"The Luminous Appearances of the Sea" and Other Old Library Programs

November 30, 2018 | David

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Men in old library reading with hats placed on tables

What programs did Toronto Public Library offer 150 years ago? It's a bit of a trick question. From 1830-1883, it was the Toronto Mechanics' Institute — the library's forerunner — that offered comparable educational programming. The institute was for working class Torontonians. So what programs did it offer? Several printed broadsides (posters) from our Digital Archive reveal specific lectures and classes — you might even think of these as early library programs.

Old paper titled Toronto Mechanics' Institute and reads Lectures to be delivered in the hall of the Institute during the Winter of 1853-4 and then lists programs

While there are some commonalities, these lectures were quite different than programs nowadays. Consider the term “lecture.” It suggests a formal structure with an academic focus. Indeed, many of the speakers had the title “Professor” or “Rev.” (Reverend), both associated with higher education at the time. Participatory storytimes, these were not. That said, more recent posters — like the one below from 1875 — list practical “classes” like “Book-Keeping” and “Telegraphic Operating.”

Yellowed paper with big letters reading Evening Classes and then a list of classes

Here’s a sample of program names:

  • The Luminous Appearances of the Sea
  • Anomalies in the the Structure of Leaves
  • Wax Flower Making
  • The Mechanism of the Human Hand
  • The Emotions
  • The Advertisements of Ancient Romans
  • Ancient Bibliography
  • Water, Hydrogen, &c.
  • Disinfectants and Deodorizers
  • The Respiratory Function of Animals
  • The Poetry of Insanity
  • Philosophy—falsely so called

Unlike the library's current programs, these programs were not free. In some cases tickets were free or discounted for members, but membership was paid. Pricing was also tiered for single lectures versus full courses. While most current programs are single sessions, these older programs lasted weeks — the listed dates were just start dates. Some posters mention prizes “awarded amongst the most successful pupils” worth “one hundred dollars.”

bottom segment of poster with conditions such as prices and organizing members

In the item above, you might notice the line: “Ladies are especially invited.” There was debate about limiting women to courses “pertaining to their position in the world” but women were nonetheless encouraged to attend courses with incentives. Women attended for free or at a discounted rate. In part, the lower rates reflected the reality that working class women were paid less than men. By the late 1870s, 11% of students in evening classes were young women.

Young adults in general were a popular demographic for the institute. In the late 1870s, 65% of the students of evening classes were 18 years old or younger. In this sense, the library’s services to youth has very deep roots.

Vintage library card

See Toronto Public Library's brief timeline of the Toronto Mechanics' Institute and beyond. For deeper dives into the classes of the institute, check out these academic articles:



Digital Archive lets you access over 150,000 photos, postcards, maps, rare books and more from the library’s collections.

Explore more digitized library-related items here or explore the programs and classes we're currently offering.