March 6: Happy Birthday to Toronto and Toronto Public Library!

March 6, 2017 | Barbara Myrvold

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March 6 is an important date in the history of Toronto and the Toronto Public Library. 

The City of Toronto was established 183 years ago today. On March 6, 1834, royal assent was given to "An act to extend the limits of the town of York, to erect the said town into a city and to incorporate it under the name of the City of Toronto".

The incorporated city - the first in the province - reverted to its earlier name of Toronto, derived from an Iroquoian term meaning 'where there are trees in water', referring to fishing weirs at the narrows between "Lac de Toronto" (Lake Simcoe) and Lake Couchiching. 

Toronto map 1750s
Detail of Carte générale du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France, 1753 One of the first maps to use "Toronto" to apply specifically to the present site of the city. This was a military map, and the flag indicated the French fort at Toronto.

The new city had a population of just over 9,000. It was bounded by Bathurst Street on the west, Parliament Street on the east, a line 400 yards north of Lot Street (Queen Street) in the north and the lake on the south.  Beyond the city proper were “liberties”, land for future expansion, which extended to Dufferin on the west, Bloor on the north, and, on the east, the Don River south to today's Queen, and then eastwards beyond Ashbridge's Bay. Journalist and radical politician William Lyon Mackenzie became the city's first mayor in the municipal election held on March 27. 

Toronto in 1834
Detail of City of Toronto and Liberties, 1834. James Grant Chewett (1793-1862)

Fifty years later, on March 6, 1884, the most prominent event to celebrate the city's semi-centennial was the official opening of Toronto Public Library. (The first branch, Northern, located on the outskirts of the city in Yorkville, had opened a few weeks earlier on February 18.) Invitations were sent to "the foremost citizens in all walks of life," and a large crowd filled the Library's reading room, spilling into adjacent areas. 

Toronto Public Library March 61884 Invitation
Invitation to Toronto Public Library official opening, March 6, 1884

A majority of Toronto voters had supported a municipally-funded library open to all citizens at the local election held on New Year's Day 1883.  The Toronto Mechanics' Institute (which had been the leading centre for adult education since 1830) transferred its 5,000-volume library and 22-year-old building at the northeast corner of Adelaide and Church streets to the new public library board. 

Toronto Public Library 1884
Toronto Public Library's main building, 1884. The Library retained a branch in this building until 1927.  It was demolished in 1949.

John Hallam, the first chair of the Toronto Public Library Board, presided over the opening ceremonies.  Lieutenant-governor Sir John Beverly Robinson was on the platform as were other prominent citizens, including several strong advocates of the public library movement in Toronto such as Rev. Henry Scadding and Daniel Wilson, the president of the University of Toronto.  Wilson delivered the opening address, proclaiming "Today Toronto celebrates its first half century's existence.  Today...we fittingly mark its advent by the opening of the first Free Public Library in Canada."

The Globe devoted four-and-a-half columns to the event, giving a full account of the speeches and even publishing an ode that had been especially written for the occasion. After the formal ceremonies, the library was opened to the general public, and thousands visited the new institution.  In the evening, there was a dance "with electric lights thoughtfully provided."  Throughout it all the women’s dresses, noted in great detail by the Toronto Daily News, competed for attention.  

Much has changed over the years.  Toronto is now the most populous city in Canada with more than 2.7 million residents.  Through a series of municipal annexations between 1883 and 1998, it stretches 43 km from east to west and 21 km from north to south at its longest points.  Toronto facts

Toronto Skyline
Toronto skyline (image courtesy of Sean E on a creative commons licence)

Toronto Public Library is the world's busiest urban public library system with more than 18 million visits in 2015.  It has 100 branches and collections comprised of over 10.6 million items including books, CDs, DVDs and eBooks, with 40 languages represented in library materials. Toronto Public Library key facts; history

Toronto Reference Library Interior
Toronto Public Library's flagship branch, Toronto Reference Library.