Monday, May 2, 2016

Dream 22 "The Star Harvest" (William Peyton Hubbard, 1911)

The alderman dreamed of a night when the people of Toronto climbed up onto their rooftops, up to the highest branches of all the trees, up cathedral spires and skyscrapers. He joined them, too, high up the clock tower of City Hall. From there, you could reach the stars with a butterfly net. One swipe through the sky might bring down two or three at a time. They shone a soft, cold blue and were smooth to the touch, perfect and round. All over the city, they were collected in baskets and pillowcases and brought down to earth. They were taken to the sides of the roads, along sidewalks and ditches and lawns, where they were planted in the dirt by the light of the moon. By the time the sun rose, they had sprouted into tall, slender silver birches. They lined every street in graceful rows. And when night came again, those trees unfurled lush blue flowers. Inside each one was a brand new baby star. And all of Toronto glowed.

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William Peyton Hubbard was Toronto's first Black alderman — and even served as acting mayor on some occasions. The son of a former slave, he got into politics after saving George Brown (Father of Confederation and owner of the Globe newspaper) from drowning in the Don River. In the early days of electricity, Hubbard was a champion of public ownership of power utilities, teaming up with Sir Adam Beck to bring public power to the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario. 

You can read more about Hubbard on Torontoist here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Toronto's Depression-Era Beauty Queen Baseball Star

Women have been playing baseball for as long as anyone can remember. And for much of that time, they've been playing despite the men who've tried to keep them off the field. In baseball's early days, women were told they were much too fragile to swing a bat or field a grounder. Even Al Spalding, founder of the National League, said that women were welcome to sit in the stands and cheer for the men — but that was it.

"Neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts may play Base Ball on the field," he declared. "Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind, except as she may take part in the grandstands, with applause for the brilliant play, with waving kerchief to the hero of the three-bagger." As if playing shortstop were somehow more physically demanding than, oh, say, giving birth.

Luckily, many women ignored that poor, Victorian advice. And when you look through the oldest photographs in the Toronto Archives, you'll find plenty of women already there, playing baseball on diamonds all over our city. They were forming their own teams and their own leagues, drawing their own big crowds.

By the time the end of the 1930s rolled around, even Miss Toronto herself was getting in on the action.

In 1937, the winner of the annual beauty pageant was a teenage softball pitcher from the Beaches. Billie Hallam's grandmother convinced her to enter the competition. And so, on a hot Saturday afternoon in July, she raced down to the Exhibition Grounds in her swimsuit, where she would parade before a panel of judges and 20,000 spectators. When Hallam was announced as the winner, the Mayor of Toronto presented her with a sash. She was only 17 years old, but in heels, she was already taller than he was.

That night, as the new Miss Toronto, Hallam was due to appear at a celebratory banquet at the Royal York Hotel. But she had business to take care of first. She rushed straight home from the pageant to change her clothes. From there, a police escort rushed her through the streets to Kew Gardens, where her ball team was playing a big game. She cheered them on from the bench in her evening gown, and then raced back downtown to the banquet.

The next morning, she woke to find the press knocking on her door, eager to interview the city's newest beauty icon. One journalist asked a version of the same question men had been asking for years: should women really play sports? Hallam's answer was pretty much the exact opposite of what Spalding had said decades earlier. "[T]here is nothing like exercise and sport," she told the reporter, "to make a girl a real lady."

The next time she returned to the mound, a crowd of more than 10,000 people was there to see her pitch — the most ever for a game at Kew Gardens. At one point, she even did a photo shoot wearing her uniform. You can find those photos in the Archives, too.

Hallam was far from the last Toronto woman to make her mark in the baseball world. More than 10% of the players in the famous All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the league from A League of Their Own — were actually Canadian. In real life, the star of the Rockford Peaches wasn't Geena Davis, it was Gladys Davis, an interior designer from Toronto. Today she's in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and part of a display in Cooperstown.

Decades later, when the Blue Jays brought Major League Baseball to town, The Toronto Star's Alice Gordon made history as the first woman to cover an MLB beat. And she did it in the face of misogynist discrimination from many men in the game, including some of the Jays' own players. When the team travelled to Texas, the Rangers banned all reporters from the clubhouse just so they wouldn't have to let her in.

We have, of course, come a long way since then. Today, there are countless women writing about the game. This season, Jessica Mendoza is breaking new ground as a broadcaster with ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. And on the field, players like Mo'ne Davis are making history, too. But we still have a long way to go. We were reminded of that just last week, when Blue Jays manager John Gibbons claimed that a new rule is making the sport less manly. "You know what, maybe we’ll come out wearing dresses tomorrow," he complained. "Maybe that’s what everyone’s looking for."

Well Gibby, Billie Hallam proved it nearly 80 years ago: you can sure as hell wear an evening gown and still be a damn fine ballplayer, too.

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Kevin Plummer has a much more detailed post about Billie Hallam's crowning as Miss Toronto here. Lots of my info comes thanks to him. And from old articles from Toronto Star written by another one of our city's pioneering journalists, Alexandrine Gibb.

The full, misogynist Al Spalding quote can be found in the book "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line", which you can find on Google Books here. And I originally found part of it in another book, "Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball" which is also on Google Books here

The Rhino, in Parkdale, has a Miss Toronto mural overlooking the patio, as The Vintage Inn points out here.

Photo of Billie Hallam via the Toronto Archives. 
 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Do We Celebrate Toronto's Birthday On A Day That Isn't Actually Toronto's Birthday?!

On March 6, we celebrated Toronto's 182nd birthday — which is weird, because Toronto isn't 182 years old, and it wasn't founded in March. Our city was founded 203 years ago, in the heat of July. But along the way, we've switched from celebrating the day Toronto was actually founded to the day it was officially incorporated as a "city." The reasons have a lot to do with Victorian whitewashing and there are allll kind of implications. And since it's always driven me nuts, I figured that this year I would mark the occasion with a Twitter rant.

(If you can't see the embedded tweets below, you can read them all on Storify here.)


Monday, March 14, 2016

An Awesome Empire Day Float from 1927


It's Commonwealth Day today, which we used to call Empire Day back when there was still an empire. The holiday started here in Ontario in the late 1800s and then spread across the rest of the colonies. And it was actually the Trudeau government who suggested the current date: the second Monday of March.

Every year, they have a big multi-faith shindig at Westminster Abbey in London; all the best royals show up. Today, the Queen used it as a chance to ask all members of the Commonwealth to welcome those "who feel excluded from all walks of life" — a big change in tone from the oppressive old world-conquering, Catholic-hating, Anglican-or-bust days of the empire, which saw plenty of blood spilled in the streets of Toronto back in the time when we were known as the Belfast of North America.

The best part of Empire Day? The awesome archival photos of old-timey floats. Like the one above: the Britannia float from Toronto's Empire Day parade in 1927.

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Photo via the Toronto Archives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For International Women's Day: Five Fascinating Stories from the History of Toronto

Today is International Women's Day, which we've been celebrating since 1910, back in the days when not only were Canadian women not allowed to vote, our country didn't even consider them to be persons. The event has its own fascinating history, which you can learn more about on Wikipedia here — while my friend Rebekah Hakkenberg shared her own thoughts about the occasion on this day six years ago, and shared some great photos from the history of feminism, too.

I thought I'd mark this year's Women's Day by searching through the archives of this blog, looking for the most interesting stories about women from history of Toronto. It's been a valuable experience — and an important reminder: that I need to always strive to a better job of telling stories that are about people who aren't the old white dudes who have dominated so much of the storytelling about the history of our city.

Below, you'll find five of my favourites. From Elizabeth Simcoe and the founding of our city, to the blood-soaked nurses who saved lives during the First World War, to the death of the notorious anarchist who they called "the most dangerous woman in the world."


Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams
Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death.... While Simcoe set to work planning his new capital, Elizabeth was charged with the task of bringing aristocratic British culture to this remote outpost tucked between the primordial Canadian forest and the vast waters of Lake Ontario. As the fledgling town began to take shape and the families of other government officials arrived, Elizabeth Simcoe was at the centre of social life in the new settlement... [continue reading this post] 


Two Toronto Nurses & One of the Most Terrible Nights of the First World War
One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.

But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion... [continue reading this post]


Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon
It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen... [continue reading this post]


One Last Victory for the Most Dangerous Woman in the World
The Most Dangerous Woman in the World was playing a quiet game of cards. It was a snowy Toronto evening in the winter of 1940, that first terrible winter of the Second World War. She was staying with friends at their home on Vaughan Road, waiting for a meeting to begin. That's when she slumped over in her chair. It was a stroke. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century couldn't speak a word. 

This wasn't the end most people would have expected for Emma Goldman. For decades now, she'd been the most notorious anarchist on earth. Her ideas made nations tremble: thoughts about freedom and free speech and free love; about feminism and marriage and birth control; about violence and pacifism and war. She'd been thrown out of the United States for those ideas, forced to flee Soviet Russia, driven out of Latvia, Sweden, Germany... [continue reading this post]


Frances Loring and her life-long partner, Florence Wyle, had come to Toronto in the early 1900s. They'd both been born in the United States and shared a studio in Greenwich Village. They were at home in that neighbourhood's bohemian atmosphere, getting to know their artist neighbours like Georgia O'Keeffe and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. But their parents didn't approve. One day in 1913, Loring's father shut down the studio and offered to move the pair to Toronto. He would be able to keep an eye on them here — and hoped our city's conservative values might rub off on them. Instead, it was the other way around... [continue reading this post]

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dream 21 "Standard Time" (Sir Sandford Fleming, 1878)

Fleming dreamed the Institute loved his idea — wanted, in fact, to take his logic a few steps further and set the clocks back an entire 50 years. And so the City hired bricklayers to take apart all the new buildings: homes and churches and stores were turned into rubble and dust; their predecessors were rebuilt in their place. The sidewalks were pulled up by carpenters; Yonge and King and Queen Streets were returned to muddy glory. Fleming himself helped to disassemble his own railway, taking a great iron hammer to the rails. The debris was used to fill quarries back in; they were then covered with dirt and re-sodded. Trees were planted and roads were undone. Creeks were unburied and brooks let loose.

Once everything had been put back in its place, the young people hid themselves away. Most of them vanished into the ravines. Some disappeared into basements or backyard shacks. Others set off on ships to make a new life for themselves in the Old World.

As the last of the sails dipped below the lake’s blue horizon, a great cheer went up in the city. That night, the elderly would go dancing. Get drunk. Make out with strangers. Fall in love.

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Sir Sandford Fleming was one of Canada's greatest inventors and engineers. He helped to plan our earliest railroads, designed our first postage stamp and co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute to promote Canadian science. In the 1870s, he proposed a new system for the world's time: a universal 24-hour clock divided into local time zones. It would become the standard for measuring time all over the world.

You can read more about Sir Sandford Fleming on Wikipedia here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Night When Neil Young Was Conceived


It was the last winter of the Second World War. 1945. The first week of February. Far away in Europe, the Nazis were crumbling: the Soviets were closing in on Berlin; the Americans would soon be crossing the Rhine. The war would be over in just a few months. The Big Three — Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin — were already at Yalta, meeting to decide what the world would look like when the fighting was finally done.

Neil Young's dad was one of the people doing that fighting. Scott Young was a writer by trade: a young reporter who would eventually write dozens of books and even co-host Hockey Night in Canada for a while. He first went to Europe to cover the war for the Canadian Press. His dispatches were published in newspapers all over our country. But he soon joined the Royal Canadian Navy instead, serving as a communications officer in the invasion of southern France, among other places.

The war was taking a toll, though; Young was suffering from chronic fatigue and losing weight at an alarming rate. So he was sent back to Canada for tests. That meant he would get to make a brief visit home to Toronto, where he could spend a little time with his wife Rassy and their toddler, Bob.

When he got here, he found the city covered in snow. That winter was a terrible winter — one of the worst in the entire recorded history of Toronto. One infamous blizzard in December killed 21 people. And the temperature barely ever climbed above freezing, so the snow just kept piling up as the blizzards kept coming. By the time Young came home at the beginning of February, Toronto had already seen five feet of snow that winter.

361 Soudan Avenue
And there was yet another big storm coming. As the city braced itself for the blizzard, the Youngs spent the day visiting with friends who lived in a little house near Eglinton & Mount Pleasant. (361 Soudan Avenue; it's still there today.) It was far on the outskirts of the city back then; a long way from downtown in the days before the subway. And so, as the storm descended, they all decided it was best if the Youngs stayed put. They dragged a mattress downstairs and set it up on the dining room floor.

Scott Young wrote about that night in his memoir, Neil and Me. "I remember the street in Toronto, the wild February blizzard through which only the hardiest moved, on skis, sliding downtown through otherwise empty streets to otherwise empty offices."

The Youngs' love story wouldn't last forever. In the coming years, they would often fight; she drank, he had affairs. In the end, they divorced. But on that stormy winter night in 1945, they were happy. A young wife and her new husband home on leave from the war.

"We were just past our middle twenties," Young remembered, "and had been apart for most of the previous year... We were healthy young people, much in love, apart too much. It was a small house and when we made love that night we tried to be fairly quiet, and perhaps were."

Nine months later, the war was over; peace had finally come. Scott Young was back home again. When Rassy went into labour, a neighbour drove them down to the fancy new wing of the Toronto General Hospital. It was early in the morning of a warm November day when the baby came. They named him Neil Percival Young. He would grow up to become one of the greatest rock stars in the world.

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Main image: the winter of 1944-45 via the Toronto Archives; other image: 361 Soudan by me, Adam Bunch.

You can find Scott Young's memoir, "Neil and Me", on Amazon here. Or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. You can read more about Neil Young's early life in "Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years" by Sharry Wilson which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here. I first heard about this night in a review of "Rock and Roll Toronto: From Alanis to Zeppelin" by Richard Crouse and John Goddard, which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here.