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Vintage signage in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / November 16, 2011

Vintage Signage Honest Ed's TorontoWhat is it about old photographs of cities that we collectively find so compelling? Generally speaking, I'd wager that it's the way that they take the familiar (e.g. contemporary Toronto) and turn it into something strange (historical Toronto). This defamiliarization effect has been one of the guiding principles of modern art since the early part of the 20th century, but its scope stretches far beyond the gallery.

Despite the tinge of recognition that one often gets when viewing old photos of the city he or she calls home, there's so much about these scenes that's different — even when they feature buildings that are still standing. Some easy-to-spot markers of historical difference would be automobile and public transit design, what people are wearing, the architecture, and of course, the signage. Few visual components give photographs that "vintage feel" more than billboards, storefronts and other signs.

I know little about the history or typography and design, but it's not hard to tell that the examples below speak to a different way of thinking — and not just about the way to sell things, but about aesthetics in general. And that's not to mention more pragmatic issues like the availability of electricity. Ornate signage in Toronto reaches something of an apotheosis on the Yonge Street strip in the 1970s and early 1980s before the eventual rise of screen-based technology makes neon and bulb-based signs rather quickly dated.

It's precisely this "dated" quality, however, that's so stimulating to view after the fact. Signs are one of those visual cues that both invoke nostalgia and help us to place images within their respective time periods. Here's a little sample that I've cobbled together from Toronto's last hundred years or so. It really only scratches the surface, so I might toy with more specific themes in future posts.


Vintage Signs TorontoWilliam Davies shop, 1908

Vintage Signs TorontoSandwitches? (1910)

Vintage Signs TorontoNortheast corner, Yonge and Shuter streets, 1912

Vintage Signs TorontoBloor and Russett streets, 1915

Vintage Signs Toronto511 Yonge, 1919

Vintage Signs TorontoMadison Theatre (Annex), 1919 — via Chuckman's blog

Vintage Signs TorontoCyclorama, 1922

Vintage Signs TorontoAds on a Peter Witt streetcar, 1924

Vintage Signs TorontoYork and Front streets, 1925 — via Chuckman's blog

Vintage Signs TorontoSign at horse racetrack, 1930s

Vintage Signs Toronto696-702 College Street, 1939 — via Chuckman's blog

Vintage Signs TorontoMarkham and Queen streets, 1940

Vintage Signs TorontoFruit and vegetable store on Coxwell, 1940

Vintage Signs TorontoCN Telegraph office, 1941

Vintage Signage TorontoChristies billboard, 1942

Vintage Signs TorontoScholes Hotel, 1945

Vintage Signs TorontoNorth side of college, near Bellevue in the 1950s

Vintage Signs Toronto111 and 113 Queen West, 1952

Vintage Signs TorontoPower Grocery Store, Danforth 1953

Vintage Signs TorontoVariety Store on Carlton, 1956

Vintage Signs TorontoLux Burlesque, ca. early 1960s

Vintage Signs TorontoVictory Burlesque, ca. 1960s

Vintage Signs TorontoMaple Leaf Stadium, ca. 1960s

Vintage Ads TorontoTTC bus ads, 1960s

Vintage Signs TorontoSteinberg's grocery store, ca. 1960s

Vintage Signs TorontoTTC route map upon the opening of the Bloor-Danforth line in 1966

Vintage Signs TorontoThe Yonge Street strip, 1970s

Vintage Signs TorontoDifferent angle

Vintage Signs TorontoYonge Street, Imperial theatre 1972

Vintage Signs TorontoYonge & Dundas Square before the square, 1970s

Vintage Signs TorontoSoutheast corner of Yonge & Dundas, 1970s

Vintage Signs TorontoEdgewater Hotel (near Roncesvalles and Queen), 1970s

Vintage Signs TorontoYonge and Queen area, 1970s

Vintage Signs TorontoSt. Patrick's Market (Stork and Sons), early 1980s

Vintage Signs TorontoQueen & Bay, 1980

Vintage Signs TorontoThe Eaton Centre Cineplex, CA. 1990s

Photos from the Toronto Archives unless otherwise noted, with the exception of some of the postcards (of whose origin I'm unaware) and the last shot of Eaton Centre, which comes via Silent Toronto.



Syncros / November 16, 2011 at 11:10 am
What is this double-quick energy drink Cleco and how can I get a bottle of it?!
Greg / November 16, 2011 at 11:29 am
This might be my favourite one out of all these historical posts. The signs are incredible.
Dianne / November 16, 2011 at 11:45 am
Great post, what an amazing collection of photography. It's a great visual representation of early Toronto. I'd love to get my hands on some of these prints(reproductions of course).
Some Guy / November 16, 2011 at 11:47 am
And yet people complain about there being too many ads today...
Name Required / November 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm
Honest Ed's: This Way, You Lucky People!

Adam / November 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm
Derek Flack! Never stop doing what you're doing, you're amazing!
Todd Toronto / November 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm
Funny, I just assumed that the spinning discs outside of Sam The Record Man had been there "forever."

One of the great things about this series is how it puts our nostalgia in check. Toronto was probably never a beautiful city.
fwegweg replying to a comment from Todd Toronto / November 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm
Um I think where the financial districtis now will have to disagree with you
Anya replying to a comment from Adam / November 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm
john / November 16, 2011 at 01:03 pm
great post.

amazing how little the subway map has changed in 45 years.
Fig / November 16, 2011 at 01:12 pm
Great post Derek.
Traveller / November 16, 2011 at 02:18 pm
I love the Totalizer! Is that at Woodbine/Old Woodbine/Greenwood I suppose?
Marc / November 16, 2011 at 09:16 pm
I used to get off the streetcar in front of St. Patrick's Market to the stench of rotting poultry (early 90s). I think I've lived here too long…
Joseph / November 16, 2011 at 10:12 pm
Jeremy Wilson / November 18, 2011 at 09:27 am
Was the Eaton's Cineplex still there in that form in the 90's? That looks decidedly 80's to me.

21 Screens!
Rico / December 6, 2011 at 02:12 am
Drink Cleco, you sonofabitch!
Samsquanch / December 6, 2011 at 08:26 am
I'm 99% sure 511 Yonge is actually 511 Danforth Ave.
The facade still exists although stucco'ed over
A Proud Canadian / January 20, 2012 at 10:04 am
Very well presented.WHY???? in the last photo for
pullovers could we not have a MADE IN CANADA product?????

A very proud Canadian!!!!!!

dns / January 30, 2012 at 01:49 pm

keep up these posts, Derek.. and thanks!
John / February 13, 2012 at 12:23 am
You could be right. I lived at 1760 Danforth which is east of Coxwell. If it is on Danforth it would be west of Pape on the south side. If it is on Yonge it would be on the east side around College, Great photos
Oscar / March 11, 2012 at 01:57 am
Queen & Bay picture is great but the year is definitely wrong. The taxi alone is a giveaway. Definitely mid 60's to mid 70's.
Joanne Soules Sherman / March 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm
Would anyone remember the house next to the MacKenzie House on Bond Street. It was torn down around 1950's.
Sharon / March 29, 2012 at 12:02 am
Are there any shots of The Embassy Tavern at Bloor and Bellair, Piccadilly Tube or the Gasworks?
Helen / November 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm
I think 'The Godfather' was actually the last film to play at the Imperial (I know I saw it there), before the cinema was turned into the Imperial Six -- one of the world's first "multi-plex" cinemas. Now, of course, it's the Canon Theatre, which shows you how huge the original cinema was.
Jack / March 5, 2013 at 01:19 pm
Love the mid-day line-up for the rippers, in suits and fedoras of course!
jut / March 5, 2013 at 06:27 pm
bad city
jut / March 5, 2013 at 06:27 pm
bad city
Colin / July 28, 2013 at 12:39 pm
Nothing says yum like fresh tripe from Davies!
Neil / October 17, 2013 at 03:32 pm
Great post. I am pretty sure however the date on the second last photo is incorrect. If that is the southeast corner of Queen and Bay Streets, the Simpson Tower was built in 1968 where the lower building with the billboard once stood.

Steve M. replying to a comment from Neil / August 14, 2014 at 03:34 pm
That picture of the southeast corner of Queen and Bay (second to last photo) is definitely not from 1980. The Simpson Tower was completed in 1968, but construction started in 1967. The southbound bus on Bay St. and the appearance of the taxi cab facing west on Queen st. suggests that this picture was taken not later than 1966. I know that the Bay streetcar was dropped in 1963, while the Dupont streetcar (which ran on Bay to the docks for 2 1/2 years after that) ceased to operate in Feb. 1966.
Sandra D / November 3, 2014 at 12:08 am
Thanks for the throwback! We used to get our bread from Quality Bakery and would always know when it was time to go as the smell of fresh bread would waft through the neighbourhood. mmmmmm Fresh rye bread, fresh kaisers used by local restaurants.mmmmmm
(Picture #17 'North side of college, near Bellevue in the 1950s') I can remember shopping in a few other stores shown in this tour threw memory lane. Great post. Thanks again.
Matt / November 3, 2014 at 02:58 pm
I always suspected O'keefe was better for you!
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