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.
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:
- 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.”
- Study the table of contents. Note the page numbers of all relevant sections.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.