12 Wonderfully Niche Books about Toronto History

November 20, 2018 | David

Comments (4)

Blue-tinted old photo of busy library reading room

The stacks in Toronto Public Library hold thousands of books about our city's history. Some can only be read in the library ("Reference Only") but there are hundreds you can borrow. All books listed here are available to take home.

These are no ordinary history books. Each one is devoted to a very specific subject. They range from a history of Toronto's dead to a history of Toronto's dairies — and some are hard to find anywhere but the library. Lovers of all-things-history and all-things-Toronto, this list is for you.


Book cover with flowering skull and Toronto skyline

1. The Toronto Book of the Dead (2017)

History meets morbidity. By investigating deaths linked to Toronto, Adam Bunch exhumes the city's past. The book covers First Nations burial mounds, wars, duels, séances, murders and more. It's split into six periods: "Founding," "The War of 1812," "Democracy," "The Booming Metropolis," "The Great Wars" and "The Modern City." A perfect late-night read... just make sure your doors are locked.


Book cover with newspaper font and old image of individuals reading papers on the street

2. Newspaper City: Toronto's Street Surfaces and the Liberal Press, 1860-1935 (2017)

Did you know there were fierce debates about paving streets in early Toronto? Philip Gordon Mackintosh's academic book scrutinizes how two Toronto newspapers advocated for paving "as the leading expression of modern urbanity, despite the broad resistance of property owners." Mackintosh relies on extensive newspaper research while addressing the challenges of this kind of research.


Book cover with old map in background

3. The Toronto Carrying Place: Rediscovering Toronto's Most Ancient Trail (2015)

This book has a niche geographic focus: the historic 45 kilometre trail from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe known as the Toronto Carrying Place. But this one portage route is essential to Toronto's history — it encompasses Indigenous history as well as activities of early French and English settlers. Teacher-librarian Glenn Turner includes maps and photos to bring the trail to life.


Old image of building

4. Lost Breweries of Toronto (2014)

Beer expert Jordan St. John (The Ontario Craft Beer Guide) explores the history of Toronto breweries and brewers such as William Helliwell, Lother Reinhardt, Enouch Turner and Joseph Bloor. The book highlights what has been lost and what still exists today. Also included: reconstructed brewing recipes from the nineteenth-century.


Graphic of the outline of the word don with a ravine pictured inside

5. Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (2014)

Not only is this book about a particular region, the Don River Valley — it further hones in on the region's environmental history. Historian Jennifer L. Bonnell does a deep-dive into the interplay between Toronto residents and the Don River Valley. The book traces this history from the 1790s (when the town of York was established) to the 1960s (when Don Valley Parkway was built).


Book cover with black and white image of cityscape

6. Toronto Street Names: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins (2011)

Ever wonder why Yonge Street is called Yonge Street? How about Lawrence or Danforth Avenue? Street names can be both familiar and mysterious. Leonard Wise and Allan Gould provide bite-sized histories of over 300 street names that commemorate people or events. This expanded addition is packed with even more historical goodness, including walking tour maps.


Vintage red streetcar boarding passengers

7. Toronto Streetcars Serve the City (2014)

Move over San Francisco. Streetcars are a hallmark of our city, too. Author and son-of-a-streetcar-motorman Kenneth C. Springirth documents Toronto's iconic streetcar system in this photographic essay. And he is not alone. The history of Toronto streetcars is the subject of several books, such as Toronto Trolleys in Color (2010) and Not a One-Horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and its Streetcars (1986).


 Book cover with photo of old brick home with interesting design

8. Old Toronto Houses (2008)

It's hard to find a book with a title as self-explanatory as this one. Coloured photos of over 250 Toronto dwellings make this large volume is a visual feast. It's also informative. The book chronicles the city's influential architectural styles from Georgian to Art Deco. A neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood guide includes areas outside of Toronto's core added to this updated edition.


Book cover map of Toronto stylized with concrete effect

9. Concrete Toronto: A Guide to Concrete Architecture from the Fifties to the Seventies (2007)

Full disclosure: I like brutalist architecture (perhaps due to my fond memories studying in University of Toronto's unapologetically concrete Robarts Library). This collection of articles, interviews, case studies and images is all about Toronto's concrete buildings — many of which fall into that "brutalist" style. The book's insights come from architects, academics, city planners, historians and other experts.


Image of uniformed man on horse

10. The Mounted Squad: An Illustrated History of the Toronto Mounted Police 1886-2000 (2001)

After successfully controlling the Toronto Street Railway Strikes in 1886, Toronto's Mounted Squad became a significant part of the city's law enforcement. In addition to a history of Toronto's Mounted Police, the book attempts to answer why the Mounted Police "remain remarkably durable in an age where many of our historical practices have been put on the shelf."


Cover of book with horse carrying dairy cart

11. When Milk Came in Bottles: A History of Toronto Dairies (1997)

Can you resist a book with a horse-drawn milk delivery wagon on its cover? Until the 1960s, scenes of milk deliveries were common. (The rise in automobile ownership rendered the service obsolete.) A former milkman recalls that milkmen were considered "a neighbourhood fixture, almost part of the family." This niche book is about more than deliveries, though — it lists all the dairies in Toronto and documents their history. 


Book cover with library label and image of night lights

12. Bright Lights, Big City: The History of Electricity in Toronto (1991)

This hard-to-find booklet is a companion piece to a Market Gallery exhibit by the same name. In addition to this 61-page book, another useful resource for electricity enthusiasts (electrothusiasts? hydrophiles?) is a virtual exhibit by City of Toronto Archives: Turning on Toronto: A History of Toronto Hydro.



Still not satisfied? Here's a quick list of another dozen niche Toronto history books:

Or maybe you're just interested in architecture? Check out our post, Eleven Great Books about Toronto's Architecture.

You might also enjoy history programs at Toronto Public Library — and our Digital Archive