Ontario's Past: 8 Interesting Items

January 17, 2019 | David

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Collage of old historical items with an outline of Ontario

Below are eight bits of Ontario history preserved by Toronto Public Library, from a political ad to a fast food poster.

These digitized items — and thousands more — are available on Digital Archive Ontario, a website for exploring historical photos, postcards, maps and books from across the province. (I recently found an old photo of where I was born.)

Keep in mind: items on this list are dated after Canada's confederation in 1867, when Ontario officially became a province. But the land has a much longer history, starting with Indigenous peoples then continuing with the arrival of French colonists and later settlers who knew the region as Upper Canada and then Canada West.


1. Ad from first provincial election (1867)

A political campaign artile titled To the Electors of the North Riding of the county of Ontario

This advertisement dates back to September 3, 1867, the day of Ontario's first general election. It supports "Reformers" (a term for Liberals, who modeled themselves after the Reform Party) and opposes "Tories" (a term still used today for Conservatives). 

While the piece is more verbose than modern political ads, its impassioned rhetoric is familiar. The author criticizes his opponents for "their vile documents to mislead the unwary" while praising his allies as "your friends in your hours of trouble." (Though less common, some early Ontario political ads were much more concise.)

Explore more ads from the 1800s, including one candidate's fierce response to an unflattering newspaper article.


2. Emigration map (1870)

Map of what is now Southern Ontario with routes as well as a border of scenic illustrations across the province

After confederacy, federal and provincial agricultural officials were responsible for immigration. Maps like this were designed to entice farmers from the British Isles. It is part practical guide (townships with settler incentives are marked) and part travel brochure (idyllic scenes form a decorative frame). 

Ontario Department of Immigration published the above map, as well as The British Farmer's and Farm Labourers' Guide to Ontario, the Premier Province of the Dominion of Canada (1880). In addition to cheap land and free amenities, the guide promotes "there is no colony where all the surrounding and associations are so much like those of 'home' as Ontario."

Check out a firsthand account, What Emigration Really Is (1871) by a settler of Canada and Australia. Or take a look at this much older map of Lake Ontario.


3. "Merit cards" for students (1870)

Illustration of a man welcoming boy into a room with 10 merits written on top and punctuality written on bottom

Public school teachers gave students these merit cards for good behaviour. Four categories — "Diligence", "Good Conduct," "Perfect Recitation," "Punctuality" — were available in denominations of 1, 10, 50 and 100. A contemporaneous document from Ontario's Educational Depository details the prices and purpose of the prize system.

The Journal of Education for Ontario (1868) reported that 1,541 schools at the time used prizes — including "prize books." According to the journal, merit cards were useful because they (1) provided feedback throughout the term, not just after final exams, and (2) included religious mottoes "worthy of imitation."

Also of interest: The Ontario Readers (1884), a book to teach children how to read, "authorized for use in the public schools of Ontario by the Minister of Education."


4. Ontario encyclopedia (1885)

Pie chart showing the origins of people of Ontario

This chart is just one page in a 200+ page book, Ontario County Gazetteer and Canadian Cyclopædia. The author says the book is "what every intelligent citizen, whatever his occupation, needs to have always within easy reach, and to which he will constantly resort for the helpful information he is sure to find in its pages;" it is a publication for "this intensely busy age."

Here are a few of its entries:

  • Antidotes for Poisons
  • Birds, Ages attained
  • Chattel Mortgages 
  • Debt, Arrest for
  • Interesting Facts
  • Married Women, Legal Rights of
  • Wells, Capacity of

Two related publications, also digitized: Ontario, Premier Province of Canada: Description of the Province, Political Institutions, Natural Resources, Attractions for Tourist, Sportsman and Settler (1897); Oxford Course in Canadian History, Book 9: Ontario (1928).


5. Map promoting prohibition (1909)

Map of southern Ontario divided into municipalities color coded to show which places had probibition  didn't have prohibition

This shows the methodical effort of the temperance movement to prohibit the sale of alcohol in Ontario. White areas were "under prohibition." Black areas were "under license" (no prohibition). And red areas had upcoming votes on prohibition. 

Why did groups like the Dominion Alliance — which published the above map — advocate prohibition? In short: "Temperance activists and their allies... believed that alcohol, especially hard liquor, was an obstacle to economic success, social cohesion and to moral and religious purity" (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

At a provincial level, temperance efforts finally succeeded (for a time) with The Ontario Temperance Act in 1916. In the 1920s, The Dominion Scientific Temperance Committee created striking posters in support of prohibition.


6. Notice of Parliament burning down (1916)

Bulletin about the parliament burning down

This bulletin was posted the day after a fire burned down the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on February 3, 1916. Seven individuals died. The cause of the fire is one of the great mysteries of Canadian history. Some believe that it was started by German saboteurs, since it happened during the First World War.

Learn about more Ontario fires during the 20th century with images from our archives.


7. Northern Ontario travel guide (1929)

Book cover with Ontario crest  image of road and automobile with title Ontario the Ferguson Highway Beauty spots and points of Interest in Northern Ontairo

The Department of Northern Development (now Ministry of Northern Development and Mines) published this brief illustrated guide. William Finlayson, the Minister at the time, wrote: 

The object of this booklet is to enlighten the tourist, concerning the features of beauty and attraction along the route of Ferguson Highway [...]

If the lure of the open country — the appeal of the forest and the shimmering blue lakes  — offers attractive possibilities in prospect, then the information contained in this little booklet may help to swing aside for the reader, the portals of the Gateway to the Northland Promise.

The Ferguson Highway, completed in 1927, ran from North Bay to Cochrane — it connected southern Ontario with the new agricultural and mining regions in the north. It was named in honour of George Howard Ferguson, Premier of Ontario (1923-1930). 

For more on Ontario's infrastructure, see our post about bridges in Ontario


8. Tim Horton's poster (1960s)

Poster with illustrated man holding soda and hotdog  advertising prices for meals and listing 7 locations

Did you know Tim Horton's used to sell hot dogs? (I didn't.) If you look closely, you can see "Coorsh" on the cartoon's uniform. Coorsh was a Canadian meat seller that reached its commercial peak in the the late 1960s.

This piece of ephemera — i.e. a piece meant only to be used for a limited time — advertises the iconic franchise named after its co-founder, Canadian hockey player Miles Gilbert "Tim" Horton (hence the cartoon's skates). The poster lists five stores in Toronto, one in Port Credit and the original Hamilton location, opened in 1964.



Go ahead, see what you can find on Digital Archive Ontario!