In 1901, Queen Victoria and her era passed away. At that moment, Toronto was the Dominion of Canada’s second largest urban centre after Montreal (having surpassed Quebec City shortly after Confederation). Economic growth derived heavily from financial services and the creation of companies to manage them. A good example of that commercial strength was the city’s Bank of Commerce. In 1915 it boasted 379 branches across Canada along with a number of international offices. Much of the profit made by the banks (and stockbrokers, lawyers, and others) came from financing lumber, farming, and mining expansion throughout the country during an era when primary production generated much of the nation’s prosperity. As might be expected, rail and water transportation systems grew to meet the demand. The creation of the Toronto Harbour Commission in 1911 by the federal government was particularly significant because of the commission’s work to rectify decades of inadequate and uncoordinated development on the waterfront, beginning with a revitalized plan for the harbour in 1912. Older wholesale and retail businesses, service industries, and manufacturing also participated in the economic expansion of the time. In fact, with 65,000 workers, manufacturing was the single largest source of employment for the city’s residents in the 1911 census year. (Many workers found employment in pork packing, and hence Toronto gained its famous nickname, ‘Hogtown,’ although at least some people in small-town Ontario thought it referred to the greed of the city’s banks and businesses.) In comparison, commerce and finance engaged 40,000 people that year, the building trades offered work to 20,000 (much of it seasonal), and domestic service and similar jobs provided 18,000 ‘situations.’

Construction on Ashbridge’s Bay, 1912; Corner of King and York Streets, C.1912 (City of Toronto Archives)

The City of Toronto’s population grew strikingly during the first two decades of the century, from 208,000 in 1901 to 522,000 by 1921. Afterwards, the rate of expansion slowed, but nevertheless the number of residents increased to 668,000 by 1941. One of the legacies of this increase is the large inventory of Edwardian-era structures in today’s city. Indeed, house construction did not pick up to pre-1918 levels again until the 1950s. Many charming, and often grand buildings that survive from the early 20th century represent the better examples from that time. In reality, housing, public infrastructure, and the other elements of urban planning and design posed major challenges. Downtown, there was a grim, but now-gone slum – ‘the Ward’ – located west of Bay Street and north of Queen, which absorbed a portion of the city’s poor. Another neighbourhood of intense poverty blighted the city east of the Don River along Queen Street. Beyond the city limits, ‘unplanned suburbs’ appeared, often with sub-standard, self-built dwellings constructed without municipal control. Many of them were mere shacks. It was not until the coming of the Depression in 1929 that officials took steps to improve housing standards, but even then the efforts were modest, and a large proportion of Torontonians suffered in slums without the running water, heat, and other amenities that had come to be accepted as standard in the early-20th-century city. In contrast, some affluent inter-war suburban developments, such as the Kingsway and Lawrence Park, were constructed to very high standards, and remain particularly desirable residential areas today.

Elizabeth Street: Housing, C.1910 (City of Toronto Archives)

Reacting to problems such as the lack of amenities and uninspiring urban environments, reformers, philanthropists, and others worked to make Toronto into an attractive and culturally enriched place. For instance, the international City Beautiful Movement of the early 1900s helped to provide the intellectual foundations for constructing important landmarks, such as the Beaux-Arts Union Station, built during the First World War (but not opened until after), as well as for some of the first major efforts to bring urban growth into a planned and regulated framework. Many of Toronto’s famous cultural institutions also began life at that time. The Art Gallery of Toronto (now Art Gallery of Ontario) started in 1900, followed by the Royal Ontario Museum in 1912. In the 1930s, Fort York ceased to be a military base, enabling the city to restore it to join Colborne Lodge as the city’s second historic site museum. Musically, the Toronto Symphony took shape in the early decades of the century, and the city became famous for the quality of its choirs. New performance venues, such as the Royal Alexandra and the Winter Garden theatres of 1907 and 1914 joined Victorian institutions to provide theatrical settings for people’s amusement. Naturally, the early 20th century saw the construction of dozens of movie theatres, which presented silent films until ‘talkies’ arrived in 1927 (and which increased the impact of American commercial culture in British-colonial Toronto at a time when people went to the movies more frequently than they would once the television age arrived). Older cultural institutions also matured. For example, at the University of Toronto, Hart House was built between 1911 and 1919 to enhance students’ cultural and athletic life (at least for men until women won the battle for full membership decades later, in 1972).

The Grange, C.1909 (constructed C.1817); Royal Ontario Museum, 1922 (constructed 1914 (City of Toronto Archives)

Beyond the bricks and mortar of cultural institutions, Toronto was home to a large number of creative individuals in the early decades of the last century. Among the more famous whose works have stood the test of time were the composer, organist, and choirmaster, Healey Willan, the composer and conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan, the painters in the Group of Seven, mural painter and craftswoman Sylvia Hahn, and novelists Hugh Garner and Morley Callaghan. In science, Toronto’s most famous contribution in the early 1900s was the discovery of insulin by Charles Best, Frederick Banting, J.J.R. Macleod, and J.B. Collop in 1922. Perhaps the second-best-known invention was the baby food, Pablum, developed by Alan Brown, Fred Tisdall, and Theo Drake in 1931 to provide parents with an easy, non-allergenic cereal that gave infants the Vitamin D they needed to prevent rickets. Three of the better-known intellectuals to emerge in the city at the time were professors at the University of Toronto: political economist Harold Innis, who joined the university in 1920, political theorist C.B. Macpherson, who started his U of T career in 1935, and literary critic Northrop Frye, who took up his appointment in 1939. In other cultural areas, Toronto magazines and periodicals increased their domination of the national market, with Maclean’s and Saturday Night taking the lead. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1936, had its English-language headquarters here, which further strengthened the city’s national influence at a time when radio burst into people’s living rooms and connected their homes to the wider world with thitherto-undreamt immediacy.

Sports and other amusements flourished, as symbolized by the construction of Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street in 1926 to replace the Hanlan’s Point Stadium of 1910 (which itself had superseded an earlier one from the 1890s that had been lost to fire). The city’s 20th-century shrine to hockey, Maple Leaf Gardens, opened in 1931. Later, the city’s sports teams entered their glory days. The Maple Leafs, for example, won the Stanley Cup six times between 1942 and 1951 (and again experienced a winning streak in the 1960s), while in football, the Argos captured the Grey Cup on five occasions between 1945 and 1952. Another early-1900s development occurred at the Canadian National Exhibition: the annual fair had its origins in the Victorian era but some of its more famous structures date to Edwardian times, such as the Press, Music, Government, and Horticultural buildings. Further west, along the lakeshore, stood Sunnyside, ‘the poor man’s Riviera,’ a waterfront amusement park that opened in 1922.

Women’s Hockey, 1912 (City of Toronto Archives)

The immediate post-Second World War period saw a loosening of older rules to make life in the city more congenial. For instance, earlier in the century, the temperance movement had led various areas to go ‘dry,’ as had occurred in West Toronto in 1904, while prohibition had blanketed the province from 1916 to 1927. After widespread prohibition ended, alcohol slowly became available beyond the retail outlets of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and in 1947 ‘cocktail lounges’ opened in Toronto (although West Toronto did not become ‘wet’ again until a startling-late 1999). Other laws that restricted people’s choices in pursuing their recreational opportunities also were modified as restrictive attitudes lost currency. For instance, in 1950 it became legal to enjoy some commercial sports on Sundays in the city.

Streetcars (and to a lesser degree, buses) were the main way people got around town in the first half of the 20th century. Transit was not public at the beginning of the period, being operated instead by a franchised monopoly, the Toronto Railway Company (with other private businesses running lines outside of the city limits). People complained about the TRC’s poor service, overcrowding, antique rolling stock, and labour disruptions. In 1910 a frustrated municipal government built the first of its own routes of the Toronto Civic Railway to extend services to areas where the TRC refused to go. When the TRC’s franchise ran out in 1921, the city took over the transit system entirely, creating the Toronto Transportation Commission. During the inter-war years, the TTC improved services, especially within the city boundaries where population density made transit effective. During the gas rationing of the Second World War, the TTC experienced a ridership boom that generated revenues that later would help finance the construction of the city’s first subway line.

Federal Avenue (proposed), C.1911 (City of Toronto Archives)

Torontonians who could afford to do so embraced the automobile with enthusiasm, as represented by the growth in car ownership from 10,000 in 1916 to 80,000 by 1928. At first, the range of places private vehicles could go in comfort was limited because of the lack of paved roads, often making trains preferable when travelling away from the city. Gas rationing during the Second World War restricted car use further, but automobile ownership exploded with the return of peace in 1945, pushed on by new levels of prosperity, improved inter-urban roads, and suburbanization.

Another sign of Toronto’s modernization in transportation came late in the 1930s when two new commercial airports opened, one on the island (then called ‘Port George VI Airport,’ after the king) and the other at Malton (the latter becoming Lester B. Pearson International in 1984).

York Street, C.1927 (City of Toronto Archives)

Other signs of early-20th-century modernization included the construction of new hospitals, as exemplified by the move of Toronto General from substandard and crowded facilities in the east end to a grand new building in 1914 on College Street at University Avenue on former slum land in the Ward. Other initiatives to make life better included the founding of a public health nursing service in 1908, compulsory pasteurization of milk in 1914, and the requirement, as of 1921, that children stay in school until age 16 instead of 14. This also was a time that saw a boom in establishing formal playing fields, playgrounds, swimming pools, libraries, and other public amenities that enhanced the urban environment and helped to integrate people into the larger life of the community.

Toronto General Hospital, 1913 (City of Toronto Archives)

While there was much to celebrate as the city’s modernization kept pace with developments elsewhere in the western world, the first half of the 20th century witnessed several terrible crises. Some were local in origin, such as the Great Fire of 1904 that destroyed the wholesale district south of King Street between roughly Yonge, Bay, Front, and Melinda. Others were international in origin, with the big three being the First World War of 1914-18, the Great Depression of 1929-39, and the Second World War of 1939-45. Lesser challenges, such as a depression in 1913 and serious labour unrest, also contributed to making life difficult at a time when extreme views, ranging from militant Communism to aggressive laissez-faire Capitalism, fed fears and polarized views across class, ethnic, and other boundaries within the city.

After the Great Fire of 1914 (City of Toronto Archives)

In the First World War, most of Toronto’s military aged men – some 70,000 – flocked to the colours between 1914 and 1918 to fight the Germans and their allies while small numbers of women pursued the limited opportunities open to them in the military. Of these, 13,000 Toronto soldiers and some nursing sisters never returned, and a very large percentage of those who did carried physical and emotional wounds that would cripple them for the rest of their lives. In the city itself, the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition became a military camp, the campus at the University of Toronto became a training facility for officers, and various farm fields outside the built-up areas became aerodromes to prepare men for service in the Royal Flying Corps (which became the Royal Air Force in 1918). Industrialization leapt forward, especially after 1916 as factories struggled to supply the military with the munitions and supplies needed to fight the enemy. The scarcity of male workers caused by enlistments forced employers to hire women on an unprecedented scale, which changed many people’s perceptions of gendered roles and social structures.

Toronto Soldiers, First World War (City of Toronto Archives)

Material shortages put stress on the population. For instance, the winter of 1917-18 was unusually cold, but because of a lack of coal, the government instituted ‘heatless Mondays,’ which increased people’s suffering after spending the other six days of the week shivering with inadequate fuel. The coal shortage forced schools and even wartime industries to shut down temporarily, while pairs of institutions, ranging from offices to churches, moved their workers or congregations into single buildings to save fuel. War brought inflation, increasing the cost of living 50 per cent between 1915 and 1919, leading many hard-pressed people to demand that the federal government control prices. The city’s social fabric suffered: unions accused industrialists of profiteering at the expense of working families, which generally could not make ends meet on one income, and therefore had to send children and spouses to work, as well as take in boarders. Meanwhile, as had been the case before, public or philanthropic sources of aid for those in need during the crisis could not keep up with the tremendous demands placed upon them, in part because the voluntary sector naturally changed much of its focus to war work and patriotic causes.

First World War Memorabilia (City of Toronto Culture)

The Armistice brought the fighting of the ‘war to end all wars’ to a thankful end on 11 November 1918 amid much rejoicing in the streets. Yet, the terrible Spanish influenza epidemic had appeared in Toronto in September that year, and during its worst month, October, it made about half the population sick and put 1,300 Torontonians in their graves. Adding to the misery, an economic downturn followed the coming of peace, making it hard for people to adjust to post-war conditions. Economic constraints restricted the public sector’s ability to address the needs of the less fortunate, while some politicians listened more carefully to individuals who promoted cutbacks in public services and a cap on property taxes. For instance, conservative-minded people in the 1920s attacked public education, claiming that it cost too much, that it embraced too many ‘frills,’ and then misled voters by telling them that class sizes were smaller than they really were in order to advance their agendas. However, home and school associations blossomed from one organization in 1916 to 64 by 1930 to protect students’ interests and to promote such causes as opening school facilities for community use.

The post-war retrenchments were followed by recovery and rising prosperity through most of the 1920s, but then, in October 1929, stock markets around the globe ‘crashed,’ bringing on the Great Depression that scarred life in the city, surrounding areas, and the world beyond for the next decade. Like people elsewhere, Torontonians lost their savings, and even their homes, when businesses laid off workers (raising the unemployment rate in the city to 30 per cent by 1933) and cut the wages of those who retained their jobs (with the result that salaries fell by an average of 40 per cent). The city and the neighbouring jurisdictions found it nearly impossible to cope with the growing demands to help the 25 per cent of the population on relief at the same time that municipal revenues fell precipitously. In fact, the suburban governments around Toronto, except Swansea and Forest Hill, collapsed into bankruptcy under the strain before the provincial and federal governments responded to the crises by assuming significant roles in providing relief.

Things began to improve slowly in 1934, but times nevertheless remained tough. For instance, building construction was modest after projects begun before the Depression were completed early in the 1930s. Much of the building that did occur focused on apartments, which increased the number of people who lived in this form of housing to 30 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, the owners of many large downtown homes converted them from single-family residences into rooming houses and flats as the hard-pressed and increasingly servant-less middle class no longer could cope with these properties and therefore moved to smaller houses farther away from the city centre. This change was particularly noticeable along Jarvis Street, in Parkdale, and in the Annex. Despite the slow revival of the economy, industrial output in 1939 still did not match that of 1929.

Homeless Men in the Don Valley, C.1930 (City of Toronto Archives); Communist Cap, 1936 (City of Toronto Culture)

In 1939, as in 1914, Torontonians rallied to fight as Canada went to war against Germany and her allies. As before, the CNE grounds became a military camp while other facilities sprung up around the city. Perhaps the most unusual one was the Royal Norwegian Air Force base at the island airport, where men trained after their country fell to the Germans, although another contender was the laboratory located in the Casa Loma stables, where workers secretly assembled ASDIC (or sonar) sets so that the warships of the Royal Canadian Navy could hunt Nazi U-boats more effectively. Fortunately the loss of life among Canadians was smaller in this conflict than it had been in the earlier war but nevertheless remained high as city residents perished while serving in the army, navy, air force, and merchant marine. Also, as occurred in the previous war, residents in Toronto from enemy countries fell under a cloud of suspicion, or even were interned, such as occurred among the Italians, whose homeland allied with Adolf Hitler against the Allies.

Wartime Industry in Toronto, 1943 (City of Toronto Archives); Trainees at Toronto Island Airport, 1941 (Library and Archives Canada)

As in the previous conflict, Canada became one of the allies’ pre-eminent suppliers of war materiel. Much of the nation’s output came from new factories in and around Toronto that had been built expressly for the war, the most famous being Victory Aircraft in Malton, which produced Lancaster Bombers for the air forces of the British Commonwealth. Downtown, older enterprises re-tooled to meet wartime needs, with the best known being Inglis, near Strachan and King, which switched from producing household appliances to Bren guns and other armaments for the army.
ExpandSocial Reconstruction, 1943-51
Hoping to avoid the economic problems that followed the end of the First World War, and concerned about the rising demand for social reforms from the population, planners at all levels of government considered how to respond once peace returned even while the fighting raged on in Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. In 1943 the Toronto Reconstruction Council formed to study how the economy could return to peacetime production without the unemployment and other economic challenges that had occurred after 1918. Influenced in large part by British and American social thought and developments, Torontonians, like Canadians everywhere, lived in a time of new government social intervention, as represented by the creation of unemployment insurance in 1940 and family allowances in 1946.

City Lights, 1945 (Estate of Tom Roberts)

Nevertheless numerous problems accompanied the post-war period, such as a widespread lack of housing, which served as one of a number of factors that helped to engender a degree of radicalism in the city. For instance, Torontonians elected some Communists to represent them at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels in the 1940s and 1950s. More broadly, city residents supported the left-leaning Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the New Democratic Party), such as in the 1948 provincial election when the CCF captured the majority of Toronto seats but the province as a whole elected a Conservative government. People’s worries about how the city should evolve regularly degenerated into bitter debate on such issues as how activist the municipal government should be, the place of left-wing politics in the labour movement that grew after new laws improved union rights, and how infrastructure could be enlarged to meet the demands of society, especially as worrisome signs of under-investment – such as electrical shortages in 1948 – made themselves felt among the population.

Many of the immediate post-war tensions faded from the forefront of public concern as Toronto and the Canadian nation entered a new era of prosperity after about 1949, fuelled by consumer spending, increased house construction, and the Korean War of 1950-53 (which again saw Torontonians fight in a foreign land). By 1951, for instance, unemployment fell to a remarkably low 1.3 per cent as employers clamoured for workers to meet the demands placed on their productive capacities. Signs of this change could be seen in the rise in the city’s retail sales, from $400 million in 1941 to $1 billion by 1951 in a community that had experienced only a modest increase in its population during the same period, but which stood on the verge of huge transformations that would remake the face of the city in the decades to come.