Happy Birthday, Historicist!
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Happy Birthday, Historicist!

Our weekend history column marks its fifth year of telling Toronto's stories.

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Over the past half decade, two transplants to our metropolis and one lifelong Torontonian have been working to uncover the events, places, and characters that shaped Toronto into the city we know today. Now, Historicist, our weekly history column, has reached its fifth anniversary.

Starting with the tale of the “Old Lady of Melinda Street” on April 19, 2008, Historicist has presented over 250 glimpses into Toronto’s past. Every weekend, we dispel the misguided notion that our city’s history is dull. We’ve striven to provide interesting glimpses into stories that can be enlightening, entertaining, head-spinning, inspiring, or tragic.

Torontoist largely gives us (that is, the Historicist writers: Jamie Bradburn, Kevin Plummer, and David Wencer) carte blanche to investigate and write about any topic we happen to find interesting, however minor or mundane the subject matter may seem. The editors take it on faith that if we find it interesting, readers will, too.

We’re always conscious of the need to make our columns representative of Toronto’s history, and so we’ve tried to cover events that reflect the city’s broad geography and cultural diversity. Achieving this can be challenging, partly because it’s sometimes difficult locating appropriate images that we have permission to publish—particularly when it comes to post-1950s topics. Archives and libraries with Toronto-related materials thankfully realize the value in consistently adding to their digitized collections, and those additions often inspire us to cover certain topics.

We feel we’ve played a significant role in popularizing Toronto history for a wide audience. We’ve also built strong relationships with respected local historians, community groups, and archival institutions, all of which recognize the care we apply to our work.

After Historicist got its start, it quickly became apparent to us that we were filling a void once occupied by mainstream news outlets, whose history columns had vanished or decreased in frequency. We’ve learned of university courses that have listed our articles in their syllabuses, and have been flattered by other writers who have followed our lead. All of this makes our efforts to produce accessible pieces worth the sleepless nights we endure researching and writing them.

Another rewarding aspect of writing Historicist is hearing from family members of people we’ve discussed. Kevin has heard from relatives of cartoonist George Feyer, politician William Peyton Hubbard, and Miss Toronto pageant winner Billie Hallam, while Jamie has received notes from the families of Toros owner Johnny Bassett, discrimination target Harry Gairey Jr., and Great Fire of 1904 victim John Croft. We’ve even occasionally been acknowledged by the subjects of our pieces, like when we got a hat tip from Toronto Sun founding editor Peter Worthington. We enjoy hearing from people interested in our columns. Sometimes, we wish we’d gotten in touch with them during our research, for their anecdotes or quirky asides.

Readers sometimes reach out with suggestions for future topics. On occasion, we’ve been able to follow through, although sometimes the suggestions, while intriguing, don’t fit our schedule. But input is always welcomed and appreciated. We also build columns around issues related to current events, like election campaigns or the 2010 G20 summit.

Things don’t always go smoothly. Each of us has had ideas collapse as deadlines neared, or watched the clock run out before we could shape a story in the way we’d intended. Only once in five years has one of us accidentally tried to write about something that had already been covered in a previous installment.

And then there are the stories that sit on each of our backburners, slowly simmering away as they await the right moment to appear on Torontoist.

We’d like to thank our editors over the years (including former editor-in-chief David Topping, who suggested that we write a weekly column) for providing a venue for us to share our passion for the city’s past with readers. We thank the many copy editors who have pored through our feature-length posts, refining our words and spotting typos we made at four in the morning. Most of all, we thank you, the reader, for your continuing interest and support.

To mark our anniversary, we’ve assembled some links to some of our favourite columns. Click through the image gallery to see them.