Understanding Humanity: Gateway into the lives of Torontonians
Stories go beyond simply entertaining us, they capture the essence of what it means to be human.
A photo essay by Craig Madho for the TRP | August 19, 2019
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 196, Used with Permission)
This photo, titled “Grannies’ tug-of-war, Centre Island”, has become one of my favourite photographs of old Toronto. It was taken in the 1920s by a photographer named William James Sr. James was an early practitioner of human interest and candid photography, which is sometimes considered to be documentary-style photography. Through his pictures he was able to capture what life was like in his adopted home—hailing originally from Walsall, England, he first landed in Quebec with his family before taking the train into Toronto.
Now, there are many things I love about this picture of women playing tug-of-war: the playfulness of the act, the mix of levity and competitiveness along each of their faces, the fact that they’re all wearing their Sunday best, and, I mean, look at those shoes—killer! But what pulls me in is how James was able to capture this moment, frozen in time, which would have otherwise been lost. Pictures like these are stories in themselves and give us a gateway into the lives and values of old Torontonians so we can see how we have evolved.
It’s easy to write off taking pictures like this as frivolous, but having these works is imperative for us to understand our past and grow from it. I work as the editor for a magazine called The Local, we are an independent online magazine exploring health and social issues in Toronto. Our approach to storytelling is unique: we take a data-driven yet authentically human approach to storytelling on pressing issues facing the city. We have no shortage of data, but what good are numbers, especially in healthcare, if you don’t understand how they impact an individual. Documenting lives, in the same way, that James does in these pictures, enables us to capture the humanity behind some of our most pressing health and social issues. That is why the work of people like James and his contemporaries are so important for helping us understand the human nature of old Toronto and how we might use those same techniques to understand the present day.
The collection of photographs by the James family, numbering just over 4000 items, can be found for free on the Toronto Archives website. Here are a few select images that I found that paint a picture of what Toronto was like through the eyes of William James Sr.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 21A, Used with Permission)
Prior to the amalgamation of the suburbs into the newly incorporated Toronto in 1834, many of the roads remained dirty and unpaved. While the city worked infrastructure improvements into its budget, it would not have been uncommon to see kids running around and playing in muddy roads.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 57, Used with Permission)
This was an ambulance given to the Toronto General Hospital by Sir John Eaton, son of Timothy Eaton, the department store magnate for whom the Toronto Eaton Centre is named after. During this time period, it was still not wholly uncommon to see horse-drawn ambulances carrying individuals to the hospital. But as automobile manufacturing began, it was becoming less common.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 115, Used with Permission)
What these men are precariously carrying across this steel beam is a forge, which is an item used to heat metals so they can become more malleable. It’s unclear whether this act of bravery was standard practice at the time, but it is nevertheless impressive.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 51, Used with Permission)
It’s not summertime in Toronto without the auto show. Taken in 1913, it would appear that car shows in this city have a long history.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 122, Used with Permission)
But you can’t talk about automobiles without talking about streetcars. Pictured here is a streetcar at the Woodbine racetrack waiting to start. Taken between 1908-1912, it’s perhaps clearer now that the inspiration for the initial design came from a place with warmer weather year-round. I don’t dare imagine hopping on one of these during a Toronto winter.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 116, Used with Permission)
There’s no greater satisfaction than finally finishing a project, and that’s what’s captured here. This group of workmen is laying the last stone on the Canada Life building. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the large building on University and Queen Street West, across from Osgoode Hall. Interestingly, the spire of the Canada Life building is still an option for you to find out what the weather will be like tomorrow. That weather beacon is the oldest device of its kind in the country.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 180A, Used with Permission)
This group of students, led by Dean Howe of the University of Toronto, is a botany class from 1910 walking through High Park. Presumably, the flowers being held by some students are samples that they will study. As a U of T graduate myself, it’s hard to imagine wearing such a dapper suit to class—especially one in which we’re hiking through a park.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 123, Used with Permission)
As if taken out of a Hollywood movie, this image shows postal workers sorting and stamping mail. In the electronic age, it’s hard to believe that this is what it was like before the invention of label printers.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 166, Used with Permission)
For some, it’s hard to imagine that people even live on Wards Island, let alone living on the island in a tent city. Prior to becoming a transplanted cottage country, Ward island was home to a small tent city that inhabitants called home. Though this black and white image gives the illusion that this is an artefact of forgotten history, there still exist Torontonians that remember this not-so-brief reality.
(William James, City of Toronto Archives: Fonds 1244, Item 160A, Used with Permission)
This image was taken in 1913 of a group of swimmers having their picture taken in their bathing suits at Hanlan’s Point. Now Toronto’s only clothing-optional beach, the contrast between the modest swimsuits then and the liberating nature of the beach now is a clear demonstration of how we have evolved as a city.
Going through the Toronto archives I am constantly amazed at the pace of change in the city. To think that the house that I’m sitting in right now writing this piece, located comfortably in North York, was once a part of a sprawling farmland that extended down to the lake is unfathomable. Within the century the city of Toronto expanded outwards into the suburbs and up into the sky, forming the familiar glass condo towers we see today. Seeing the work of photographers and journalists like James, I sometimes wonder if the stories that we tell today will one day add to this growing picture of what Toronto is like now. One can only hope.
Craig Madho is the Associate Editor of The Local, an independent magazine exploring urban health and social issues in Toronto. Read their most recent issue, The Parks and Rec Issue, which explores the changing conceptions of how we play, document the joys and conflicts that take place within our commons, and ask a fundamental question: who are parks for? Craig is a TRP alumnus (Class 2018) and his other blogs can be found here.