As a child, Katherine Taylor was obsessed with ancient Rome and Egypt and wanted to become an archaeologist. She never pursued it (became a banker instead), but her love of researching history remained. “And Toronto, which is my home, became my focus,” she says. “It is an opportunity to discover people and events that have been forgotten. Digging deep into the lives and work of previous generations paints a more true picture for me of what the city was like to live in through the centuries. “
Years ago, Taylor started taking pictures of old buildings and factories at the western end, worried they might be raved about new developments, and shared her photos online. She was overwhelmed by the answer. “People would write to tell me that a grandparent had worked in one of the buildings or shared an experience they themselves had had in a particular place,” she says. “I began to realize that many Toronto ancestors feel a really deep connection to the cityscape – that even the most indeterminate structure can inspire strong memories and become part of our own history.”
In 2015, Taylor started a blog, One Gal’s Toronto, to document Toronto’s rich history. Taylor was particularly attracted to the city’s historic businesses as she reviewed city listings, newspaper archives, patent applications, trade journals, obituaries, rating lists, fire insurance cards, and archive photos she uses for research. “It’s really business that leaves lasting traces,” she says. “Companies build factories and warehouses. Stores hang signs or have their name tiled across an entrance. Often, these clues are not completely removed and they reappear. “She probably found compelling commercial stories to fill a book, so she wrote one: the recently published” Toronto: City of Commerce, 1800 – 1960. “
In it, she tells many fascinating stories, such as the story of the four Cary brothers, free African Americans who came to Toronto from Virginia in the 1830s and opened barbershops and became active in the anti-slavery movement.
Then there is Hicks’ Butcher Shop, opened in 1908 and run by brothers Arthur and Edmund Hicks. Edmund wanted to serve in World War I and be taken prisoner by the Germans in 1915. After more than three years in a concentration camp, he returned to Toronto in 1919, where he resumed his position in the shop on Queen Street West near Bathurst.
The former Tamblyn’s retail powerhouse also emerges as Taylor recounts how Gordon Tamblyn launched his first beachfront pharmacy in 1904 – then opened at least one new store a year for many years, quickly building one of the city’s largest chains.
For Taylor, capturing these narratives feels more important than ever. “Where once it was older generations who noticed changes in the city, I now find that even newer residents feel that it is changing by leaps and bounds,” she says. “So it becomes important to create a record of what once was. It reassures people to believe that these places and stories will not be forgotten.”
Next to the blog: she will focus on famous daredevil cyclists from the 1880s and a Dundas Street West penny arcade and nickel lodeon. She is also working on a book on Toronto’s early infrastructure, from gas lamps to sewers.
“To understand the city we live in today, it’s important to look at the past,” she says. “And hopefully we can also use it to inform our future.”