Category Archives: Canadian History

The Historical Tourist visits Toronto’s First Post Office

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Canadian History, Local History, The Historical Tourist

The Historical Tourist visits George Brown House

Last weekend I headed into the city to participate in Doors Open Toronto, an annual event in which “buildings of architectural, historic, cultural, and social significance open their doors”. Inspired by similar events in France, which launched its Doors Open program in 1984, and Glasglow, which followed in 1990, Toronto has been holding its Doors Open program since 2000. During the event admittance to all participating buildings is free and buildings not normally open to the public are showcased. Such is the case with George Brown House, a National Historic Site that is now used as a conference centre with tenant offices on the upper floors.

Originally called Lambton Lodge, the house was built between 1874 and 1876 for George Brown, his wife Anne, and their children. After George Brown’s death, the property was occupied by Duncan Coulson, the President of the Bank of Toronto, until 1916, when it was purchased by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and used as office space. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1976 but only a decade later was threatened with demolition. Thankfully the Ontario Heritage Trust rescued this beautiful property, restoring and re-opening George Brown House in 1989.

This example of Second Empire style architecture, so named for the French elements that were popular during the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, was the least captivating of the three historic buildings I visited, likely due to its commercial and private function, but was still worth visiting. On my visit the first and basement floors were open to visitors. While the basement floor contained mostly conference rooms, the main floor held two big draws.

One was the dining room, which was originally remodeled by the Coulsons in 1890 and has been restored to that period. Decorated in the Art Nouveau style, it has a “boardroom feel” to it, as the man on hand to answer questions explained, and features wallpaper that resembled William Morris designs.

Unsurprisingly, it was the library that appealed to me the most. The gorgeous Victorian library was re-created by the government and features 2000 of George Brown’s personal books.

Nestled amongst the books an information card explained that “Brown’s library reflects his interest in Liberal and reform issues of the period, notably the division between church and state, the establishment of a fairer penal system, and the abolition of slavery.”

I spent a great deal of time leaning sideways so I could read the titles of his many books. Since George Brown played a prominent role in establishing the Toronto Anti-Slavery Society of Canada I was not surprised to see a biography of important British abolitionist William Wilberforce in his personal library along with Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity. Other books that caught my eye were a work on Prince Metternich, a major player in the Congress of Vienna, a book labelled O’Connell’s speeches, probably referring to the Irish Member of Parliament who achieved Catholic Emancipation, and all four volumes of Stanhope’s Life of Pitt.

Tearing myself away from his collection, I read the short exhibit on George Brown’s life and accomplishments. He may be best remembered in Toronto for the college that bears his name, but his real legacy is as a Father of Confederation and founder of a major newspaper. Scottish-born Brown founded The Globe in 1844 and it became a leading Reform newspaper in Canada. Today we know it as The Globe & Mail!

There aren’t any interactive exhibits or guides in costume but George Brown House is worth a look if you have the chance to visit, especially if you enjoy historical texts. It is normally reserved for offices and private functions though so you may have to admire it from the outside during a walk along Beverley Street or wait for another event like Doors Open Toronto!

5 Comments

Filed under Canadian History, Local History, The Historical Tourist