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Reviewed by:
  • Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors 1880s to 1920s
  • Roger Hall
Sally Gibson . Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors 1880s to 1920s. Cormorant Books. 327. $59.95

Sally Gibson knows her topic well – you might almost say 'from the inside out.' She holds a PhD in a related topic, has worked many years as an archivist among the very materials she is examining, has previously published in the field, and, finally, and not least, is currently a heritage consultant in the very city she is describing. This book – uniquely, in Canada, and not commonly elsewhere – focuses on the interior life of a city during a period of particular dynamic growth from late Victorian times until after the First World War. It is a considerable achievement.

The medium is photography, and Gibson quite rightly points out that of the huge numbers of photographs collected and stored in repositories covering this time, perhaps as little as ten per cent are concerned with the interiors of the houses, shops, institutions, and myriad other structures where most Torontonians spent most of their time. Toronto is not unique in this way – most collections of photos show cities from the outside: grandiose shots of proud new buildings, grand residences and gardens, teeming commercial streets, and harbours or rail yards throbbing with advanced technology. But Toronto is unique – a particularly British North American metropolis with clear and strong references to the motherland across the sea and yet with the shape and style of the striving republic across the southern border.

There are some 260 photographs in this book, not a few from the fine collection of the City of Toronto Archives and also from other mostly public repositories, but occasionally private. They range in subject from the factory floor to the farmers' market to the flophouse, and the specialist will find good representative work of such photographers as John Boyd, William James, F.W. Micklethwaite, and Arthur Goss, Toronto's answer to New York's celebrated pictorial chronicler of poverty, Jacob Riis. Unlike Riis, however, he is neither crusader nor muckraker. Goss worked for Charles Hastings at the City Health Department and unemotionally documented the state of Toronto's underbelly. These are invasive shots of shabby, exhausted, and sometimes embarrassed men in their flea-bitten habitat – Goss didn't ask whether he could take the photos and the subjects clearly didn't always grant permission. [End Page 288]

So the city's underside is here, as is, not surprisingly, its grander spaces: the homes of the rich and famous, the gilded interiors of public monuments like old Government House and Queen's Park, clubs, restaurants, and businesses, from workaday offices to executive suites. What is in short supply, and this is not the fault of Dr Gibson, are the interiors of the urban middle classes, the emergence of which probably is more emblematic of the period than any other group. When they are here, these interiors frequently belong to photographers themselves and perhaps are all the more private and revealing because of that intimacy.

This book works effectively on a number of levels. At its most basic it is a splendid collection of known and not-so-known Toronto photography and as a result of high production values it is hugely entertaining simply to turn the pages. At a more sophisticated level Gibson uses photographs as documentary evidence and plumbs them for their informational material, to explore the technical aspects of the photographic art and yet as springboards to discuss nuanced elements of past city life – especially social life. At another level these photographic documents are rare reminders that Toronto was a representative large and successful city of its time – not a world city by any means, but a new world city, one with something of a past and clearly a future. Finally, and not least, the book exhibits certain research strategies that might be pursued by others in other places – where to look, to whom to talk, how to use complementary materials, and so on. It deserves imitation in other cities. [End Page 289]

Roger Hall
Department of History,University of Western Ontario


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pp. 288-289
Launched on MUSE
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