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Toronto City Directories: A few more thoughts

Last fall, I wrote an article about the importance of city directories for Toronto family history research—really for all Toronto historical research. They are a way to see the development of the city and to stroll around the neighbourhood where your ancestor lived, worked, worshipped and shopped. A reader of that September 2 article has asked a question and has inspired this new post.

The question: Any idea which month the Toronto city directories were published?

Well, I don’t think there is any one answer. Directories were commercial ventures and I’m sure each publisher would work at a different pace. Speed was, as they say, of the essence, and a major selling point.

To be most useful, a directory had to be as current as possible. They were therefore compiled in a hurry. Some 19th century compilers boasted that their directories were compiled in 6 to 8 weeks, including door-to-door canvas, compilation, and binding. This of course, led to errors.

Up until 2000, Might’s directories produced a five volume set for Toronto. These recent Toronto directories were based on the phone book and took about an additional 2 months to produce after the phone book’s release.

A notice for the newly issued city directory in The Globe newspaper of Tuesday 30 January, 1883 (page 6, column 1)

A notice for the newly issued city directory in The Globe newspaper of Tuesday 30 January, 1883 (page 6, column 1)

But narrowing down the window when the directory information was collected could be crucial to pinning down the date when an ancestor arrived or left the city or moved within it—or died.

With a little perseverance you can probably establish that window using newspapers. Directory publishers needed to establish their credibility with both potential purchasers and the general public, and the best way to do this was with a prospectus for the upcoming publication in the newspaper. The newspaper notice would go a long way towards explaining that nosy parker at the door.

Once the directory was ready, or ready to go to press, it needed to be sold, and newspapers were one of the few ways of doing that. I found an announcement for the 1883 directory in The Globe on January 30, so presumably the book (more useful than “any hitherto published”) was compiled during the last couple of months of 1882. If your ancestor appears on the list “too late for regular insertion” that would narrow the window even more.

If this article inspires you to find the dates for a Toronto directory, I’d love to hear about it.

There’s a great article about searchable digitized Toronto newspapers available through the Toronto Public Library on its Local History and Genealogy blog.

4 comments to Toronto City Directories: A few more thoughts

  • Paul Jones

    Economics would argue for regular publication dates.

    Repeat buyers are the essential revenue source for any viable directory. Retaining them is much easier if there is a known and understood publishing frequency–annual, biannual, whatever.

    I’m not saying that this reality was acted on in 1883. Possibly the economics of publishing were not well understood at the time. Or possibly practical considerations prevented implementation of the most rational plan.

    • Jane

      I think that for most of the single-year editions, the publishers likely tried for a January release—but that’s just a guess without further research. There are quite a few editions that cover two years—was that planned, or did they encounter difficulties and become forced into the double issue? Was there more pressure/incentive to publish annually when the population was growing rapidly? How did the transition between publishers work? Did they pass the torch willingly?

  • Heather Cripps

    I’ve found the 1921 Might Toronto City Directory invaluable in finding ancestors. I was able to find their addresses in the alphabetical residents’ section. Went on to a modern day map to find the streets around them. Then on to the subdirectories of the 1921 Census where I looked for the streets’ names in the subdirectories.

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Great idea, Heather. Most of the Toronto directories describe the street’s location in the “streets” section, including the cross street where it starts and the electoral ward–which may also be used in various census years. You can also note a few of the neighbour’s names which may help you pin down your own family.

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