Shop Local: A Look Back at Toronto's Early Retail History

March 5, 2021 | Nicole

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As the lockdown continues, I find myself fantasizing about shopping. Not online shopping, but leisurely strolling down a busy city street with a friend, popping into small shops along the way. So I decided to do some window shopping in our digital collections. 

TPL's Digital Archive is our database of over 170,000 historical photos, books, maps and more. For research or nostalgia, it's a great resource for photos of storefronts, product catalogues and advertisements from Toronto's past. 


Shopping in Toronto: 1800–1900

Alexander Wood’s House & Shop, circa 1800s

Alexander Wood settled in York (Toronto) in 1797. His shop on King Street East and Frederick Street was one of only three stores in York at that time. (Learn why Alexander Wood came to be seen as a pioneer of Toronto's gay village.)

A simple line drawing of a two story business with shuttered windows. A woman walks towards it
Pen & ink drawing by Owen Staples (1866–1949).


Mercantile Row in York (Toronto), 1833

As York’s settler population grew, so did the market for general stores and more specialized shops selling dry goods, clothing, hardware and medication. Shops were family-owned and operated, few employed outside help. In the 1830s, this part of King Street East was a busy strip. Pictured are the shops of William Proudfoot, Robert McKay and John Sproule.


The Golden Griffin, 1872

King Street remained Toronto's main commercial strip for most of the 19th century. The Golden Griffin and the Golden Lion (both founded in the 1840s) were two of the largest shops of the day, carrying the latest in European fashions and homewares. They were hard to miss: each storefront was topped with a massive stone Griffin and Lion, respectively.


The Golden Lion, 1885

Big retailers like the Golden Griffin and the Golden Lion offered a shopping experience that would be familiar to shoppers today. Customers could browse items on display with a set ticket price (no bartering or haggling required!). They also accepted cash, as shown on this receipt from 1885.   


Warerooms of R. S. Williams & Sons Pianos, 1890

Starting in the 1850s, a new type of building for buying and selling appeared on the streets of Toronto. "Warerooms" or “warehouses,” like the one illustrated here, allowed customers to browse a wide selection of goods on multiple floors. Large, ground-floor windows also created a new pastime: window shopping. 


T. Eaton & Co., 1884

Irish-born Timothy Eaton (1834–1907) opened a dry-goods and clothing store in Toronto in 1869. His shop found quick success with cash sales and easy returns. By 1883, he opened a multi-story department store in the new shopping district of Yonge Street. It was a modern marvel: electric lighting, elevators, 300 employees and 35 departments. It carried everything from produce to bicycles, toys to cosmetics. The company’s first mail order catalogue, shown here, transformed shopping across the country. Eaton's quickly became the country's largest retailer.  


Robert Simpson Company Department Store, 1895

Robert Simpson (1834–1897), a Scottish immigrant, opened a small dry goods store in Toronto in 1871. By 1880, he had 13 employees. Simpson later opened a towering department store at the southwest corner of Yonge and Queen Street that sold dry goods, carpets, wallpaper, footwear, books, food and dinnerware. The store advertised in 1896: “Millions in merchandise. Cheapness unmeasured. They bring happiness.”


Yonge Street Arcade, 1885

By the 1880s, small business owners struggled to compete with massive department stores dominating the retail market in Toronto. Built in 1883, Canada’s first indoor shopping mall — the Toronto Arcade — offered affordable downtown rental space to 52 eclectic shops. An iconic retail landmark on Yonge Street (and Temperance Street) for 70 years, it was demolished in 1954.


R.B. Butland Music Store, 1890

In the photo below, shop manager George Marshall Verrall stands in front of a busy storefront on King Street near Bay filled with printed music and instruments from banjos to xylophones. The shop's founder, Richard Brooking Butland (1830–1886), was also active in amateur theatre productions in Toronto.


John Atkinson’s Shop, 1894

Outside of downtown, shoppers continued to buy and barter for supplies at general stores like this one, run by John Atkinson and his wife at Yonge and Lawrence. For 61 years, the Atkinsons sold hardware, food, clothing and penny candy to local farmers.


The Paterson Brothers Grocery, 1900

Thomas, John and Robert Paterson ran this grocery and general store at Danforth and Dawes Road that also sold necessities like coal and wood. Danforth had few retailers until after the Bloor Viaduct was completed in 1918. During winter, horse-drawn sleighs hauled goods from farms and railways to shops.


Toronto Trade Cards

Something between a postcard and a business card, trade cards were a popular form of early print advertisement. These small pieces of ephemera capture long-lost Toronto businesses. 

Trade cards first appeared in France in the 1600s, but had their golden age in the late 1800s. A new print technology called lithography made it possible to mass produce them cheaply in full color.

Trade cards feature an image on one side with text on the back. Like "stock photography", trade card images were often re-purposed by printers. Sometimes the image had little to nothing to do with the company or product being sold. (Not sure why this jewelry shop thought this whimsical cycling image would help them sell watches, as seen in one of the cards below...)

Trade cards were also designed to be collectible like baseball cards. Retailers would hand them to potential customers or slip them in with a store purchase. 

They started to disappear by 1900, as advances in colour printing made newspaper and magazine ads more appealing to advertisers. 

Below are a few of my favourites from the Digital Archive.








Update: Pre-Colonial Trade

Interested in learning more about pre-Colonial trade in what is now Toronto? Here are some resources that may be useful:

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