Historicist

I am delighted to announce that I am going to be contributing historical articles on a regular basis to Torontoist, one of Toronto’s leading online media outlets.

If you are from Toronto and aren’t familiar with Torontoist, then you should know that it is one of several online, Toronto-themed websites that have emerged in the last decade.  It is difficult to pigeonhole these websites, as evidenced by Torontoist‘s own efforts to describe itself.

And, if you are reading this, are interested in Toronto history, and aren’t familiar with Torontoist, then I very much recommend having a look at their historical content (and the rest of the site, of course).  Torontoist covers a lot of issues related to Toronto and, like many of the newer Toronto media outlets, frequently runs historical interest pieces.  I’ve found that many older members of the city’s heritage community look at me blankly when I mention Torontoist, blogTO, or the Toronto Standard to them, and this is a shame because all of these sites are making great efforts to share Toronto’s history to their sizeable readership.

Much of Torontoist‘s  history-based content comes in the form of their Historicist column, which appears every Saturday at noon.  I am now the third regular member of this column’s team, and have started by writing a piece on how a professional matchmaker named Nelle Brooke Stull ran afoul of the Toronto law in 1936.  (I did, in fact, contribute twice to this column in 2011 as a guest contributor, with pieces on ice-cutting on Grenadier Pond and the unveiling of the new SickKids building in 1951.)

There are several reasons why I am excited about joining Torontoist, including the reputation that Historicist has developed for thorough, well-researched articles.  But one of the main things that excites me is getting to write for a broad audience of Torontonians.  In the past, most of the historical pieces I have written have been aimed at history or heritage-themed publications, where the readers self-identify as history fans and/or heritage professionals.  Torontoist is read by people who are simply interested in Toronto.

As such, I feel like I am writing about Toronto history for people who don’t necessarily go out of their way to read about such things.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people need to be “tricked” into reading about history, but I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of people will like history when it’s brought right to them, but for whatever reason aren’t going to seek it out.  I think it’s important to integrate historical content into other content about news, culture, or politics.  It is the same reason why we put plaques and sculptures in public places, instead of tucking them behind closed doors.  This is presumably true for many cities, but I feel it’s especially important in Toronto where, for years, there has been a popular attitude that our city doesn’t have any heritage worth preserving, and no history interesting or old enough to be worth telling.

While I believe that many young Toronto history fans are missing out by not supporting their local historical societies and learning about the city’s vast heritage community, I also believe the veterans are missing out by not knowing about the great work being done and published online.

And I am especially proud that my work will be on Historicist alongside that of Kevin Plummer and Jamie Bradburn, whose history pieces I have been reading and enjoying for the last few years.  These two historians have helped give Torontoist the solid reputation that it enjoys today, and deserve to be recognized for their efforts and achievements.

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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.

Got a bike? You can ride it if you like!

This coming Saturday is Tweed Ride Toronto, a group bicycle ride in Toronto designed to promote and recreate yesteryear’s cycling attitudes.  Originating as the Tweed Run in London, the event has now spread to other cities, where participants are similarly encouraged to wear tweed or any other “smart looking outfit,” and to be creative in finding ways of capturing the spirit of the nineteenth-century cycling spirit.  But what was this spirit?

Beginning tomorrow I will be posting a three-part series, providing a partial insight into Toronto’s experience with the bicycle boom of the late 1800s.

Say Hello

Well, hello!

I am delighted and slightly scared to announce that I am launching this blog.  There isn’t much here yet, but over the new few months this should turn into a varied collection of pieces relating to Toronto’s history and heritage.

As it is, I am a semi-regular writer of Toronto historical-interest pieces, which one can find in historical society newsletters and scattered about the internet.  This blog will see me experiment with different styles of written pieces, some of which may get cross-posted to other places.  I don’t want to give away what I have planned just yet, but my overall aim to find new ways of making Toronto’s history more accessible and interesting to the general public.

As a rule, I tend to keep commentary to a minimum in my published pieces, operating on the principle that the facts and source material are interesting enough on their own, when expressed correctly.  I expect to stick with this narrative style in my historical interest pieces but will, from time to time, post some more casual items, such as this post itself. 

Let me also say that I seem to have picked a very volatile time in Toronto heritage affairs to start this blog.  As I write this, the future of many Toronto heritage institutions is uncertain, with Heritage Toronto and the ten city-operated museums facing potential privatization, and the possibility of Heritage Preservation Services being largely restructured at city hall.  In time, I hope to be able to report on these events and condense these developments in an easy-to-understand way.  As I am just starting this blog, however, it may take some time before I can write about every such development in a meaningful way, especially if I want to get posts up in a timely fashion.

I ask for readers’ indulgence as I simultaneously experiment with new kinds of research, narrative style, and the various features offered by WordPress.

Wish me luck!