Vintage Toronto Ads: Gems of Canadiana (and Toronto the Good)

Originally published on Torontoist on February 14, 2012.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1970.

While browsing a used book store or fundraising book sale, you’ve probably noticed one of the many colourfully-designed covers adorning most volumes of the Coles Canadiana Collection series. Originally published as budget-priced paperbacks by the Coles bookstore chain, the series’ resurrection of long-out-of-print tomes in their original format, without any modern contextualization, was the 1970s equivalent of Google Books or the Internet Archive.

The series had been on the mind of Coles vice-president Jack Cole for several years before it was launched in late 1969 with the titles shown in today’s Vintage Ad. Cole had collected the original editions of the works he republished, some of which had cost him $1,000 each. The response surprised him: all three titles sold quickly in the chain’s 35 stores. Brisk sales coupled with demand from other booksellers to carry the series urged a second printing that was produced within months for distribution across Canada. “People are interested in the past of their country,” Cole told the Star in early 1970. “We’re very pleased with our own identity. It’s one picture. It has to do with people not wanting to sell their natural resources across the border. It has to do with people being sick and tired of being swamped by the people to the south.” The upswing in interest in Canadian history led other publishers to create similar series, such as Mel Hurtig’s hardcover Canadiana Reprint Series and Peter Martin Associates’ collection of 19th-century Ontario-county atlases.

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Toronto’s past was well-represented in the Coles Canadiana Collection. Besides C.S. Clark’s late Victorian era social study of the city, reprints included the diaries of Elizabeth Simcoe as assembled by Telegram publisher John Ross Robertson, a two-volume biography of William Lyon Mackenzie published shortly after the rebel mayor’s death, a history of the Humber Valley up to 1913, and an 1891 book spotlighting Toronto Old and New. We’d like to think that these no-frills editions helped their readers develop a better appreciation of what Toronto was like in the past, even if later publications about the same topics refuted the information provided in the series.

Additional material from the February 26, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

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A sampling of my copies of Coles Canadiana Collection titles. They frequently turn up at fundraising book sales and usually won’t set you back much. The main drawbacks are lack of modern contextual introductions and occasional poor reproductions of the original text. There are some titles in this series, especially the ones relating to Toronto (I’m looking at you, Of Toronto the Good), that would benefit from well-designed updated editions.