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Mapping Our Past

To most people, a map is a tool used strictly to figure out which route will get them from point A to point B with the least amount of pain. As time passes, these maps reveal much about period styles of illustration, methods of planning, promised developments that never got off the ground, and changes in street names—Lot West Art Crawl, anyone?
In his new book, Historical Atlas of Toronto, Derek Hayes provides commentary for over 300 map excerpts that cover the GTA’s development from the French regime to modern planning controversies. Beyond the evolution of the city’s transportation grid, the illustrations cover topics that include a 19th-century cycling guide of southern York County, plans for Depression-era low-income housing, and satirical cartoons of downtown commuter gripes in the 1950s.
One aspect of mapmaking we may not appreciate as much in the age of Google Maps is the illustrative angle (though fine work continues to be produced in Toronto by artists like Marlena Zuber). This element is prominent throughout the book, especially in chapters relating to the development of new neighbourhoods. Besides providing a visual cue as to what the planned streets would look like, these maps reveal the desires of the builders, whether it was to create a community of teetotalers in Long Branch, or promising buyers in Lawrence Park “a formal and artistic grouping of ideal homes.” Ceremonial events also receive coverage, from special maps produced for the city’s centennial to the opening of subway lines.
While books like Lucy Booth Martyn’s The Face of Early Toronto examine maps from specific periods in the city’s history, Historical Atlas of Toronto offers a handy one-stop shopper’s guide for researchers looking for a place to start digging into archival sources and a visual feast for those interested in the region’s past.
Map of Long Branch, Summer Resort Lot No 9, Broken Front Concession, Etobicoke, Villa Lots for Villa Residences, Summer Cottages, Etc. Unwin, Browne & Sankey, 1887, from the Toronto Public Library.


  • CanadianSkeezix

    I’m glad to see this book promoted. I stumbled across it at the bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and spent hours at home pouring over it. It’s fantastic.

  • davidcreed

    I agree, it’s a lovely book. And the history includes 20th century plans for public transit and improving traffic patterns (the cross town expressway for example).

  • TokyoTuds

    I love a good map, and I think we rely too much on Google maps. Important maps should be custom drawn for special purposes. This one of Long Branch is a beautiful example.
    Nothing brings down the beauty of a lovely website than an embedded Google map.

  • rek

    Tokyo – I can see your point, but if you want to pan around or zoom, Google’s already got it. A custom-drawn map would take too much effort in that department, and the competitors to Google Maps are atrocious.

  • TokyoTuds

    Rek, I agree. For utilitarian needs, Google maps are hard to beat. If the map above were a website, I’d rather see this custom map, and then a nicely designed button directing you to the Google map if the viewer needs it. It is the embedded Google map that shatters the spell all too often.