Located on Duke Street (now Adelaide), Toronto’s First Post Office actually predates the city in its name. Built by James Scott Howard, Postmaster of the town of York, in 1833, it began as York’s fourth post office but became Toronto’s first when the town was incorporated as a city the following year. The building served both as a residence and a post office for Howard until 1837 when, despite his political neutrality, he was falsely accused of aiding rebels in the Rebellion of 1837. Although he had eighteen years of service to his name, James Scott Howard was dismissed from his position without formal charges or an investigation.
Charles Albert Berczy took over his duties, residing in the post office until 1839 when he moved to Front Street, leaving Howard to rent out the vacated building. In 1841 he sold it as a private residence. Until 1870 the former post office was the home of a hardware merchant before it was sold again, three years later, to the Christian Brothers who used it and the adjourning building as a school.
In 1978 a fire consumed the building, destroying much of the roof, but it was restored and re-opened in 1983 under direction of the York Historical Society.
Today, Toronto’s First Post Office is the only surviving example of a British colonial post office in Canada and serves as both a museum and a fully-functioning post office. But this is no ordinary post office. It not only offers reproductions of original glass-fronted postal boxes for rent, but a reading room, complete with its original fireplace, where customers can write letters or sort through their mail. It also has its own gift shop, where visitors can purchase seals and sealing wax, postcards, and books on local history, with all proceeds benefiting the museum.
The highlight of my visit was undoubtedly the opportunity to try writing with a quill. As someone with an interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century history, the chance to write a letter as people did in the 1830s was fascinating. Sample sheets were available as part of Doors Open Toronto, but I opted to pay the small charge to write a full letter, fold it, and have the letter sealed with wax and sent. Although I am very fond of my computer, I am an oddity in that I prefer to handwrite my thoughts, or at least make a series of rough notes, before taking to the keyboard. Despite that, I can only imagine the effort it must have required to take notes or write all correspondence by quill!
To help absorb excess ink and allow the writer to handle their letter immediately, sand was poured over the page then shaken off. For the final touch, an employee showed visitors how to fold their letters as was done in the 1830s and heated the wax so we could apply a special seal. She explained that the seal reads “entre nous”, meaning “between us”.
While I enjoyed the chance to write with a quill, the rest of the museum was equally informative. Exhibits included a scale model of Toronto in 1837 and a look at the evolution of writing instruments. Inexpensive and widely available, goose quills, plucked from the left wing so they would curve away from the right-handed user, were the most popular, but ink quickly softened the tip and most quills only lasted a week. In an office, workers could go through several quills every day! Metal nibs were first introduced in the late eighteenth century but the acidity of the inks quickly corroded the metal. It took until the 1830s, when less corrosive inks were developed and steel nibs began to be machine-produced, for metal nibs to finally replace the quill.
Other exhibits detailed the restoration of the post office after it was destroyed by fire, and the types of coins and rates of postage at the time. The museum also has examples of letters written at the time, which were crisscrossed in order to save paper and postage!
Toronto’s First Post Office is an interesting and informative link to the past with a hands-on approach to history. They provide education programs that can be adapted for groups of all ages, and have a library of over eight hundred volumes available for research by appointment. I was pleased to see that I was not the only one taking advantage of Doors Open Toronto to find out more about Canadian history and I hope that more individuals will take the opportunity to visit this valuable resource in the future.