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Historicist: The Horse’s Reign

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

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.


  • wklis

    With automobiles, there was less demand for horses. However, less demand did not produce a greater supply of horses. So where are the resulting great supply of horses?

    Same will happen should people all become vegetarians. It will not result in a great increase in supply of cattle, pigs, chickens, or sheep because there is a reduction in demand. The supply will also go down.

  • Rora

    Lovely article. Wonder what it would have been like to have an emotional attachment to your transportation?

    • OgtheDim

      You don’t name your car?

  • rich1299

    On the SE corner of Lake Shore and 5th St. in New Toronto there used to be a cast iron horse watering fountain. It was quite attractive but apparently wasn’t functional as a fountain so the local BIA decided to get it fixed and operate it as a fountain again. That was 4-5 years ago and that fountain still hasn’t returned, instead they use a plain old water pump to shoot a stream of water into the air. In winter they mount a Christmas tree over it. I can’t imagine why its taking so long to fix the old fountain and figure they decided it was just cheaper to scrap it or store it. The stand alone pump in a pool of water looks so cheap in comparison to the previous horse watering fountain. Even if it didn’t work it was still attractive and charming.

    I’ve no idea why a BIA should be allowed to determine which historical aspects of a neighbourhood remain and which are scrapped. Surely the people who actually live in a neighbourhood should have more say over it than those who only come to work there for 8 hours then return as quickly as possible to their own neighbourhoods.

  • horse’s advocate

    Then: “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.”

    And now: “The age of the urban (automobile), however, (is) far from idyllic. Jammed into busy streets, they produce noise, waste, and a potential danger to passersby if (the driver) is startled.”

  • TomLuTon

    One other interesting thing about horses and Toronto: The Horse Flu epidemic in 1872 that helped trigger the panic of 1873 began in the GTA.

  • Animal Lover

    It was the plight of these workhorses that led to the creation of the Toronto Humane Society. In 1887 there were only six drinking fountains for horses in all of Toronto. THS worked to secure hundreds of drinking fountains, stop the overloading of streetcars and wagons, and improve the quality of life for working horses.

    The pictures may be idyllic, but life for the poor animals was far from it.