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Toronto ancestors? Check the city directories.

Whenever you’re doing urban research, particularly in North America, city directories should be a first stop.

For Toronto, the first directory was published in 1833—a year before the Town of York even became the City of Toronto. Over the next 25 years, five more directories were issued by various publishers. Directories were commercial ventures and expensive to produce. (Someone had to knock on all those doors.) By 1859, the value of owning an up-to-date directory seems to have been recognized by enough businesses to make publishing annual editions a reasonable investment. Annual or semi-annual directories for Toronto were published from 1859 to 1999.

This detail from page 232 of the “streets” section of the 1914 Toronto city directory shows the heads of household on Kimberley Street as well as a church and school that their families may have attended.

Most Toronto directories have two main sections: an alphabetical index of names and a street section that lists each street alphabetically and shows the resident or business at each address. Both sections are equally important.

Here’s how I suggest you search a city directory:
  1. Look at the title page first and properly cite your source, including title and publisher. It isn’t good enough to say “1888 Toronto directory.”
  2. Study the table of contents. Note the page numbers of all relevant sections.
  3. Look at the alphabetical index of names section first, noting all information. If the surname isn’t common, look at all occurrences. Watch for matching or similar addresses and related occupations.
  4. Look up the addresses you found in the “streets” section.
    • Note the street’s location, and former names if given.
    • Note the intersection before and after your ancestor’s location. Street numbering may change as the area develops and knowing the location will help you decide whether your ancestor actually moved house.
    • Note the ward information at the beginning of each street, particularly in census years.
    • Note your ancestor’s neighbours and neighbouring businesses. Take a “tour of the neighbourhood.” Perhaps he attended a church right up the street—or married the girl next door?
  5. Check the business listings and any other sections you noted in step two.
Where can you find Toronto directories?

If you are in Toronto, the easiest directories to use are the bound paper copies at the Toronto Reference Library. To be able to flip back and forth between sections as I suggest above, you can’t beat the real thing. The directories are on the 4th floor now, but will soon be migrating to the 2nd. There will be a brief time when they won’t be accessible, so be sure to check if you’re going to TRL in the fall of 2012.

Toronto city directories are available on microfilm at several Toronto libraries and archives. They are available on interloan from the Archives of Ontario. Toronto directories are also part of the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction (CIHM) collection. The CIHM collection is widely available a major public and university libraries.

But now you can also search Toronto directories in your pyjamas.

Digital images of most directories before 1923 are now freely available from either the Toronto Public Library or Internet Archive. They are each searchable—although be cautious with this option. Luckily, directories were always meant to be searchable and arranged alphabetically for that purpose. (Unfortunately the Toronto Public Library’s earlier version of the directories, which allowed a search of all issues at once, is no longer available.)

To make the digital versions a little easier to access, I’ve created this chart of links. You’ll note that a few years are not linked at this point. When digital versions of these waifs become available, I’ll add them to the chart.

Please let me know if you find the chart useful, and certainly if you notice any broken links.

1833

1837

1843-4

1846-47

1850-51

1856

1859-60

1861

1862-63

1864

1865

1866

1867-68

1868-69 or 1868-9

1870

1871-72

1872-73

1873

1873-74

1874

1875

1876

1877

1878

1879

1880

1881

1882

1883

1884

1885

1886

1887

1888

1889

1890

1891

1892

1893

1894

1895

1896

1897

1898

1899

1900

1901

1902

1903

1904

1905

1906

1907

1908

1909

1910

1911

1912

1913

1914

1915

1916

1917

1918

1919

1920

1921

1922

37 comments to Toronto ancestors? Check the city directories.

  • Janice Nelson

    This is a most helpful table with the links to the different directories. I was just exploring some of these directories to find out more about one side of my family but it is very handy to have them all in one place. Thanks!

  • DSC

    Very useful compilation, thank you. I recently spent several days looking at Directories and having a list like this available is wonderful.

  • Laurie Roberts

    I am working on the History of Silverthorn Area – Rogers – Eglinton and Black Creek to CNR tracks in the old Township/City of York.

    It seems that the suburb information is sometimes there sometimes not – I found this at the archives also.

    Are there any of the Directory’s on line between 1922 and present.

    Great job by the way – I have always wondered why these documents were not made available on line years ago.

    Thanks again – I really appreciated your efforts

    Laurie

    • Jane

      Hi Laurie,
      Since the directories were commercial ventures, the publisher had to decide whether and how to include suburban villages. Where there enough potential customers in the village to appeal to directory buyers? It is probably a good indicator of the growth and prominence of the village.

      I haven’t found any later directories online. Copyright concerns, I presume. Time for a trip to the Toronto Reference Library—where the directories are now on the second floor.

      Good luck with your Silverthorn history.

  • Jean

    Hello,
    Any idea which month the Toronto city directories were published? Thanks.

  • […] 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 […]

  • Susanne

    These directories on-line have helped me trace my family movement in Toronto from 1904 – 1922. When will more directories be added on your site? Great work!

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Susanne, I will certainly link to more Toronto directories when they become available online. I’d like to see some of those missing years filled in, too! In the meantime, check the holdings of your closest reference library or university library for paper or microfiche copies.
      Jane

  • Michelle

    Thank you so much for the list of directory links.

  • Yvonne Locke

    I have been told there a directories also at the York University library. I live in the Oakville area – would that be closer to visit? Thanks for your help,
    Yvonne Ferlatte Locke

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Yvonne. York University’s Scott Library, like most Canadian universities, has the city directories that were filmed by CIHM (Canadian Institute for Historic Microreproduction). It looks like they have a few more recent issues as well. You can search the catalogue here: http://www.library.yorku.ca/ And don’t forget, the Archives of Ontario is also located on York University’s Keele Campus. Looks like the Mississauga Public Library has a pretty good collection, too.

  • Cindy Bradshaw

    Thank you for this wonderful tool online. I traced my family from 1881 to 1922 seeing where they lived, worked and what business they owned and operated. Very useful and very much appreciated.

  • Wanda Sinclair (Rexdale, Ontario)

    Jane great webpage

    But some of them are not working.

    For instance 1909 says “Couldn’t find image stack”

    And will some of the (eg 1910-1911) ever be up and running?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Thanks, Wanda. I have tweeted archive.org about the 1909 directory problem. No response so far. I see no good reason for the gaps. Perhaps we could all gently nudge Toronto Public Library to submit them.
      Jane

  • E

    Hi, I am trying to locate information from Toronto telephone directories from around 1970-1976. I haven’t been very successful; any further suggestions?
    Thank you,
    E.

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      If you’re in Toronto, or close enough to visit, you’re in luck. The North York Central Library’s Canadiana Department, Toronto Reference Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences department, and the Archives of Ontario all have a set of Toronto telephone directories on film/fiche that covers 1879-1979. The libraries hold some more recent issues as well. Unfortunately, these directories are not listed in the Toronto Public Library’s catalogue or on its local history and genealogy pages. When you visit, please mention that omission!

  • Ted Wright

    Thanks for taking the effort to place these links. I have sent these to many. They appreciate too. Many do not yet feel comfortable with computer searches. This site helps. Thanks a lot.

  • Kris

    Very cool. I used City Directories to find my birth family. Thank God for the City Directories or I would not have found them. Facebook helped too. Many, many thanks for this great resource!

  • Sherry

    I need to find directories of Halton and York counties for mid 1960’s and on. How can I access this info?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Sherry,
      City directories published in the 1960s are still within copyright, so won’t be available online. You’ll need to locate them in a library. If you’re in the GTA, your best bets will be the Toronto Reference Library and the main Mississauga Public Library. If you’re not in the area, consider hiring a local researcher to search the directories for you.

  • Sherry

    Thank you. I will work those angles.

  • Donna Di Lello

    Hi Jane,
    great job! I was looking at the Mights directories at the library last night and see (at least in the 1940’s) there is a code after some of the names/addresses.
    ie. 1947, Dunlop, John, tool & die maker Amalgamated Electric, r 29 Wilson Ave LA 3192
    I checked the beginning of the directory but can’t see an explanation. Any ideas?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Donna. Those mysterious letter-number codes in later directories are phone numbers, or more precisely an exchange code and number. The database on this site: http://ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html identifies LA as “LAkeside”. So, this is not the Wilson Avenue we think of today, but one now renamed Wilson Park Road, running north and south between King and Queen Streets, just east of Roncesvalles in the west end of the city. Interesting that the telephone exchange code can provide that clarification!
      Jane

  • Ruth Craig

    Wonderfully helpful links, thanks very much.

  • Mark

    How would you cite a page from the City Directory?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Mark. Directories are books and should be cited as such, using whatever style guide you have chosen, with a page number of course. Some early directories might number different sections separately, so it would be useful to say “names section” or “streets section”, etc. If you are using an online version of the directory, the url should be part of the citation. It isn’t sufficient to to say something like “1890 Toronto Directory” because in some years there was more than one directory published.

  • sharron montgomery

    I have family on city directories 1945 Ontario.why are they not on internet searches ?

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Hi Sharron. The main reason 1945 and later city directories for Toronto (and most other places) are not online is because the copyright has not expired. A secondary reason is that the modern directories are enormous—thousands of pages. It would be a very major project for any institution to take on. If you are in or near Toronto, the directories are available at the Toronto Reference Library. Otherwise, check with major public libraries or university libraries in your area.

  • Elizabeth

    I just finished viewing the 1935 and 1940 directories and have a question regarding the star next to certain people’s names. Can someone please tell me what they mean?

  • Ruth Smith

    Thank you so much for these directories…they are much appreciated. I have been able to find the family I have been looking for and followed them from 1882 onward. Great site!

  • Leslie

    Hello, I am trying to find a concession and lot number in Thames Centre, ON. Could anyone assist me with an online resource.

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