onto an innocent service improvement bulletin posted on the Davisville bus platform by at least two disgruntled passengers unhappy with the current state of the 11 Bayview route. Never mind that their pleas and grousing are unleashed on a rush hour service that doesn’t pass by the neighbourhood’s largest health facility.

Perhaps the first passenger has a phobia about going to Lawrence station to use its frequent Sunnybrook service?

Sacrilegious Parking

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2009.

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According to its website, Mount Pleasant Road Baptist Church promises to share with its parishioners, via John 10:10, “a delight that God is in the business of bringing order, beauty and joy to people who have suffered from the chaos of this world.” Joy, or at least a mischievous sense of humour, is evident on a sign hanging on the Belsize Drive side of the church, where officials could have placed a standard “no parking” sign.

We have not received official word from the gatekeepers to the afterlife on how many souls have been condemned to eternal wandering on the basis of poor parking decisions.

A Recession Lesson

Originally published on Torontoist on January 29, 2009.

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The current economic situation has not been kind to American retailers. With sales sinking and several wobbly chains going the liquidation route, the U.S. retail landscape might not be the best model to emulate at the moment.

This brings us to Yankee Stuff, a store proudly displaying the red, white, and blue (and several small Canadian flags) on Bloor Street in Korea Town. While walking by the star-spangled storefront in December, we noticed a sign in the window for a sale honouring the state of the economy south of the border. Since it was billed as an ongoing offer we assumed that, based on reading the work of several economic pundits, this sale would last for at least a year or two.

And how has the recession sale gone?

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We returned after Christmas to find that, based on the wrapping paper covering the display window, the recession had claimed another victim.
The lesson? Be careful of naming your sale after an economic event, as said event may come back to bite you.

Parking in a Time Warp

Originally published on Torontoist on March 12, 2009.

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The temporarily closed performing arts venue at the southeast corner of Yonge and Front has undergone a number of name changes since opening more than half a century ago. Which identity do you prefer—O’Keefe, Hummingbird, or Sony? We can take a pretty good guess at which one the Toronto Parking Authority likes the most, based on signage found at the Yonge Street end of the massive Green P structure on the south side of The Esplanade.

We’re not sure when this sign was erected, but it would have been correct between the opening of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s current location in 1993 and the name switch from O’Keefe to Hummingbird in 1996. Is this relic an oversight or does this reveal a gut feeling by parking officials that no one would ever adjust to any name change?

UPDATE: As of 2017, this parking lot will still direct you to the O’Keefe Centre.