Historicist: Our Favourites of 2015



Historicist: Our Favourites of 2015

From Paul Godfrey's origin story to Toronto's grave robbers, we share our favourite Historicist instalments from 2015.

Welcome to 2016! We’ll be back next week with a shiny new history column. Meanwhile, with 2015 itself now a part of history, we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at some of our favourite Historicist columns from the past year.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve covered a variety of episodes from Toronto’s past, with stories relating to political events, city planning, sports, entertainment, local businesses, and several of the many cultural groups and identities represented in Toronto. This past June, in recognition of National Aboriginal History Month, we put together a series of columns related to our city’s under-reported First Nations history.

Thank you, as always, to the libraries and archives that have helped make our research and writing and possible, and to you, our readers. We hope you’ve enjoyed Historicist this past year–and we especially hope you like what we have for you in 2016.

Below, you can find links to seven of our favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full archive of last year’s Historicist columns here.

The Credit Village
Sketch of the Old Credit Mission showing School and Council House at left, Church in centre, and Peter Jones' first house at right. Atop the flagpole is a small house where martins could nest. From Egerton Ryerson's The Story of My Life (W  Briggs, 1883)

Sketch of the Old Credit Mission showing School and Council House at left, Church in centre, and Peter Jones’ first house at right. Atop the flagpole is a small house where martins could nest. From Egerton Ryerson’s The Story of My Life (W. Briggs, 1883)

The Mississaugas’ thriving agricultural village on the Credit River, 1826-1847.

“We found ourselves on an elevated plateau, cleared of wood,” J.E. Alexander, a British officer, recorded of his visit to the Credit village, a First Nations settlement, in about 1830. “And with three rows of detached cottages, among fields surrounded with rail fences; below, a clear stream, abounding in fish, rushed over its rocky bed to join the waters of Lake Ontario. We rode into the open space in the centre of the village, and found…a pole, on which fluttered the Union Jack: on the top was a small house for the martens [sic] to build in, whose presence is considered fortunate [among the Mississaugas] in Canada.”

Founded in 1826 on the hill above the western bank of the Credit River—where the Mississaugua Golf and Country Club is now located—the village marked the Credit Mississaugas’ transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and commerce. By the late 1830s, the village consisted of about 40 log and frame houses with well-manicured gardens, a Methodist church, a two-storey Mission House, and a school connected by a wood-plank sidewalk along the road running through town. Beginning with raising corn, wheat, oats, and vegetables as well as livestock, the community had become self-sustaining, with locals operating a blacksmith’s shop, a carpenter’s workshop, several stores, two sawmills, as well as shipping facilities and boats at the lakefront.

Read full article here.

(Kevin Plummer)

Body Snatchers, Grave Robbers, and Night Ghouls

The second-floor dissecting room of the Toronto School of Medicine’s Richmond Street building, showing: (1) Dr. John King, (2) Dr. George De Grassi, (3) Tom Hays, a lecturer at the school, (4) Old Ned, the janitor of the dissecting room, (5) Dr. W.W. [Billy] Francis of Toronto. Bernard Joseph Gloster, “Toronto School of Medicine, dissecting room, Richmond St. W., north side, between Yonge & Bay Sts.; interior, showing staff, 1856. Toronto Public Library, B 10-19a.

A look at 19th-century medical students and doctors who dug up local graves, and how Toronto responded.

The sound of honking geese jolted him awake. It was 2 a.m. on February 27, 1850.

Jacob Cummer Jr. looked out his door. There, in the moonlight, he saw a stranger tossing a goose into a wagon as the several other occupants started driving it south down Yonge Street.

Thinking his geese were being stolen, Jacob got dressed and went across the road to his son’s place. Soon, Jacob, Joseph, and one of Jacob’s workmen saddled up and rode south. As they closed in on the thieves near the tollgate at Hogg’s Hollow, someone tossed the goose out of the wagon. It was dead. The Cummers soon caught up to the culprits and counted eight of them. One, whom Jacob recognized, shouted a stream of abuse. He was a young medical student. What Jacob did not immediately recognize was that this student was also a grave robber.

Read full article here.

(Ross Fair)

The Legacy of John Chambers, Toronto’s First Parks Commissioner

The Globe, November 28, 1907.

A look back at the grandfather of Toronto’s parks, whose legacy was obscured by shoddy bookkeeping.

In the cold of March, during the final days of a 1907-08 investigation against him and his department, Toronto’s first Parks Commissioner, John Chambers, took the stand to present his case. Chambers was charged with breach of trust and misconduct at the tail end of a civic parks career that had begun 23 years earlier. By the time he reached the stand, he fell on his sword and resigned. Skewered by journalists and the public alike, the ex-Commissioner was weak in health but persisted in his attempt to solidify his legacy, arguing that “the books were kept in bad shape, but the parks were not.”

Read full article here.

(Kaitlin Wainwright)

Hometown Rivals

Crowd at a boxing match, Maple Leaf Gardens, ca. 1940s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7518.

Before the Pan Am Games, boxers Sammy Luftspring and Frankie Genovese gave Toronto world-class competition.

In the 13th round, the advantage had swung to the hard-hitting “Sockin’ Sammy” Luftspring, but as they stared each other down in the boxing ring, Canadian welterweight champion Frankie Genovese wouldn’t relent. Genovese had started strong, with his characteristic aggressiveness, harassing Luftspring with left jabs. Now, only his “instinctive fighting nature kept him going,” as one reporter noted. Time and again, he was knocked to the mat that round; and time and again, he staggered to his feet to face his bitter rival.

Read full article here.

(Kevin Plummer)

The Right Side of History

The Toronto Star has some fun with the pedestrian regulations in the new traffic bylaw. Note that the suggestion that pedestrians use hand signals to indicate an intention to turn was a joke. The Toronto Star, October 31, 1944.

The regulations for pedestrians in Toronto’s 1944 traffic bylaw make the city a national laughingstock.

In the autumn of 1944, Toronto City Council considered an updated traffic bylaw for approval. After the first two readings, the proposed bylaw was held two weeks for further consideration, after several Toronto aldermen took issue with the section pertaining to pedestrians. Of particular interest was a regulation that “pedestrians proceeding in opposite directions shall pass each other on the right, and no person shall run or race on any highway or crowd or jostle other pedestrians so as to cause disturbance, discomfort, or confusion.” Days later, Toronto found itself a source of national—and international—ridicule.

Read full article here.

(David Wencer)

Patrick Macnee, Before the Bowler

Catching up with Patrick Macnee. The Toronto Star, March 15, 1958.

A budding star finds opportunities on stage and screen in 1950s Toronto.

In 1952, 30-year-old Patrick Macnee arrived in Toronto with less than 10 pounds in his pocket and checked into a downtown YMCA. The struggling actor had found limited opportunities in his native England, and had come to Toronto on a promise of regular employment and pay at the CBC’s new television unit. Macnee would hone his craft in Toronto, working in numerous radio and television productions and appearing in local theatrical productions, before gaining international fame as John Steed in The Avengers.

Read full article here.

(David Wencer)

“Sip ‘n Sex”–Paul Godfrey’s Origin
Cartoon, the Enterprise, July 13, 1966

Cartoon, the Enterprise, July 13, 1966.

Paul Godfrey battles the menace of rowdy teens at drive-in restaurants in mid-1960s suburbia.

“Sex-and-snacks draw fire.” “Bra and bottles litter lawns.” “North York fears another Yorkville.” Mid-1960s headlines such as these suggested the end of Western civilization for the upstanding, hard-working taxpayers of North York.

The roots of such decadence? Your friendly neighbourhood hamburger stand. The mix of angry residents, youth gone wild, and ambitious local politicians created hysteria in some quarters over the monitoring of drive-in restaurants in suburban Toronto. Leading the charge against this terror? None other than future Metro Chairman and media mogul Paul Godfrey.

Read full article here.

(Jamie Bradburn)

I Sing The Body Politic
Cover, The Body Politic, Winter 1974

Cover, The Body Politic, Winter 1974.

As Xtra winds down its print edition, a look at the pioneering gay journal that spawned it.

The year 1971 was critical for Toronto’s gay community. The federal decriminalization of homosexuality two years earlier, combined with the general spirit of 1960s activism, opened discussions on a taboo topic. In 1971, the city saw its first local performance of The Boys in the Band, a gay picnic at Hanlan’s Point, which served as the ancestor for Pride; the first gay-studies course offered by a Canadian university, presented at York; and the inaugural meetings for two activist organizations—the social-services minded Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) and the more radical Toronto Gay Alliance (TGA).

Amid these happenings, hawkers hit the streets on October 28, 1971, to launch a new publication. For the cost of a quarter, readers flipped through the debut of The Body Politic (TBP), a journal dedicated to “gay liberation.” Over the next decade and a half, TBP provoked controversy and legal battles as it attempted to look at the intellectual, political, sexual, and social issues of its community.

Read full article here.

(Jamie Bradburn)

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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