Noisy Polish Christenings

The Toronto World, May 23, 1912.

The Toronto World, May 23, 1912.

I tumbled onto this gem of an article a few months back while hunting around in old issues of the Toronto World. Taken from the May 23, 1912 issue of the World, it highlights a curious episode on the road to Toronto’s gradual acceptance of multiculturalism: residents of Humber Bay complaining about the raucous Polish celebrations taking place by the Humber River. “During the past few months,” says the article, “every sunday has been the day of prolonged celebrations among the foreigners, which invariably take the form of much disorderliness, the beating of tin pans, shouting, and drinking of beer.”

From this brief source it is difficult to know what is really going on here. One’s instinct is to chastise the fun-hating folks of the Toronto-the-Good era, but without more detail this seems unfair.

Still, though, it is intriguing to juxtapose this with the modern-day Toronto phenomenon of World Cup victory celebrations, which I wrote about in my most recent Historicist column. Although I focused more on the happier side of the growth of Toronto World Cup celebrations (as opposed to clashes between rival fans), I by no means cherry-picked; the Toronto media seems to have generally heralded the emergence of this regular tradition in the 1970s as a positive affirmation of the city’s diversity, even if several reporters to invoking national stereotypes to do it.

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Scouting for Girls

My most recent piece for Historicist centres on a 1912 burlesque play at Toronto’s Star Theatre, and the charges of obscenity surrounding it. As with most of my pieces, I was forced to exclude a lot of fun stuff I found in the interest of brevity and focus. If anyone is interested in more detail about the Star Theatre, Rev. R.B. St. Clair, or the Toronto Vigilance Association, I very much recommend Lyndsay Mills Campbell’s essay: “The St. Clair case and the regulation of the obscene in pre-World War One Ontario,” which you can download as a PDF from the University of British Columbia’s Library website here.

While researching this piece, I stumbled upon this headline from the March 2, 1912, Toronto Star:

Star1912Mar2-12

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Toronto’s First Automobile, Probably

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 56. As for what this depicts, well, that’s the whole premise of this post.

My latest Historicist article is the story behind what is believed to have been the first automobile in Toronto. I’m not the first to have written about this subject, and some readers might notice that the information in my article contradicts some of the other articles out there. A lot of these discrepancies stem from the above photo, which accompanies many articles about Toronto’s first car including mine. It is a photo from the William James collection at the City of Toronto Archives, and it’s pretty cool-looking. And the handwritten caption seems to supply some useful information. Or does it?

First Steps

I first learned about this subject through my position on the Etobicoke York Community Preservation Panel.  Some buildings on Lake Shore Boulevard recently went though the heritage designation process, buildings which were originally part of the Fetherstonhaugh Estate. Aside from being one of the first people to build a swanky estate in Mimico, F.B. Fetherstonhaugh is generally known as the man who owned Toronto first automobile. The Canadian Mint even depicted the vehicle on a coin in 1993.

The City’s background file on the Fetherstonhaugh property [pdf] says that Fetherstonhaugh’s car made its debut in 1896. The problem is that the handwritten caption on this photo clearly says it was in 1893. So I started looking to see what others had written.

The first account I found was in Mike Filey’s More Toronto Sketches (Dundurn, 1993). In an article originally written in 1979, Filey gives the year of Fetherstonhaugh’s car as 1893, and adds that it was displayed in the same year at the Exhibition. I looked at newspaper accounts of the 1893 Exhibition to find a description of the car’s demonstration. If this was the first automobile in Toronto, surely it must have caused a sensation, right?

Newspaper Research

Only I didn’t find anything about motor vehicles at the 1893 Exhibition. What I did find was a description of an exhibit by Dixon’s Carriage Works, which was the Toronto business which supposedly built (and tested) Fetherstonhaugh’s car. The article mentioned all the horse-drawn carriages Dixon had on display, but nothing about a motor vehicle.

I hunted through other newspaper articles and had a look at the sources cited in the City’s report on the Lake Shore properties. I eventually read an 1896 Globe article which describes what was, or so the reporter believed, the first running of this vehicle. The article mentions Fetherstonhaugh and Dixon, and also William Still, the engineer who designed the motor vehicle. The unnamed author of the article seems to think this event in late 1896 was the first example of an automobile in Toronto, although I have been burned by mistakes and typos in old newspaper articles before. Information simply wasn’t as available to the general public back then in the way that it is today, and sometimes newspaper accounts are wrong. (Also, sometimes newspapers deliberately lie, but that’s another story.) Maybe an automobile had been on Toronto streets earlier than December of 1896, and the Globe just hadn’t known about it.

The problem was that I kept finding other history articles about this vehicle which gave the year as 1893. Like this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And there were other books which gave the year as 1893, too. Is there another source out there that I just can’t find? Or had the writers of all these other articles simply taken the year from either the photo caption or Mike Filey’s 1979 article, and not looked for any confirmation in primary sources?

Primary Sources

Anyone who has taken a history class at the university level probably heard a lot about primary sources and how important they are. You were probably told to cite a minimum number of primary sources in your essays. I certainly had this experience, but the significance didn’t really sink in for me at the time, perhaps because at Queen’s I mostly studied western Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation years and couldn’t do all that much with primary sources given that I do not understand Italian or Spanish or German. In my essays, my primary sources tended to be translations of Dante.

Popular history, of course, isn’t academia. The language and tone changes. Popular historians are often eager to make their writing more fun and engaging, and this is great; what is the point of history if you aren’t aiming to share it with more people? Some Toronto popular history writers, however, also throw away the academic need for citations and crediting sources, and when this happens, the readers don’t know where the information is coming from. Few, if any, of the contemporary pieces I found about the Fetherstonhaugh car indicated what the source material was.

The Sign Hanging on the Front of the Car

As I got increasingly frustrated with my inability to find any clear evidence that this car existed in 1893, I took a trip to the City of Toronto archives to have a closer look at the original photo. As you can see from the image (it is perhaps clearer in this other copy of the same photo), there is a sign hung on the front of the car, and I wanted to know what it said.

The full text of that sign is as follows:

The first motor vehicle made and operated in Canada.  Built in 1893.

This carriage was built for F.B. Fetherstonhaugh in 1893 by John Dixon, and equipped by the Still Motor Co. Limited with motor and batteries made by W.J. Still.

It was exhibited in the Toronto Exhibition in 1893 and created quite a sensation in front of the old grandstand on account of it being the first horseless vehicle made or operated in Canada.

Alright, so this sign indicates the year of the vehicle’s debut as 1893. But how reliable is this sign?

Well, for one thing, it claims the Fetherstonhaugh car was the first automobile in Canada. I haven’t looked into this too closely (I was writing this article on a deadline), but none of the other sources I’ve checked seem to repeat this claim. For what it’s worth, the Canadian Encyclopedia says Canada’s first motor vehicle was as early as 1867, almost thirty years before the Fetherstonhaugh car.

If this was wrong, could the rest of the sign’s text be wrong, too?  If so, though, this would seem remarkable. The photo is dated 1912, and supposedly from an automobile exhibit at the Toronto Armouries, meaning that the details of Toronto’s first car could have been forgotten a mere twenty years after its construction. Fetherstonhaugh was still alive at this time. To be fair, though, think of recent innovations. When was the first e-mail sent in Toronto? Who was the first person in Toronto with a PDA?  People didn’t realize just how important cars were going to be, and thus hadn’t busied themselves with documenting their development.

I talked to a staff person at the archives about the photo and the William James collection. She informed me that the captions on the photo were added many years after the photos were taken. If I recall rightly, they were added by the photographer’s son, who was going by what he remembered his father telling him, so there’s certainly margin for error. In fact, the photo might be earlier or later than 1912. All we really know is that this car was at some time put on display, and that this sign hung in front of it.

So where the hell did this leave me? Well, I had the Globe article describing the supposed first test of this vehicle in 1896. I found a Star article from 1901 which says Fetherstonhaugh’s car made its debut in 1896. It turns out that Mike Filey wrote a later article, published in Toronto Sketches 10 (Dundurn, 2010), which also gives the year as 1896. But some times in the early twentieth century, all the sources started giving the year as 1893. (The earliest newspaper article I could find which gave the year as 1893 is a Star article from 1936.) Did everyone just trust the sign in the photo? And why did whoever make the sign choose the year 1893?

Automobiles at the CNE

I decided I might have more luck tracking down accounts of the vehicle being displayed at the Exhibition. I started by contacting the CNE Archives. Their staff got back to me almost right away, which was superb of them. The first reference to automobiles at the CNE that they have is in an 1897 program. So far, I have been unable to find an actual newspaper account of such an exhibit in 1897, but that does not mean that one does not exist. The closest thing I have so far is a Globe article from 1897, from just before the Exhibition, which says that somebody is “negotiating for an exhibition of horseless carriages at our great fair.” The tone of the article certainly suggests this would be the first such exhibit. The 1898 account I found of an automobile display at the Exhibition neither says it was the first automobile display at the Exhibition, nor says there had been such an exhibit in previous years.  Maybe the 1897 exhibit somehow flew under the radar.

It probably seems incredible that automobiles could fly under the radar, but it would not really surprise me. Although there is interest in automobiles throughout the 1890s, they are mostly seen as an amusing novelty, as opposed to something that people actually expected to own for themselves. The early motor vehicles were not especially fast or practical, especially not for Torontonians, given the state of Toronto’s roads at the time. The 1896 Globe article I found about the test of the Fetherstonhaugh car is buried halfway down on page eight (the Globe only had twelve pages back then), under a Reverend’s description of a locust cloud he saw. This wasn’t front-page news.

Google Patent Search

Then, I had another breakthrough.  Poking around on Google, I discovered that you can use Google to search patents. Searching for patents issued to William Joseph Still (who designed the motor in the Fetherstonhaugh car), I found two different motors which he had patented in 1893, including one where the patent had Fetherstonhaugh’s name on it. Pressing on, I found other patents with both Still and Fetherstonhaugh’s names on them in later years. It looks as if Still’s initial inventions may have been patented in 1893, but that it may have taken the remaining few years to invent the other necessary components and to design and construct a vehicle, which was then first tested in 1896. Somebody may have seen the year of the patent and assumed it was the year that the car first ran.

There’s not much that I can do to test this theory, and as I had a deadline to make with Torontoist, I had to stop my research here. I am pleased to at least have a working hypothesis, but of course this could all be disproven by somebody having an actual primary source from 1893 describing the vehicle as running.

Wheels

There is, however, still one nagging discrepancy. Take another look at that photo. The 1896 Globe article announcing the new motor vehicle’s existence says “this is carriage is a tricycle.” And that car definitely has four wheels. Oh, hell.

I can think of a few different solutions to this problem. One is that the vehicle was tinkered with after it was first tested, with the design altered until they found one that seemed to work. Another is that this is only the rear of the vehicle, and the motor and batteries could have been in a separate unit up front which pulled it like a locomotive. Another is that the Globe article is wrong about the carriage being a tricycle; maybe the person writing the piece hadn’t personally seen it, and got it confused with another design. And another, of course, is that the vehicle in the photograph is not actually the car that they tested in December of 1896 at all.

The Challenges of Public and Popular History

These sorts of things happen when researching, especially in Toronto history when one is frequently in uncharted territory. One of the challenges with popular history is being able to write engaging text when you don’t have all the facts available. When I am uncertain of a fact, I either have to qualify it with terms like “believed to be,” or else allow for the possibility of an unreliable source, with phrases like “according to an article in the Globe.” That way, if somebody else uncovers another source (and there’s an excellent chance that they will!), the new information will still fit with my article instead of completely discrediting it.

And the information that I cannot reconcile, well, I often have to leave it out. I didn’t mention anything about secondary sources citing the year as 1893, and cropped the caption out of the photograph. I didn’t mention the gold coin, which was issued in 1993, presumably for what was believed to be the car’s centennial. And I left out any mention of the number of wheels. Sometimes, if I think it might be interesting to the layperson, I mention the discrepancies. For example, in this article I wrote about Festival Express, I note that the newspaper descriptions of the violence leave a different impression than that presented by Ken Walker in the documentary film. Usually, though, if I can still tell a coherent narrative without such things, I leave these bits out.

So, for any researchers or aspiring public historians out there, be careful and diligent in your work. Don’t blindly trust the captions on photographs or the articles written by other historians (not even mine!), and question what you read. If you’re going to claim something that you cannot personally prove, that’s fine — you can’t be expected to look up every single little thing — just leave some information as to where you got your information from. I usually avoid footnotes because they can make a piece look like a university essay, and that can turn off readers who mentally associate footnotes with boring history. But when I can, I try to mention heavily used sources in the body of my text, and I usually leave a list of sources at the bottom of the page. And I keep all my notes and sources for myself, so that if anybody wants to question a specific point or do more research on their own I can also supply readers with more detailed information.

Anyway, this post turned out far longer than my actual article (which, again, you can read here). I hope at least one of the two is actually interesting. I don’t expect to get into the regular habit of doing “behind the scenes” posts for all my articles, but this seemed like a great opportunity to highlight some of the issues one runs into when doing social history, while also explaining why some of the information in my article might contradict what people have read elsewhere.

In Search of Music Recorded by Players for Toronto Sports Teams

Over the years, various professional athletes have made forays into popular music.  These musical efforts may be solo projects, or they may be larger endeavours produced by teams, with one or more star players singing (or rapping) about their team, sport, and/or city.  Particularly popular in the 1980s, these songs seem to be an extension of the role given to athletes who play team sports, that being a sort of cultural ambassador.  The key difference is that while the athlete (ideally) possesses some skill at their given sport, their musical talent tends to be meager (if it exists at all). 

One of the best-known examples of this kind of song is The Super Bowl Shuffle, recorded by the 1985 Chicago Bears shortly before their victory in Super Bowl XX.

Another example is the 1979 single Hockey Sock Rock, performed by John Davidson, Ron Duguay, Phil Esposito, Pat Hickey, and Dave Maloney of the New York Rangers, with the B-side Please Forgive My Misconduct Last Night by Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer, and Dave Taylor of the Los Angeles Kings.  (Both of these songs were apparently written by Alan Thicke.)  In this case the songs were done for charity, and while neither song is explicitly about the team, the lyrics are most definitely about hockey.  Excerpts from both songs can be found in the clip below:

The earliest song I know of recorded by a Toronto athlete is Honky the Christmas Goose, a 1965 Christmas single by Leafs star goalie Johnny Bower, although this song is not even about hockey, much less the Toronto Maple Leafs:

The year after Bower’s song, a group called Douglas Rankine and the Secrets released a song called Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack about popular Leafs’ forward Eddie Shack, although Shack does not perform on it:

The late 1980s saw The Ballad of Tom Henke, credited to the Section 15 Orchestra, written about the Blue Jays relief pitcher (nicknamed “Terminator”) although, again, the athlete does not appear on the recording:

Not quite in this category is Moxy Früvous’ re-working of The Association‘s “Windy,” with the words altered to make it about quarterback Doug Flutie.  Although Moxy Früvous was from the Toronto area, this was recorded after Flutie’s time with the Argos, when he was playing for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills:

In recent years, of course, several Toronto sports fans have written and presented their own songs about Toronto athletes and put them up on YouTube, although none seem to have captured much public attention.

In terms of songs actually recorded by athletes, there is La Playa, which features former Blue Jays pitcher Kelvim Escobar, albeit recorded after he had moved on to the Anaheim Angels.  I’m not really sure what this song is about, but the video suggests it’s neither about Toronto nor baseball:

Shaker’s Rap

To my delight, I finally found the sort of song I’ve been seeking: Shaker’s Rap, as performed by ’80s Blue Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby:

This website indicates that it was released as a 12-inch single in 1986, and suggests that the record included a non-Blue Jays version of this song (?), an instrumental version, and an additional track called “Stick to It,” all apparently by Lloyd “Shaker” Moseby.  The record was reportedly distributed by RCA.  According to an article in the August 7, 1986 Toronto Star, “Stick to It” was actually considered to be the lead single when released on August 15, and according to Moseby “it’s about telling kids to stay away from drugs, stay in school, that scene.”  He told Sports Illustrated that “I wouldn’t have done it if not for the message.  I’m no singer; no way am I doing love songs or anything.”  So far I have not been able to track down a version.  

The Star‘s Peter Goddard wrote that Shaker’s Rap sounded like “a Japanese disco after midnight,” and that “[it] isn’t going to make anybody forget Michael Jackson.  Or, for that matter, it won’t make anybody forget Roy Lee Jackson, the last Blue Jay to sing in public.”  (Roy Lee Jackson was a pitcher with the Jays from 1981 to 1984, who on at least one ocassion sang the pre-game national anthems, an event immortalized on a baseball card the following season.)

Although “Shaker’s Rap (Blue Jays Version)” is a bit thin on lyrics, it is still, like all of these athlete-recordings, an interesting reflection of the time in which it was made, and an enjoyable piece of Toronto’s history.  I’m glad this recording was uploaded by Toronto blogger Toronto Mike, and encourage readers to explore some of the content uploaded to his Soundcloud page, as he has posted several other interesting songs about Blue Jays players, including a song about outfielder Mookie Wilson (with the team from 1989 to 1991) set to the music of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda.”

I assume that any other songs officially produced by Toronto sports teams would have surfaced by now and be staples of our popular culture, but given that it took a bit of effort for me, a Jays fan, to find evidence of Lloyd Moseby’s rapping career this may not be the case.  If you know of any other songs recorded by the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Argos, or Raptors, especially ones which are over ten years old, please leave a comment.  (Also, if you know of a video for “Shaker’s Rap.”)  We tend to forget about these sorts of things in Toronto, so it would be good to keep these songs in our collective consciousness.

In conclusion, allow me to present my favourite example of this genre, Get Metsmerized!, which features nine members of the 1986 New York Mets rapping as best they can about what it means to be a New York Met.

Update – rICK vAIVE & “Penalty Box Blues”

A nice gentleman with the Twitter handle @juicyjuicebob has alerted me to the existence of a 1984 recording by Maple Leafs forward Rick Vaive, called Penalty Box Blues.  So far I have not been able to locate a recording of it online.

Toronto Star headline, January 15, 1985.

Penalty Box Blues was actually part of a charity LP called Team Rock All Stars 84/85.  The album was put together by recording engineer Bob Leth and was an effort to raise funds for minor hockey teams.  According to an article in the January 15, 1985 Toronto Star, the album included contributions by noted folk singer John Allan Cameron, the Good Brothers, and noted session drummer Bernard Purdie, whose website bills him as “the world’s most recorded drummer.”  Other hockey players who reportedly recorded on the album were retired-Leaf (and City-TV sports reporter) Jim McKenny, Brian Glennie, and Doug Patey.  As of the time of this article, albums were being sold to minor hockey teams at low rates, who in turn were invited to re-sell the album for $10 (about average price for an LP in those days) and keep the profits.

Without an available audio sample, the only clue to the sound of Penalty Box Blues comes from Bob Leth, who told the Star that Vaive “does an Elvis-type song… he’s got a real rockabilly voice.”  Anyone have a copy of this album at home?

Jorge Luis Borges’ Message to Torontonians

Note the two updates to this post at the bottom.

I happened upon an interesting blog post on the Toronto Public Library website this afternoon.

The gist of it is that a staff person at the Agincourt branch of the TPL found a card inside an older edition Plato’s Republic.  (The blog writer actually says it was in Symposium, but shows a photo of Republic.)  The card appears to be a letter from 1978, signed by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), thanking the library for a pleasant reception.

According to “Louis,” the TPL staffer who found the card and who wrote the post about this letter, letters and numbers written below the signature correspond with Dewey numbers for three books: a collection of the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas Carlyle‘s Sartor Resartus, and “books on axiomatic set theory.”

I spent about an hour this evening searching the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail for any indication of Borges having been in Toronto in 1978, but to no avail.  I am not clear from the post by “Louis” whether this particular book has only ever been at the Agincourt branch, or if there is any chance that it could have been at another branch.  “Louis” assumes that the book has always been at Agincourt, although points out that in 1978 the Agincourt branch was located in the Agincourt Mall.  There is, of course, the possibility that Borges left the card somewhere else and that it was either deliberately or accidentally left in the book by somebody else; the alternative requires one to believe that nobody has read this book for thirty years, or that library patrons had seen this card in the book before but not bothered to remove it.  Assuming that Borges actually made the card, of course.  Although it appears to have his distinctive (but illegible) signature, it is worth mentioning that Borges went completely blind in the 1950s.

It seems that the mysteries here are numerous.  Why would anybody bother forging a banal card from Jorge Luis Borges and then hide it in a book in a Scarborough library branch where, even if discovered, it is unlikely that anybody would recognize the signature?  Was Jorge Luis Borges actually at a reception in the Agincourt Mall in 1978?  And if so, what is the meaning behind his cryptic message?   What was he trying to tell us?  Why did he want (Metro) Torontonians to learn about axiomatic set theory?

While my newspaper search revealed nothing, the Wikipedia page on Borges mentions his interest both in Schopenhauer and in Carlyle, with specific reference to Sartor Resartus.  The final paragraph on Borges’ Wikipedia page also mentions his familiarity with set theory, and refers to some of the principles of set theory being present in Borges’ 1975 story “The Book of Sand.”  At least within the context of Borges’ work, mentoning these three books make some sort of sense.

Hopefully, “Louis” will learn some more about this and provide an update.  In the meantime, though, if you recall seeing Jorge Luis Borges in Scarborough in 1978, why not get in touch with the Toronto Public Library?

UPDATE – 02/17/2012

This story has been picked up by the Toronto Star.  Near the bottom of this piece you’ll see some comments from me, which I gave to the reporter.

Although I definitely gave the quote included, I don’t know that I would say it is “probably not” a hoax; I am still not sure which way I am leaning in turns of this item being a genuine letter from Borges.  While it is indeed an odd thing to forge, the idea that it could have spent over thirty years undiscovered seems to me equally fantastic, not to mention the whole thing about a blind man choosing to write a letter in cursive, complete with a cartoon.  And if this letter was dictated, then his amanuensis had terrible penmanship.

I do find this to be a fascinating find, however, and I’m glad that more people are going to see it.

UPDATE – 02/19/2012

The Toronto Star is now reporting that Louis Choquette, the author of the initial post at the Toronto Public Library blog, made the whole thing up.  As I “quite reasonably” noted, “why would anybody bother to forge such an item?”

Well, people are strange.

According to the Star article, this was intended in the spirit of Borges and his love for blurring fact and fiction, although I’m not exactly sure in this case what the point was in doing this.  As a historian, I spend quite a bit of time trying to separate fact from fiction as I generally find the two to be extensively blurred already.  Of course, I get a kick out of historical fiction (our heritage is ours to use and manipulate, although I admit I get uneasy about works which use real people as major characters), and greatly appreciate hoaxes which make significant points, such as the work of the Yes Men.

This, maybe, proved to be more of an exercise in critical thinking.  Historians rely on primary sources all the time, and have to make critical judgements as to how reliable the available material is.  In this case there was very little to go on and, as indicated above, there were many reasons why this “discovery” looked suspicious.  The chief reason why I thought that it could possibly be real was that it seemed like such an obscure and unlikely thing to fake.

Still, then, I’m glad I didn’t come down too confidently on one side or the other until more information became available, which is essentially how history works (or is supposed to work).  And it’s nice to be reminded about the value of scepticism and critical thinking when doing research, as seemingly impartial librarians or archivists might have their own agendas!

Fire in the Junction

The Save & Secure Storage Facility at Pelham & Osler, early in the demolition proces, January 18, 2012.

Earlier this month, a major fire effectively destroyed the Save and Secure Self Storage building at Pelham Avenue and Osler Street.  While it is fortunate that nobody died in this fire (and to my knowledge, none of the local residents have permanently lost their homes), the building cannot be salvaged, and as such is being torn down.  Early estimates put the damage at $1 million, although it can be difficult to assign a definite value to the possessions and memories which were lost in the fire.

Forty-nine years ago, a fire struck the same neighbourhood with much more deadly consequences.

In the early morning of February 8, 1963, a fire broke out in a family home on Miller Street, which runs north-south, one block west of where the Save and Secure building barely still stands.

Headline from the front page of The Globe and Mail, February 8, 1963.

According to newspaper reports, the family’s children were asleep upstairs while their father waited downstairs for the mother to come home from work; she worked the night shift for the post office (presumably at the building on the west side of Keele Street, between Annette and Dundas Streets), and her husband ritually waited up for her and greeted her with a cup of tea when she came in the door.  That evening the father put the kettle on, but fell asleep on the couch.

This being 1963, the kettle was not an automatic kettle which switches itself off when it reaches boiling.  According to the Star, fire investigators concluded that “the kettle became red-hot when the water boiled away and ignited fat in the deep-fryer the youngsters had used earlier to make French fries.”

The father woke to find the house on fire and his children screaming for help from upstairs.  Despite valiant rescue attempts by the father, his neighbour, and local police officers, all eight children in the family perished, making it the largest known loss of life in a fire for a single family in Toronto history, according to the Toronto Star.  Although several nearby houses were also destroyed in the fire, the occupants were able to safely evacuate.  Two police constables were also taken to hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation. 

By evening, the story was on the front page of the Toronto Star, noting that community residents were already organizing a “Miller St. Fire Victims’ Fund” through the Davenport Home and School Association.  By the next day, additional donation funds had been established, through the family’s church and through the father’s employer, Brewer’s Retail.

Headline from page 22 of the Toronto Star, February 12, 1963.

The fire remained a major news story in Toronto over the next few days.  The funeral for the eight children was held on February 11 at a Parkdale funeral chapel, and over 1,500 were reported in attendance, the crowd being a mixture of friends, neighbours, and Torontonians who were affected by the tragedy.

For those who lived in the area at the time, the memory of this event remains strong.  I have been asked about this particular fire by several neighbours as its fiftieth anniversary is approaching.  One of the people I have spoken with about it specifically remembers that after the fire, her family was not allowed to make french fries in the house again.

I expect to continue to collect information on this fire over the next few months, and will likely write a feature article on it for an upcoming issue of The Leader & Recorder, the quarterly newsletter of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society.

Summer of ’36

Ad for Burroughes Furniture Co., Ltd., advising you to buy a couch so you can "sleep in the cool downstairs." Toronto Star, July 10, 1936, page 5.

If you missed it, I did a series of articles for Heritage Toronto a few weeks ago on a few interconnected subjects relating to Toronto in the summer of 1936.

The first looks at Toronto’s experience during the major North American heat wave of that summer.  In the early summer, some aspects of city life seem to have shut down while various laws were relaxed; at least 225 people died from the heat.

While looking in old newspapers for articles connected to the heat wave, I found several articles concerned with what men were and were not allowed to wear on Toronto beaches, thus spawning an article on the city’s bathing suit regulations.

This being 1936, all this transpired during the great depression.  My third article looks at some of the unemployment problems in what was then York Township (essentially what later became the City of York in the 1960s and then acquired by Toronto in the 1998 amalgamation).  During the height of the heat wave, tensions boiled in Toronto’s suburban regions over how governments should distribute financial relief to the needy.  While this article deals with York Township, similar unrest was happening in Etobicoke in 1936, which I wrote about on this very blog.  With these protests flaring at the height of the heat wave, it is tempting to think that the excessive temperatures caused frustration to boil over, as it seemingly does in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

Headline from the Globe, July 10, 1936.

While I enjoy researching and writing on a variety of topics, I like doing these clusters of related historical articles.  Often, while researching a specific subject, I encounter interesting tangents and side issues which I am tempted to cram into my copy.  When I try to share all of these delightful details, my articles grow too long, and I  find myself forced to omit some of the bits which I think are the most intriguing.

Doing these clusters of articles permits me to provide additional context for the readers, juxtaposing events with parallel issues in Toronto’s history, and providing a more nuanced account of the city’s past.

In a previous cycle of articles for Heritage Toronto, I described an incident with a “gypsy” group in North Toronto, both from the perspective of the people in the camp as well as from the perspective of the camp’s bears.

In creating these clusters of related articles, my hope is to present Toronto’s complicated history in a spirit similar to that of the classic PBS miniseries Connections, hosted by James Burke.  Burke tells the history of science from a strong perspective of inter-connectedness.  He generally starts at one specific invention or discovery, and then follows that thread through history, touching on many events, people, and discoveries along the way, all the while reminding viewers this is just one of an infinite number of paths available to explore.

Toronto’s history, like all history, is similarly complex.  While it is a historian’s duty to provide necessary context, there are many choices that a historian faces as to what to include.  By grouping some of these related articles together, I feel I am reminding readers that no person, building, or event is isolated, and that all of Toronto’s history is linked by time, place, people, and/or thematic subject matter.

My hope is to work on a few similar clusters in the new year.  They tend to involve considerably more research than a “one-off” article, but I feel that the end result is worth it.