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The Oldest Known Photos of Toronto

Images of Toronto in its colonial infancy, taken more than 150 years ago.


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.

Step inside our photo gallery for a glimpse of some of Toronto’s major landmarks a decade before Confederation, along with a little history of them.

Additional material from 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. A hat tip to Reddit for bringing these images to our attention.


  • andrew97

    These are great. Thanks for posting.

  • Jeff Low

    Very neat. Succinct and needed.

  • W. K. Lis

    Early photographs usually had a very long exposure time. People had to be braced to hold their heads or bodies still during the exposure. Since it was hard to hold a smile for a long time without moving, most portraits showed stern or blank looks.

    Since the exposure time was long, outdoor photographs tended to result in people disappearing from the street scenes. Only people standing or waiting during the time exposure, maybe talking to each other, may appear. Sometimes, the arms or faces ended up being blurred, if people did turn up in the photos.

  • tomwest

    Almost all demolished now…

  • Patrick_Metzger

    Terrific pics. I bet Queen Victoria couldn’t get enough of them.

  • Marla Waltman

    The ‘archivist’ who found the photographs in England was Joan Schwartz, a photo historian who teaches at Queen’s and used to work for Library and Archives Canada. It was an incredible find.

  • Hwan Hong

    For the lazy, here’s a lazy google-mapping of these places:

    • Melina Stathopoulos


  • Andrew Phillips

    Thanks very much, ex-Torontonian here, I live in Whitehorse, YT now. I am a big fan of old cityscapes.

  • seemsArtless

    I’ve geo-tagged a few of these photos in the past, but didn’t realize until now that they were all part of a set. I’ve added them to along with other historic photos from the same area. Thanks!

  • JoshieFreshie

    I wonder what Grand Electric looked like back then? Or even Pizza Libretto?

  • robo

    If only TO’s historical buildings had not been demolished what an attraction it would offer to rival most any city in N. America. Instead hopes rest on cheap thrills and a justification for a trip to Niagara.

  • Hunky69

    Walk along Yonge Street – same ugly buidings…