Chris Selley: A time in Toronto’s history when children roamed free — and polite society decided this wouldn’t do

For some reason, it was the face of buying ice cream from a horse-drawn carriage that finally had me laughing in astonishment at what I was seeing, on a big-screen TV at the Toronto Archives.

Vid Ingelevics, a at Ryerson’s School of Image Arts who helped put together the exhibit, called it a “guided tour” of a 1913 photograph by Arthur Goss, Toronto’s first official photographer, depicting scores of children at play on the Elizabeth Street Playground in the heart of The Ward — the densely populated, immigrant-rich and poverty-stricken neighbourhood once bordered by Queen, Dundas and Yonge streets and University Avenue — at a time when Jewish, Chinese and other new arrivals were pouring into the area.

Using technical wizardry I can’t begin to understand, Ingelevics created a video that takes us through Goss’s scene as if by drone, and the level of detail had me slack-jawed. You can clearly see the children’s faces and expressions and attire, mid-motion on the slide and the swings in the foreground, basketball in the background, striking poses for Goss in the middle. And off to the right — totally indistinguishable in online reproductions of the photo — you can see the little girl, by herself, getting a treat. It’s an objectively inconsequential moment, but it sure doesn’t feel like it 113 years later.

City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto ArchivesAn image from the new exhibit at the Toronto Archives, From Streets to Playgrounds: Children in Early 20th Century Toronto.

Ingelevics’ creation is part of a fascinating new exhibit at the Toronto Archives, From Streets to Playgrounds: Representing Children in Early 20th Century Toronto. It chronicles a time when unaccompanied children had the run of The Ward, and when polite Toronto society decided this would no longer do — in no small part because of widely circulated photographs of the down-at-heel street scenes, unsanitary conditions and free-range children.

Reformers and social workers of the time believed structured play in purpose-built playgrounds, staffed with paid, trained attendants, would “civilize” immigrant children. Led by crusaders like J.J. Kelso, founder of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society, settlement houses, both religious and secular, sprung up to provide what we would today call immigrant services to children and adults alike — albeit in a more decentralized and paternalistic manner. (Topics included, in essence, childrearing for foreigners.)

In 1916, Globe and Mail journalist Bride Broder visited Central Neighbourhood House — which is still around today, though in Cabbagetown — and wrote of “the transformation of wild-hearted, fear-haunted peoples, speaking unknown tongues, into free-spirited men and women willingly assimilating Canadian ways, and into care-free, happy children, trustful and to be trusted.”

City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto Archives The Ward was difficult for the city to ignore; it was to (old) City Hall

Adrienne Chambon, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto who studies the history of social work and curated the exhibit with Ingelevics, noted that many of the photos of children’s show them in circles.

“The circle is a big image. It’s not the individual child as much as the group,” she says of the play organizers’ thinking. “We’ll have children from different ethnic backgrounds and we’ll bring them together, and they will become good Canadians.”

Perhaps unlike Toronto’s worst-off neighbourhoods today, The Ward was difficult for the city fathers to ignore; it was right next door to (old) City Hall, ostensibly spreading vice and disease and breeding children wholly unsuitable for life in Canada.

Laura Pedersen / National Post
Laura Pedersen / National PostExhibit curators Vid Ingelevics and Adrienne Chambon.

Part of the desire to “fix” the area, which was eventually razed, was certainly rank intolerance: Chinese immigrants in particular were accused of everything from a predilection for sexual assault to opium-pushing to spitting in people’s laundry. But part of it was benevolent, as well. “The presence of large numbers of neglected children in every centre of population is a satire on our civilization and a sure indication of a selfish and predatory social system,” Kelso wrote in 1893.

However unsuitable children’s extracurricular activities might have been, it must be said that few in the Toronto Archives’ photos appear unhappy. (One little girl of perhaps four, wearing only one shoe, stands out as an exception.) They’re just kids the life circumstances threw at them, and making the best of it as they always do. What’s most striking to the modern eye is their ubiquity.

Goss’s primary mission in The Ward was to document condition and living conditions, more than the people . Thus a 1912 photo at the corner of Elizabeth and Louisa streets, atop which now sits (new) City Hall, presents mostly as a record — a shuttered store advertising its wares in Hebrew; a Chinese laundry; ads for Crackerjack and Coca-Cola (“relieves fatigue”) — except for the presence of four small children, eight at the eldest, simply going about their business.

City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto ArchivesGoss’s primary mission in The Ward was to document its poor physical condition and living conditions, more than the people themselves.

“They just happened to be in the street. They were just there,” said Ingelevics. “That’s what fascinated us.”

Other photos show smiling children fetching (possibly filching) coal for their parents in wagons, rolling bicycle tire rims down the sidewalk, shooting the a movie theatre, playing jacks in the middle of the streetcar tracks or wrestling with stacks of newspapers to deliver. (Reform efforts included banning paper boys and bootblacks under the age of eight.) Today when an unaccompanied nine-year-old on the subway might get double-takes, the sight of a happy filthy child just a few generations ago certainly provokes mixed emotions.

Of course, the lifestyle made perfect sense for the time, said Chambon. The Ward was teeming, as the exhibit neatly demonstrates with a three-shot panorama of Elizabeth Street that cross-references the addresses with the city’s tax roll, a replica of which is on display. In 1912, 44 Elizabeth St. was officially home to 11 people; unofficially, quite likely many more. It was 1,320 square feet.

City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto ArchivesChildren shooting the breeze outside a movie theatre.

So what else are you going to do with your kids? “You just let them out,” Chambon chuckled.

What makes sense for our times? The precipitous heights and hard surfaces of the playgrounds social reformers designed to get kids off the street, to save them from moral ruin, to create good solid citizens, would horrify safety-conscious modern parents. Yet so many parents today claim to want their children to be freer, and seem to struggle to effect even the most basic steps, like walking or cycling to school. Ingelevics staged a photo of kids just hanging out on Elizabeth Street today, which finishes the exhibit — kids on scooters, on their way from A to B or just minding their business.

“We wanted to bring (kids) into the same environment exactly, put them on the street today, and then ask people: how amazing would it be to see children wandering the streets of Toronto without their parents?” he said.

It’s a point that’s difficult to miss when looking back at what childhood was in inner city Toronto not so long ago. Some of the children in these photos would have lived to see the 21st century, and wonder how we possibly could have made life so complicated.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto Archives
City of Toronto ArchivesChildren playing marbles on Bay Street in the path of a Peter Witt streetcar.

About Chris Selley