If you have a Toronto Public Library card, one of the secret little joys is that it gives you free access to the online archives of both The Globe and Mail and The Star. A shame the pages of the long-defunct Toronto Telegram aren't similarly available... though you won't find me shedding many tears over the similar lack of access to its "successor", The Toronto Sun, the Vandal king "successor" of Roman emperors of local newspapers.
The Star's pages date back to 1894, and The Globe (and Mail)'s go back to 1844—which means you can read about Confederation in its pages online as it was casually reported in the paper in 1867, and reports coming in about the progress of the US Civil War just prior to that, and the astonishing news of Lincoln's assassination.
I find the pages of these papers at the most interesting, though, in the years after about 1950, when the expansion of Toronto was really kicking into gear. The creation of Metro in 1953, the building of the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, the 400-series highways being hatched with quaint names like "the Toronto By-Pass" for the 401 and "the Barrie Highway" for the 400. This morning over my first coffee I decided to have a look at what I could glean about the DVP in the pages of The Star after January 1, 1955. It's quietly astonishing to see headlines about Metro Council voting a $1.7 million start to the project (Feb. 12, 1957, p. 42) with the number apparently so impressive at the time that it was actually spelled out, commas and all: "$1,700,000". These days that would probably pay for a about mile of construction. Maybe.
I really get a charge out of reading phrases like "The Don Valley parkway, the only solution to the current traffic problems in sight..." (Feb. 21, 1957, p. 16) and "An immediate start on the Don Valley parkway to relieve traffic congestion" (Nov. 21, 1956, p.31). People who read those phrases with a hopeful sigh would easily live long enough to see them converted to knee-slappers.
There are fun little notes like the idea that in 1957 Metro was considering expanding the zoo, which was downtown at the edge of the Don River at the time, "a mile alongside Don". Around 1970 the zoo moved to much bigger digs in northeast Scarborough at what is still the edge of town. An article about North York trying to dump Leslie Street on Metro's tab and Metro grumbling it made no sense because it was a road "from nowhere to nowhere"; North York suggesting it be extended down from Lawrence Avenue to the new section of Eglinton Avenue joining its two discontinuous parts. And, in fact, it was. But it still goes from nowhere to nowhere; Leslie still doesn't cross the Don south of Eglinton and dies for no reason at all just north of Steeles.
A couple of things really impress me. One is how desperate the politicians of the day seem to be to raise the money to do these things from the tax base, rather than just whipping out the I've-got-a-AAA-rating international credit card. Repeatedly I see articles in which councilors are begging the residents of Metro to accept taxes that will fund them. Fred Gardiner, the first Metro Chairman, gets a lot of guff for being a kind of 'raze it and build it' sort of guy, but I think he was onto something when he was quoted on Feb. 12, 1957: "If we are not going to raise the money then we have got to stop talking about things we want." People needed to be reminded of it then, but they could see it was true. I look around the world these days and all I see are nations panting on the floor with demons of their citizenry parked on their chests demanding services for which they refuse to pay.
The other is the range of casual ads interspersed with the news. Page 16 of The Star on Feb. 21, 1957, heralds a portable TV from RCA (remember RCA?). The thing still looks like you'd want a dolly if you were going to move it much, but I'm intrigued by the little quirks. For instance, they make a big deal of it bringing in UHF signals and specifically mention a station in Buffalo, so this had to be an ad tailored to south-central Ontario. Secondly, they go out of their way to institute the "second set" family home, explicitly advocating the segregation of family entertainment along generational lines, which I had always assumed was a phenomenon of the 1970s. I guess it was a long time coming.
But if you live in Toronto and you already have a library card, use it to log into the online research section of their site and have a ball. If you live elsewhere, see what your local library's site has on offer. You never know!