books toronto history

The top 10 books on Toronto history

Books on Toronto's history are anything but a boring affair. On the contrary, the insights they offer into the shape of the city today are perhaps more fascinating than ever as we blossom into a place that boasts more and more acclaimed architecture. It wasn't always the case that Toronto was proud of its architectural legacy and showed loyalty to its heritage properties. In fact, one of the things you'll find in almost all of the books below is an archive of lost structures that were demolished mostly on account of a lack of respect and foresight.

What you'll also find is enthusiasm. For many years, Toronto's history didn't seem to attract much public interest. That changed somewhere along the way, but at least partially because of these advocates of our heritage. Without these books, it would be difficult to understand the way we used to be, and, by extension, where we are going.

Here are my top picks for books on Toronto history.

The Historical Atlas of Toronto - Derek Hayes
If you tend to engage with history on a visual level, this collection of maps will prove a fascinating trip through Toronto's past. From old fire atlases to transportation plans to geological studies, Hayes has pulled together a wide array of cartographic resources to chart the growth of Toronto.

Unbuilt Toronto I & II - Mark Osbaldeston
Some of my favourite books about Toronto, Marc Osbaldeston's two histories of projects that didn't get built are just as illuminating about the state of the current city as those that record completed buildings and infrastructure projects. From abandoned subway routes to plans to build a hockey arena on top of Union Station, this alternative history of Toronto is both tantalizing and intriguing at once.

Toronto's Visual Legacy: Official City Photography from 1856 to the Present
This history of Toronto in photos comes courtesy of the the city archives and features some of the best images in our municipal holdings. Chock full of images of landmarks and lost buildings, this is a book that every Torontophile should have on his or her bookshelf.

No Mean City - Eric Arthur
One of the quintessential books on Toronto's architectural heritage, No Mean City was at least partially responsible for organizing the city's preservation movement back in the 1970s when city planners were busy razing historical structures for parking lots. The most recent edition (2003) significantly updates the work with essays on contemporary architecture in Toronto and Arthur's legacy as a preservationist and educator.

Toronto Sketches (various) - Mike Filey
Mike Filey's Toronto Sketches series is up to number 11 now, which should make lovers of historical images very happy. Filled with photos of the early TTC, lost amusement parks, and the city's first skyscrapers (to name just a few things), these thin editions are the perfect way to acquaint oneself with early Toronto at a modest expenditure.

Lost Toronto - William Dendy
This can be a tough book to stomach. There are just so many architecturally significant structures that have been lost to demolition and fire over Toronto's history that it's difficult not to feel a tinge of pain at what could have been. Just take a peek at a photo of the Board of Trade Building to see what I mean. Lost Toronto is no longer in print, but very easy to find from online retailers.

Old Toronto Houses - Tom Cruickshank
As much as we tend to focus our architectural attention on large buildings, Toronto's single-family homes are also steeped in traditions that define the character of the city. There's more to the historic Toronto home than the Bay and Gable house that everyone seems to know about, and there's no better guide to the diversity of buildings on our side streets that Old Toronto Houses.

Toronto Between the Wars - Charles Cotter
There are better books out there for those solely interested in a visual history of Toronto, but what makes this one unique and valuable is its tight focus. The period between the First and Second World War witnessed Toronto undergo profound changes, many of which are captured in the 180 annotated photos contained here.

Toronto in Art - Edith G. Firth
Toronto's artistic heritage doesn't tend to get the attention it deserves. It's actually remarkable to track the growth of the city by paintings rather than photographs or written narratives. Unfortunately, this book is out of print -- but there are lots of copies floating around on sites like Abe.

Inside Toronto - Sally Gibson
Our archival record of Toronto is so heavily steeped in exterior photos of the city's buildings, that it's fascinating to get a look inside the structures we might think we know so well. In fact, it is these inside spaces that mark change over the course of time so well. From ornate decoration to unembellished slums, Toronto at the turn of the 20th century seems an impossibly different place.

What did I miss? Add your suggestions in the comments.

Photo from University College, U of T


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