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Nostalgia tripping via old Toronto postcards

Posted by Derek Flack / March 5, 2010

Old Toronto PostcardsOld postcards of Toronto might just provide me with the perfect way to satisfy my nostalgic desires for a glimpse of this city's history. And when they depict buildings that still exist, their power is all the more palpable, offering my limited imagination a picture of the past in the present.

I wasn't, of course, around to experience the Toronto of these images (unlike my last entry on the 70s and 80s), but somehow they still inspire longing. Both foreign and familiar, I'm caught wanting to travel to this contradictory "place."

Yet, it'd be silly to call this desire inauthentic -- the force of nostalgia always rests upon an idealized and fictional version of the past. And that's why postcards are such an apt vehicle for this sentiment. They are always already an "improved" version of the place they depict and thus act as something of an advertisement for their subject matter. "Come here," they say, "it's beautiful" or "intriguing" or "idyllic."

So they foster desire -- and not just for the place in question, but for the person sending the postcard as well, who's often separated from the receiver by great distances. And it strikes me that this spatial relationship is rather similar to the one we encounter when we look at postcards that pre-date us. Now separated by time, these images are perhaps the very essence of nostalgia, presenting a version of life that seems simpler, tidier, and above all, more innocent.

But enough theorizing. One of the reasons that I like looking at these "artifacts" is that I think they're cool, plain and simple.

Here are a few of my favourites, featuring the postcard and a Google Street View image of what the scene looks like now. I'll be doing a follow up post with more postcards and information about where to find extensive collections of these vintage Toronto scenes.

Avenue and Bloor, postcard circa 1901Old Postcard Toronto VintageAvenue Road and Bloor

Broadview and Gerrard, postcard circa 1910Old Toronto PostcardBroadview and Gerrard

Confederation Life Building, postcard circa 1912Old Toronto PostcardsConfederation Life Building Toronto

McMaster University (now the Royal Conservatory of Music), postcard circa 1906Old Toronto PostcardRoyal Conservatory of Music Toronto

Sherbourne and Carlton, postcard circa 1910Old Toronto PostcardSherbourne and Carlton

Simpson's Building at Queen and Yonge (now the Bay), postcard circa 1908Vintage Toronto PostcardThe Bay Toronto

Looking north on Spadina at Queen, postcard circa 1909Vintage Toronto PostcardsSpadina and Queen Toronto

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, postcard circa 1913Vintage Toronto PostcardSt, Andrew's Church Toronto

Carnegie Library (now the U of T bookstore), postcard circa 1910Old Toronto PostcardsU of T bookstore

King and Queen by Roncesvalles, postcard circa 1900Toronto Postcard VintageKing and Queen Street

The postcards found above were sourced from the Wikimedia Commons.



Matt P / March 5, 2010 at 11:17 am
Great piece!
Tanja / March 5, 2010 at 11:23 am
Nice set.
I think you have the last one backwards where they are looking at Queen & King streets and you are facing Queensway & Roncesvalles.
Derek replying to a comment from Tanja / March 5, 2010 at 11:32 am
Yup, I was missing the "way." Thanks...
DS / March 5, 2010 at 11:37 am
Isn't the junction of King and Queen located east of Yonge?
Langford / March 5, 2010 at 11:40 am
Awesome Derek. Great compilation.
Marek / March 5, 2010 at 11:42 am
Remarkable Post.

The second one of the church on bloor has the most dramatic difference. From peaceful to chaotic
Elizabeth / March 5, 2010 at 12:03 pm
Where is that Confederation Life building located? It looks familiar but I can't remember where it is. Great post! I'd read this weekly or monthly. I love old photos/postcards/images/maps. Thanks!
Derek replying to a comment from DS / March 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm
Yes, King and Queen meet on both sides of the city. Here's a Google map of the junction featured above:
cocoa / March 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm
lol, everyone jaywalked across spadina back then too

great post
Kris(tine) / March 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm
Wonderful stuff. Though I must say the streetview of Ihnatowycz Hall (The Royal Conservatory) doesn't do it any justice. Easily one of my favourite 19th Century buildings in T.O.

I love the link you make between spatial distance and the distance of time! Now if only I could send a postcard of the Libeskind Crystal to the ROM architects in 1914...
Zaira replying to a comment from cocoa / March 5, 2010 at 12:37 pm

this is more accurate, actually. but the same corner.
Zaira replying to a comment from Derek / March 5, 2010 at 12:40 pm
a frig, that didn't work at all. the last post was not to be directed at coco.

you weren't missing "way" the post card says queen & king, which it is facing. the link above shows the street view for the corner the post card is actually looking at and shows the same building.
Derek replying to a comment from Zaira / March 5, 2010 at 12:57 pm
Yes! Thank you for spotting that! I was confused by the streetcar tracks for some reason. I've changed the Street View image to reflect this correction. Cheers.
Manny / March 5, 2010 at 01:11 pm
I love this stuff! Can't wait for more like this.
pbryden / March 5, 2010 at 01:15 pm
It's the plethora of overhead wires that strikes me as the most unsightly characteristic. Great comparison piece.
MattB / March 5, 2010 at 01:32 pm
These are neat.

There's a huge collection of photos showing old & new Toronto at ( Two hundred plus pages of great stuff. Addictive.
fig / March 5, 2010 at 01:50 pm
Very enjoyable read. Thanks Derek!
Tolly / March 5, 2010 at 02:23 pm
Thanks for this. Spadina looks pretty similar, but I'd like to destroy that Pepsi sign and return to the old Queensway/Roncesvalle intersection.
themattzmith / March 5, 2010 at 02:28 pm
The first shot of Ave/Bloor is incredible. Love these types of posts guys, keep it up!
Torontonian replying to a comment from DS / March 5, 2010 at 02:35 pm
Yes, indeed. Queen and King meet at the slope leading up to the bridge across the Don River.

Go to Google Maps and type in 530 King St. E. Toronto ON
and the map will show the convergence a little further
east of that address.
Torontonian replying to a comment from Elizabeth / March 5, 2010 at 02:38 pm
The Confederation Life building is on the north side
of Richmond St. East. It spans the length from Yonge
to Victoria Street.
Bubba / March 5, 2010 at 03:43 pm
It would be nice if Google incorporate these old images into their satellite images and allow the option of a historical view of a location. Just a thought. But I have always liked these type of posts on here it just gives me deeper understanding of how Toronto has evolved as a city.

Hope to see more of these!
Chester Pape / March 5, 2010 at 03:53 pm
Two comments about copyright

a) just because it came from Wikimedia Commons doesn't exactly mean "not copyrighted", it means "freely usable" which encompasses a lot of options in terms of licensing and it's possible that what you have here is CC licensed in a manner that you are violating here (unlikely but possible)

b) I'm pretty much 100% certain you are violating copyright on the Google streetview pics.
Derek / March 5, 2010 at 04:09 pm
You're correct that just because they're from the Commons doesn't mean they're copyright free, but the copyright has, indeed, expired on these images -- as you should be able to easily figure out from their dates! From the source:

"This Canadian work is in the public domain in Canada because its copyright has expired due to one of the following:

1. it was subject to Crown copyright and was first published more than 50 years ago, or
it was not subject to Crown copyright, and
2. it is a photograph that was created prior to January 1, 1949, or
3. the creator died more than 50 years ago."

As for the Google Street View captures, I've attributed the images to the company -- and I'm quite confident that their open-information policies are commensurate with use in this way.
Chester Pape / March 5, 2010 at 06:57 pm
My complaint about the postcards was mostly really about the lazy writing. You said because A therefore B, when in fact it's because of C that B is true.

As for Google, you really ought to check their terms, at least your attribution is insufficient as they expect specific wording
Jen replying to a comment from Matt P / March 5, 2010 at 07:28 pm
Derek, this is great--fantastic shots, and some thoughtful commentary. I have some great postcards of the Don I can send your way--tougher to compare intersections, but the contrast is pretty remarkable.
seanm replying to a comment from Elizabeth / March 5, 2010 at 07:50 pm
It's situated on the northeast corner of Richmond and Yonge Sts., and runs the length of the entire block to Richmond and Victoria. It's a massive and impressive building that somehow manages to get lost in the mix.

That poor building wedged in between King and Queen has certainly had a rough life. Like many 19th century Victorians in Toronto, it's been beheaded and stripped of some ornamentation. I hope to one day see many of these buildings significantly renovated back to their original state. Look closely at the Confederation Life Building as well, even its main tower has been cut down partially (though this was due to the rebuild job after a fire, they didn't quite finish).
Luke replying to a comment from Chester Pape / March 5, 2010 at 09:43 pm
"Mostly, really"? Lazy writing? I'm tired of reading comments on this site from dicks. I thought this post was an enjoyable read, and the fact that you don't understand the function of the comma in the writer's attribution note disqualifies you from commenting on writing. And that's not even to mention the fact that you don't know enough about copyright to realize immediately that the postcards are public domain. Note this well: no one needs to protect Google when it comes to copyright ; they are the some of the worst offenders that you could care to find. Comments like yours are why Toronto has a reputation for being a city of assholes.
Randy / March 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm
Terrific! I LOVE the fact you folks are keeping Toronto history alive.

By the way, there is also a cool image of the old Don Jail from across the river (taken exactly 100 years ago!) at the very bottom of a link at;threadid=43667
sue norman / March 7, 2010 at 02:12 am
Great job, Derek. It has always saddened me to see great old buildings torn down, which, unlike Europe, Toronto does often.
Thanks for reminding us that there is still some wonderful "old bones " out there. And, yes, I would rather see the buildings without all those unsightly wires hung in the sky !!
Julie replying to a comment from Tanja / March 29, 2010 at 02:11 pm
No, he has the pictures right. The Coffee Time is on the SE corner of Queen/Roncies, or, the NW corner of King and Roncies.
You can tell that the buildings shown are the same.
Derek replying to a comment from Julie / March 29, 2010 at 02:19 pm
Actually Tanja was correct -- and because of her and another commenter's good eye, the photo was changed to accurately reflect the scene depicted in the postcard. Mention of the switch is made above... Thanks for reading.
Eugene Zhilinsky @ Editions Tchai / March 31, 2010 at 11:44 pm
We've printed a unique set of Toronto postcards recently. If interested please have a look at our on-line shop here:
It's a set of 7 postcards - best illustrations from our Toronto Graffiti book, Glossy Cardstock 5"X7" Offset. ISBN 978-0-9784952-5-1 - comes with its original envelope-cover.
We also plan to print additional number of postcards soon.
Thank you for your time and feel free to write us of any requirements.
Eugene Zhilinsky @ ET
Ellenburstyn / April 1, 2010 at 03:46 am
Just a thought. But I have always liked these type of posts on here it just gives me deeper understanding of how Toronto has evolved as a city.

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Keith / January 25, 2011 at 11:17 pm
Thank you, this is a really good post.
Keith / January 25, 2011 at 11:57 pm
BTW: look at this image (and compare to postcard 2):
So not only nowadays photographers have to "photoshop" wires out, 100 years ago, they already had the same problem!
Sharifa / February 14, 2014 at 09:44 pm
This is the stuff I love. And I LOVE how the present pictures are posted after it. Saves me the trouble of looking it up myself!!
VicTO / April 20, 2014 at 09:54 pm
Derek, as always your posts are awesome! I was wondering where you got the postcard images from ?
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