Familiar Characters on Toronto Streets

Concertina player on Major street 1912 Concertina player on Major street ca. 1912

In the early eighties the Royal Ontario Museum, to project family friendliness, produced a poster featuring the ever-present candy-apple, bird-whistle peddler front and centre of the institution’s iconic façade. The “balloon man” (possibly the same individual) appears on the cover of the City of Toronto Archives 2013 annual report that celebrates the institution’s new accessibility and reach through the internet and social media.

These days every institution and blogger is a media outlet deploying images, like street performers, as eye-catching presences on the byways of the internet. The archives,for example, posted 1,000 photographs as thematic Flikr sets (neighborhoods, activities, people) to show the breadth of their 96,229 online image collection.

Contemporary interest in the life of the street fed is by social media and smart phone users as they enhance and shape perception of public space with their own photographic in-put. Shawn Micaleff’s twitter feed exemplifies this constant, nervous city reading. A century ago Toronto’s increasingly rich human geography was conveyed through street photography in The Star,its most illustrated newspaper.

street -familiar figures Dec. 21, 1912 The Star Dec. 21, 1912

In 1913 The Star ran a series titled “Familiar Characters on Toronto Streets.” Just as today, the tagging of streeet photography subjects shifts with the context of their representation. Among the characters, “Drake, the lavender seller” interviewed and given an identity for this series, and also identified by name as the victim of a 1914 house fire, pops-up years later, recycled in a generic light as “Blind beggar on street”  in one of the magic lantern slide sets assembled by William James’ for his illustrated talks.

Toronto Star Weekly July 12, 1913 p. 11 character Familiar Characters in Toronto Street–No. 2, Toronto Star Weekly July 12, 1913 p. 11

street -Wm. Drake, Blind Lavender Seller, Who Lost His House by Fire February 21, 1914 p. 1 Wm. Drake, Blind Lavender Seller, Who Lost His House by Fire, The Star  February 21, 1914 p. 1

??????????????????????????????? Blind beggar on street CTA F 1244 S2119 it 70.24

With photos dated largely from 1921-22, Set #70 is a “signs of the times” portrayal of Toronto conveyed through text (from graffitti covered train cars to billboards to protest signs) in relation to street, built structure and human figures. This visual index to postwar anxiety and unrest includes an addition to the gallery of Toronto street characters in the form of the disabled veteran.

???????????????????????????????   Knife sharpener in wagon, St. George Street 1921 CTA F 1244 S2119 it 70.27

Operating within the realms of visual story-telling (photojournalism), archives (historical documentation) and singular imaginative creation, Set#70 makes a striking Flikr album straight from the archives microfilm reader screen, via my camera to the internet. See it here.

??????????????????????????????? Collection for the roof of Dale Presbyterian Church CTA F 1244 S2119 it 70.38

The personal stories of The Star’s “Familiar Characters” are filtered through the reporter’s contemporary prejudices and projections. The three elderly men are presented as noble, aged survivors. “Zath” Slavin the Russian Jew who had witnessed a massacre; “Drake” who became snow-blind while fighting in the North-West Rebellion; “Blind Charlie” victim of racial prejudice and too poor to afford treatment and avoid blindness. Through the interview all three “characters” participate in their representation, conscious that their stories are their currency with a charitable public. Each is identified as an important element of the city’s streetscape, a human landmark that orient citizens also to the many layers of stories in the city.

Toronto Star Weekly July 5, 1913 charactersToronto Star Weekly July 26, 1913 characterFamiliar Characters on Toronto Streets–No.1, July 5, 1913 and No.2, July 26, 1913

In 1913 “Blind Charlie” was saving up money so that he could invest in a hand-operated player piano and so move from selling shoe laces to a more financially rewarding street business. These instruments in 1914 were used by female Italian panhandlers. Perhaps because they had children in tow as they operated in the business and entertainment district, they were in the cross-hairs of city authorities. One of the two women caught in James’ photo looks belligerently at him perhaps identifying him with city authorities and their use of photography to record social problems.

Women with street pianos, Star April 8,1913 p.1 ITALIAN WOMEN AND GIRLS WHO ACCOMPANY THE STREET PIANOS IN TORONTO, The Star April 8,1913 p.1

These women and girls are some of those going about the streets in Toronto with the music machines and enter hotels and offices to collect money. They may be prohibited from such work in the future, as there is a motion before council.

Women organ grinders 1908 Women organ grinders ca.1908

James’ portrait of the Roma woman below left, labelled “Gypsy Queen” within the magic lantern set, contrasts with her representation as the object of a city “clean -up” in the St. Clair neighbourhood.

James 70.40 Gypsy Queen  70.40 Gypsy Queen      gypsies Aug. 20, 1913 WOMEN OF THE TRIBE, The Star Aug. 20, 1913

The authorities yesterday ordered the Roumanian gypsies numbering about 50, located on St. Clair avenue, to strike camp. They have now been moved to a fenced lot, and can not be removed. Two of the women are shown herewith.

Anti-semitism thinly veiled as one more of the featured “local characters” stories,  is evident in The Star portrait of a kosher butcher on strike. The cameo reflected the public’s attraction to the Ward as a place of encounter with the “other”.

Ward -Mordecai Dickman June 21, 1913 Toronto Star Weekly Mordecai Dickman June 21, 1913 Toronto Star Weekly


The official head killer for the Jews in Toronto. One of the best known figures in the Ward. Recently the killers were on strike, creating a peculiar embarrassment for several days among our Jewish fellow citizens.

39.1 CTA F 1244 S2119 it 39.1

A highly jaundiced if entertaining view of the gallery of hawkers that greeted downtown Toronto lunch crowds is presented in the pages of the (Toronto) World. Although admitting in the title, “Not all are Fakers; Blind, Halt and Lame Deserving of Help” the journalist comes down hard on the hucksters and on the suckers who fall for their acts.

The Guile of the Street Corner Man World June 19, 1910 p3-page-001  World  June 19, 1910 p.3

Market Square

Olivia Chow & Teresa CasasFamiliar Characters 14Familiar Characters 9Familiar Characters 3 Familiar Characters 4

Familiar Characters 6Familiar Characters 8


Further Reading

Street or Studio at Tate Modern, 2008

Humans of Toronto

Spacing Toronto Photos

Toronto Public Library Your Yonge Street Project


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