Historicist: Cartographic Civic Pride

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Historicist: Cartographic Civic Pride

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


For three years, P. A. Gross walked every avenue, street, lane, and alley from Fort York to the Don River, north through Rosedale, Yorkville, and beyond, to produce this 1876 Bird’s-Eye View of Toronto. In his rambles, he sketched every shop, dwelling, and factory in Toronto—14,000 private and public buildings in all—with “a faithfulness and a minuteness that excites astonishment and admiration in all beholders,” according to Illustrated Toronto (1877), a guidebook published to accompany the map. Once completed, the individual images resulting from Gross’ painstaking survey of the city were stitched together to show the entire city from above and lithographed by Copp, Clark & Co. Limited.
In the late nineteenth century, communities founded mere decades earlier were booming and, as Alan Morantz writes in Where is Here? (Penguin Canada, 2002), wanted “to show the larger world just how well they were doing. Maps were the tangible way to illustrate these new stirrings of identity.” A veritable mania arose to have urban centres depicted as bird’s-eye (or panoramic) maps.
Civic pride was evident in the guidebook’s boasts: “Toronto is vigorous in its growth, extending its borders on all sides, and rapidly undergoing a transformation which is fast placing it in the foremost rank of cities noted for their wealth and beauty.” Along with the business profiles in Illustrated Toronto, the richly detailed map—a full-size version of which is available online at the University of Toronto’s Map and Data Library—presents a fascinating snapshot of the 1876 streetscape and the city’s economic aspirations.


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G.D. Morse, soap works. Lithographic Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.


The guidebook makes little mention of Gross, apart from calling him “the artist and delineator” of this monumental work. Like most bird’s-eye map makers, Gross does not appear in biographical dictionaries of the day which, according to Edward Phelps in Barbara Farrell and Aileen Desbarats’ Explorations in the History of Canadian Mapping (Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, 1988), were often weighted towards historical or literary writers, not artists. So, little is known of Gross, but most bird’s-eye map makers were itinerant artists who traveled from community to community, plying their specialized craft.
Such map projects followed a common business strategy. In advance of the painstaking field work, salesmen (or sometimes the artists themselves) descended on a given town, seeking subscribers to bankroll the project. Businessmen and industrialists willingly paid fees as a means of advertising—in this case, getting illustrations of their establishments in the map’s border and in the accompanying guidebook. Local residents, as a St. Thomas newspaper said of another Ontario bird’s-eye, were encouraged to subscribe to receive it as a piece of art “fit to hang in a parlor, drawing room or office.” Once enough subscribers ensured the enterprise’s profitability, the artist set to work.

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College (now University) Avenue and Queen’s Park. Lithographic Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.


Bird’s-eye maps, Morantz states, “were among the most labour-intensive maps produced,” and a difficult undertaking before aerial photography. First, the artist would decide the orientation of the map—an aerial vantage point from which the city was viewed at an oblique angle. Then, he would sketch each building while facing the right direction to maintain that imagined vantage point. Toronto was carefully plotted by British surveyors as a grid of straight roads and right angles, and made for a much easier task than more organically laid-out cities like Quebec City.
Like many bird’s-eyes, however, the Toronto map appears to suffer an artist’s awkward application of linear perspective, with multiple vanishing points located beyond (rather than at) the horizon. “It is not that the artists were ignorant of the rules of perspective,” John Reps wrote in Views and Viewmakers of Urban America (University of Missouri Press, 1984), “what they did was bend the rules in the interest of commerce.” Fitting more identifiable businesses onto the map meant greater profits.

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Home of John Hallam, from Illustrated Toronto (1877).

Catering predominantly to a market of locals meant accuracy was of the utmost importance. Street names and their layouts had to be correct. The buildings, businesses, and landmarks were portrayed with such detail that, according to the St. Thomas newspaper, stone, brick, and wood-framed buildings could be distinguished from each other. While bird’s-eyes were not technically precise—like a modern road map’s concentration on accurate scale and distances—these maps gave viewers a sense of familiarity.
Art could also bend to civic boosterism. Cities wished to be depicted as booming and prosperous as a means of attracting further commerce, immigrant labour, or tourists, so bird’s-eye maps were frequently embellished. Local landmarks would be enlarged. The harbour would be full of cargo-laden ships (as it is here). Billows of smoke were often shown wafting from smokestacks of thriving factories or industrial works. Proposed buildings were commonly depicted as fully constructed on some maps.
Free of many of the worst sort of these embellishments, the Toronto map, according to Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Toronto (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), “appears to be reasonably accurate for its date.” The map’s abundance of detailed information makes it an engrossing image of the city in 1876.
The business district was still centered east of Yonge Street, but expanding westward. King Street was the best address in town for the retail trade, while Front and Wellington streets were built up with wholesale operations of every description.

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Provincial Lunatic Asylum and Trinity College on Queen Street West. Lithographic Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.


Along Queen West, the main artery to the western fringe of the city, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum stood on the south side, while Trinity College was still located in Bellwoods. Nearby, Garrison Creek was exposed—as were most of the city’s now-lost rivers—and still a decade away from being bricked up as a sewer. Further west, Parkdale was becoming populated, suggesting a new breed of suburban idyll, but still a few years away from being incorporated.
In 1876, the east end was the place to live. Soap maker G.D. Morse’s grand house was located on Wilton Crescent (which would become part of the redesigned, continuous Dundas Street decades later ). John Hallam, a leather merchant, who would become the first chair of the Toronto Public Library in 1883, lived at Isabella and Huntley streets in a fine, Gothic house surrounded by a conservatory of exotic plants. H.S. Howland lived in, according to Illustrated Toronto, an “artistically laid out and very spacious” house surrounded by trees and shrubbery on Sherbourne between Carlton and Wellesley.
The pleasantness of a promenade in this posh residential neighbourhood was matched only by the one along College (now University) Avenue, a broad drive lined with English chestnuts and Canadian maples and bordered by pedestrian paths. The guidebook called this boulevard “one of the finest in the Dominion, or perhaps on the American continent.” Its terminus, Queen’s Park, was still simply a park. The Parliament buildings, located on Front Street, between John and Simcoe, had a row of trees to compensate for the legislature’s view of rail yards and commercial wharves. Nearby, the second Union Station was an imposing building erected in 1873 with a central tower of one hundred and seventy feet, and two flanking towers one hundred feet tall. It was, Illustrated Toronto argues “the finest, most convenient, and best appointed station in the Dominion of Canada.”

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Parliament Buildings and the second Union Station. Lithographic Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.


The cluster of five railways may have cut off the city from its waterfront, but proximity to these rail lines proved advantageous for area businesses. Being situated next to the Grand Truck Railway near the Don River, for example, allowed G.D. Morse & Company to produce and ship 1,000 boxes of laundry soap—as well as toilet soaps, candles, and lard oil—per week across the Dominion and the continent. Further up the river, industry on the Don included breweries and paper mills.

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Christie, Brown & Company, Biscuit Manufacturers. Lithographic Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.


While the map recreates the 1876 streetscape, Illustrated Toronto provides a tour of the city’s interiors. J. Timperlake, who compiled the book, stepped into each establishment profiled, giving dimensions and descriptions of every room. At Duke (now Adelaide) and Frederick streets, Timperlake entered the sample room of the Christie, Brown & Co. Biscuit Manufacturers, which was filled with almost countless varieties of the company’s award-winning cookies. From the sample room, he walked through to the counting house and private offices, then on to the shipping department, and into the steam-powered biscuit factory. The tone of the author’s description of the factory floor reveals the allure industry held in the 1870s:

Here [the visitor’s movement] is restricted, for he is surrounded with wheels, straps, shafts, and machinery of all kinds, yet everything is so arranged that the various employees of the establishment can attend to their many duties without the least apparent clash…as the dough passes from one machine to another in regular succession until it reaches the ovens, of which there are two of the reel construction, and one revolution of these ovens bakes the goods, when they pass by means of a steam hoist to the top storey to be packed into boxes.

In just twenty years, William Mellis Christie‘s company rose from being a small-scale hand production operation to a steam-powered factory. This rapid development was the very sort of enterprising spirit the Toronto’s boosters wanted to promote.
An incredible source for local history buffs, “[t]he map is a significant historical record,” as Hayes puts it, “and it gives us a good idea of the breadth of the commercialization and industrialization of the city by 1876.”

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