Learn All About the History of Your Toronto Home
By Elli Davis, August 16, 2012
Have you ever wanted to know more about when your home was built, who has lived in it throughout the years or what it’s been used for throughout history? You can! The Toronto archives are a great place to find out all the things you’ve always wanted to learn about your home. Located at 255 Spadina Road it’s just steps from the Dupont subway. There is also a parking lot which is free for anyone using the archives — all you have to do is sign in at the front desk.
When you arrive at the archives for the first time you are required to register. All you’ll need to do is fill out a quick form and present a piece of photo ID. From there you’re given a card with a number that grants you access to any records you want to look at. This card acts as your entry into the archives for more than a year. The registration process is also a great opportunity for you to meet one of the archivists and tell him/her more about you’re looking for. Everyone who works there is exceptionally helpful and eager to assist you in your search. So don’t be afraid to tell them why you’re there and seek out their assistance whenever you need.
Starting Your Search
A great way to begin your search is with the fire insurance maps. They are scattered a few years apart and are colour coded to indicate where there is a brick building and where there is a wooden one. This is a great jumping off point as it gives you a sense of when your home first appeared. This is an especially important step since many of the names of Toronto’s streets changed throughout the years. So the number and name of your street may not be the same now as it was back then.
Positive roll film by Wikimedia Commons
From there you can head over to take a peek at the city directories from that year. The city directories are essentially today's yellow pages. Every page of every book for each year is scanned and placed on microfilm. Simply place the roll you’re interested in looking at in the microfilm machine and you can scroll through until you find your address. From there you’ll get the name of the tenant or owner who you can then look up on the same microfilm to discover what he/she did professionally and whether there were any other family members living in the building. You can continue going back through the years until you find a time where your place is listed as a “vacant lot”. Then you’ll know the year following that was the year your home was built.
From there you can track down what are called “assessment rolls.” They are the logs taken down by the city for tax purposes. A binder is used to keep track of all the different city’s wards and which streets are on which page therein. Using this as your guide you can track down a great deal of information on your home and who was occupying it in a particular year. The name, age, profession and religion of the tenant are all listed, as are the amount of stories in the place, the size of it, it’s initial worth, as well as any additions (i.e. stables, etc). It will even tell you how many horses, cows or other pets resided there!
Once you’ve gone through these steps you will likely have become far more comfortable with microfilm and how to work your way through these types of records. So seize the opportunity to dig into whatever you’re most interested in!
Photographs and Records
When you feel you’re done with the microfilm, you can try your luck with finding photographs and records of your home through the years. Sit yourself down at a computer and type in anything associated with your home. The street name, nearest intersection, nearby notable structures (such as churches or city-owned buildings and property) are all great places to start. Sometimes your search will yield a large quantity of results and sometimes it will reveal nothing. You may find lots of info right away or you may have to keep searching for a long time before you find just what you’re looking for.
The best piece of advice to hold onto when you visit the archives is to be patient. There is no science to the process. Even a professional archivist can spend hours looking for the right name or a specific photo. But there is lots of fun and knowledge to be found while you’re there. So be sure to give yourself plenty of time to search and really savor the experience!
Photographs are kept in binders that are well labeled and accessible to everyone. Simply find the information online and then look up the reference numbers as you would in a library. Records, on the other hand are kept in a very large warehouse that can only be tracked down by the archivists. Five boxes of records can be pulled at a time and they take roughly 20 minutes to get. So be prepared for a little bit of a wait.
If you’re interested in more technical aspects of your home such as building permits, there are records dating between 1882 and 1926. If you want records for before or after that timeframe you will likely need to contact the City of Toronto Building Division at City Hall at 416-392-7974. Ask an archivist to help you out in this type of situation.
Visiting the Archives
Old Book in Archives by ALA TechSource
Because materials are one-of-a-kind, they cannot be removed from the archives. But the facilities are open from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and you are welcome to come in during those hours for as long as you need to. And there are computers, light tables, DVDs, VCRs, microfilm readers and plenty of tables and chairs so you can view everything you’d like to while you’re there. You are invited to take pictures of anything you find interesting and can purchase prints of photos or microfilm if you require more tangible records. Some records and photos are scanned and placed online for everyone to access so you can always have fun looking through their online database from home to see what you find.
And the learning doesn’t stop with your house. The archives also hold old government records such as police records going back to 1847, public health records from as early as 1879, TTC records such as maps, construction plans and photographs dating back to 1921, municipal documentation going as far back as 1834 and more. There is also a wide array of non-governmental records and photographs for events and locations all over Toronto. So if you’ve ever wondered about an aspect of Toronto’s history, now’s your chance to find out! Be sure to check out the City of Toronto Archives’ website for more information!