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culture

Historicist: The Horse’s Reign

At the turn of the 20th century, urban life moved at the pace of the horse.

Horse-drawn streetcar in Weston, November 1925. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6724.

With over 7,400 horses living and working in Toronto by 1891, the city streets were filled with horses, and their presence was essential to urban life. Carriage horses bore wealthy citizens around town while common folks boarded horse-drawn streetcars. Workhorses hauled freight from the railway to businesses and delivered goods to homes. They laboured on work sites and hauled waste away. Without horses, police officers and firefighters would’ve strained to fulfil their duties.

In a piece reprinted in Culled From Our Columns (Longmans, 1962) shortly after his death, long-time Globe and Mail columnist J.V. McAree reminisced nostalgically: “At a time when, as it seemed nearly every fourth citizen had a horse, the number of those who valued and recognized a good horse was naturally much larger than it is today, when not many more citizens own horses than own camels. Let no one believe that when the horse and buggy passed, something lovely and almost holy did not pass with them.” The age of the urban horse, however, was far from idyllic. Jammed into busy streets, they produced noise, waste, and a potential danger to passersby if startled.

Within decades of the advent of the automobile, McAree complained Torontonians had forgotten what coach whips, hames collars, martingales, and snaffle bits were. “In other words,” he wrote mournfully, “the horse is a stranger to hundreds of thousands of them, and it is hard for them to imagine a time when all the work that is now done by automobiles and trucks was done by horses.”

Sources consulted include: Sixty Golden Years…1915-1975: The Story of Motoring in Ontario (Ontario Motor League-Nickel Belt Club, 1975); Stephen Davies, “Reckless Walking Must be Discouraged: The Automobile Revolution and the Shaping of Modern Urban Canada to 1930,” Urban History Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (October 1989); Paul Huntley, City Dairy Toronto (Paul Huntley, 2011); John Joseph Kelso, Early History of the Humane and Children’s Aid Movement in Ontario, 1886-1893 (1911); Sean Kheraj, “Living and Working with Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto,” in L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank, eds., Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region (L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013); James Lemon, Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985); Clifford Sifton, “Toronto Hunt 1843-1931 Toronto and North York Hunt 1931-1974,” The York Pioneer (1975); and Joel A. Tarr, “Urban Pollution-Many Years Ago,” American Heritage Magazine (October 1971).

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

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