Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939
Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939
Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939 Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939 Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939 Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Edition Notes: ebook
Author Statement: Charis Cotter
Audience: Trade
Specs: bibliography, photos
Pages: 224
Trim Size: 10" x 10"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20120817
Copyright Year: 2011
Price: Select Below


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Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939

Winner of Heritage Toronto's Award of Excellence, Book category in 2005.

The pace of life in Toronto picked up after 1919 and never slowed down again. During the 1920s and '30s, Toronto went through massive changes that affected the physical and the social life of the city. In these two decades between World War I and World War II, Toronto was finding its place in the swiftly changing world of the twentieth century.

Toronto Between the Wars features 180 archival photographs of Toronto during this fascinating period. Each picture is accompanied by a captivating story about some aspect of life in the city.

During this period, cars became commonplace, the downtown skyline changed as new skyscrapers were built, and women's roles changed dramatically. Then the Depression sent the economy into a tailspin, unemployment became rampant and poverty took its toll. People struggled to afford the basic necessities and lived under the shadow of a growing threat of another war in Europe.

The text reveals little known facts, such as how a leading retail family kept their interest in a major downtown property secret for twenty years. Photographs capture unguarded moments with startling immediacy: a tired but happy group of disheveled merrymakers waiting for a bus; two women in flouncy bridesmaid dresses; an old man cleaning the statue of Queen Victoria; and children buying fish from an itinerant fishmonger.

With intriguing pictures and absorbing text, Toronto Between the Wars offers a rare opportunity to observe life in Toronto during a critical time in its history.


Charis Cotter is a writer and editor specializing in Toronto history.

First Chapter:

The Presence of the Past

When I was seven, my parents and I would visit my great-aunt Eleonore, who lived in a dark and beautiful house in Lawrence Park. I enjoyed these visits immensely, not particularly because of my aunt (a small, upright and large-bosomed woman who was distantly friendly though somewhat suspicious of children), but because of the house itself. It had a name -- a romantic, full-blown name worthy of a house in a novel by L.M. Montgomery: Wyndekrest. It was a strange name for a house squeezed in beside a bridge on Mount Pleasant Road, about six feet below street level, with the front door looking directly into the wheels of the passing cars.

When the house was built in the 1920s, Mount Pleasant was much narrower and Wyndekrest stood at the crest of a small hill, with a lovely garden around it. By the 1960s only a narrow path remained between the house and the bridge. It led down to a wild ravine, where we would go to escape the grownups.

The house had its own attractions. Overshadowed by the encroaching road, it was extremely dark. The first thing you saw as you entered the sitting room was the balding head of a real brown bear who had been made into a rug and set under a grand piano. We ventured upstairs only for the bathroom, where a silver scalloped soap dish held tiny scalloped soaps. In the dark hail, closed doors hid the bedrooms.

A desk in the sitting room had bars across the side shelves, and my small hand could reach just past them to find the Niagara Falls purse made from the two crescents of a shell hinged together. A fading painting of Niagara Falls was glued to the outside of the purse; inside were red-paper compartments and, always, one silver dime.

The kitchen had a rather neglected air: long, narrow and inconvenient, and full of shadows. On each visit we had to perform the ritual of asking Aunt Eleonore politely if we could play with the things in the hoosier (an ingenious piece of kitchen furniture that combined cupboards and counter space). She would nod her head graciously, always maintaining the upright carriage that had seen her through many recitals at the Metropolitan United Church downtown, where she had been a well-known mezzo-soprano. Then we would scatter to the kitchen, settle ourselves on the floor, and lift the latch of the hoosier's lower cupboard.

Inside were all manner of exotic kitchen utensils: fluted muffin tins, cake pans, bread pans, hand mixers and many odd-shaped metal things with funny spikes and corkscrews. What were they for? We improvised, using them to cook fancy dishes, build pyramids and towers, or wage quiet wars that wouldn't attract the grownups' attention.

Aunt Eleonore's house was the first hint I had of what life in Toronto had been like in the twenties and thirties. My great-uncle, a lumber merchant, bought the newly built house in 1923, and most of the dark, dignified furniture came from Simpsons, which had the reputation of being more upscale than Eaton's. My father lived there with his aunt and uncle during school holidays in the 1930s. For me it was a ghostly house, full of memories and tantalizing glimpses of a life that was past. The piano and the bear underneath it were quiet, the kitchen utensils forgotten in a cupboard, the shadowy rooms silent and unused. I loved the idea that the house had once been something more, before the road had been widened, and that I was seeing only fragments of its true nature.

The presence of the past is all around us in Toronto, just as it was for me in the house in Lawrence Park. Within the modern city lie all the decades that came before. In houses, buildings, neighbourhoods, street names and people's memories, the Toronto of the 1920s and 1930s can still be found. Landmarks that were built then are still here: Union Station, the Eaton's College Street Building, the Bank of Commerce Building on King Street, Maple Leaf Gardens and the Royal York Hotel. Most of the street grid of the downtown core is unchanged. Many Toronto neighbourhoods were well established then, filled with houses that remain today. Many of the churches are still there, although some are now used as theatres, daycares or community centres.

Despite all the development of the downtown area in the last half of the 20th century, there are still traces of the Toronto that existed between the world wars, if you know where to look. But what about the people? Who were they? How were they different from us? How did they dress? How did they get to work? What did they do for fun?

The City of Toronto Archives, particularly the James Collection, provided me with a treasure trove of pictures of people and places from the twenties and thirties. The choices of photos and subjects in this book are personal and, in some ways, arbitrary. I did not try to cover every aspect of life in Toronto during the years between 1919 and 1939. I let the pictures lead me to the stories.

As at Wyndekrest, with its shadowed corners and truncated garden, it is possible to glimpse Toronto's past in what has survived. I hope this book will provide an opportunity to look at the present-day city and see how it is different, but still somehow the same -- the vibrant city where people lived out their lives during two exciting decades when the world was poised between one devastating conflict and another.


The period between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War in Toronto is especially interesting because of the enormous changes that took place, both in the landscape of the city and in the lives of its inhabitants. These two decades were pivotal in Toronto's development from a Victorian city to the cosmopolitan metropolis it is today.

In the twenties Toronto and Canada were both finding their place in the unpredictable 20th century. Nothing stayed the same. Hemlines, music, gender roles and ways of getting around town were all transformed. The very foundation of capitalism, the stock market, displayed its unreliability in 1929 by crumbling, sending the economy into a tailspin and leaving thousands without work. Thirteen thousand Toronto men died in Europe between 1914 and 1918, and many who came back were not sure about what they had fought for. Canada had become a respected and independent nation through its contribution of men and arms to the war, and although patriotism and loyalty to Britain still ran high, Canadians' sense of themselves as Canadians (rather than as Britons living in the colonies) had grown stronger. Other values were shaken up. Women who had worked in factories while the men were away now had the vote and were not about to disappear back into the kitchen and long skirts. The young ones cut their hair, rolled down their stockings, started smoking and began going about in cars with men. Ironically, although people were loosening up their morals on every other front, the sale of liquor was prohibited until 1927. Toronto, that maiden aunt of cities, stepped cautiously into the modern world.

The twenties were in many ways the first modern decade of the 20th century, with the introduction of talking movies, the widespread use of gas and electricity and the change in attitudes to women. The pace of city life picked up after the war and never slowed down again. The automobile replaced the horse. Transportation systems amalgamated, expanded and still struggled to keep up. Airports and expressways were built. Radio, movies and mass advertising began to have a huge impact on everyday life, with the U.S. influence growing stronger.

Living conditions for the majority of Torontonians improved as slums were cleared and indoor toilets, central heating, electricity and telephones became the norm. Health care progressed, and there was a corresponding decrease in the death rate from the diseases that had ravaged the population in the previous century: tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, scarlet fever and whooping cough. Baby clinics and better child care lowered infant mortality rates.

This was a period of growth and change in Toronto, with the city expanding its services, building new housing and planning for the future. Then the Depression hit with the stock market crash of 1929, and the world tilted again. Massive unemployment rocked the foundations of society. Ordinary people saw their dreams crumble as they worked longer hours for lower wages or lost their jobs. Modern society seemed at the point of collapse. Even the royal family proved unreliable, with love (of all things) apparently triumphing over duty and the empire, when Edward VIII abdicated the throne for the questionable Wallis Simpson in 1936.

Yet Toronto, with its diversified economy and lower unemployment rate, was not as badly off as nearly everywhere else in Canada. Building projects were completed, housing standards were reformed and people survived. Life went on. Many women still put up great quantities of jam every fall, despite the availability of the commercial varieties, and men always wore hats. Eaton's had $1 sales, and people went to movies at the Uptown and watched the Dumbells at the Royal Alex. They filled their cars with gasoline and drove the new superhighway -- the Queen Elizabeth Way -- to Hamilton. Well-behaved Torontonians never worked on Sunday, but filled the churches instead.

Manufacturers vied for consumers with the latest models of gas stoves, wringer-washers and safety tires. Hemlines, waistlines and hair lengths went up and down. Alcohol, although prohibited for most of one decade, was always readily available. People swarmed to Sunnyside Amusement Park to swim and go on rides. They filled Maple Leaf Stadium to watch baseball. Long-distance swimming, beauty pageants and strange fads (like sitting on flagpoles for days) became popular. People went to the movies and listened to their favourite radio programs; and, in the late thirties, many Torontonians painted their houses and planted front gardens to welcome the new king and queen, as part of the 'Beautify Toronto for the Royal Visit' campaign.

In the 1920s and 1930s Canada's identity was still intimately tied to Britain. The three royal visits during this time were met with wild enthusiasm. The presence of the royal figures not only reinforced patriotic feeling toward England, but also provided everyone in the city with excitement and entertainment.

In 1921, 85 percent of Torontonians were of British ancestry The remaining 15 percent was split among Jews (the largest group, at about 6 percent), Italians, French, Finns, Greeks, Macedonians, Chinese, Japanese and blacks. Prejudice and racism were accepted by the majority of Canadians. Jews were banned from beaches and hotels, and the middle class did their best to keep them out of their professions. There were very few Jewish teachers, university professors, nurses, doctors or architects. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants formed the majority in Toronto between the wars. British values and patriotism were encouraged throughout society and particularly at schools, with 'God Save the King' as the national anthem and textbooks filled with British references. Children of immigrants were moulded as quickly and firmly as possible into little British-loving Canadians, no matter what their provenance.

Eighty-five percent of Torontonians were Protestants, with Anglicans claiming the most souls and the Presbyterians and the Methodists ranking second and third. Although some Presbyterians dissented, in 1925 these latter two Protestant groups joined forces with the Congregationalists to become the United Church of Canada. There were two services every Sunday at Toronto churches and, with the blue laws in full force, everything but church shut down tight all day. Even tobogganing in High Park on Sunday was strictly forbidden. Ernest Hemingway famously complained that he couldn't buy a box of chocolates for a sick friend at a drugstore on a Sunday in Toronto in the mid-1920s.

The Ontario Temperance Act came into effect in 1916 and lasted until 1927, when the Liquor Control Act was passed. During Prohibition, as this period was called, all bars, liquor stores and clubs were closed down. People were allowed to keep liquor in their own homes, as long as they had bought it outside the province. Otherwise, would-be drinkers went to bootleggers or to one of the scores of willing doctors who wrote prescriptions for medicinal alcohol use. Toronto was dry, but not parched.

Looking back from the perspective of today, these two decades take on a certain poignancy, framed as they were between the shadows of the two world wars. Torontonians struggled to live and work in the midst of social upheaval, changing moral codes, the Depression and the growing pains of the expanding city. The pictures that follow and the stories that accompany them provide a window into that time and place.


The Presence of the Past

Life in the City, 1919-1939

Photo Credits

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