Patoff Grocery on Brock Avenue; to the left of it is Smythe Variety Store. Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, S. 1057, Item 7643
Toronto is often referred to as a “city of villages.” The Greek Village on Danforth Avenue and the city’s three Chinatowns are favourites of many Torontonians. There are two Italian “villages”— one on St. Clair West and another on College Street. The latter is also referred to as Little Portugal as many Portuguese reside in the area. The Korean Village is on Bloor Street near Christie and the Polish Village on Roncesvalles Avenue. There are many other areas within the city that are referred to as villages, as they share a common ethnicity. However, prior to the 1950s, before Toronto became multicultural, the city was also composed of villages, but they were not defined by ethnicity.
When I was a boy in the 1940s, our street was akin to a village. In this decade, society was not as transitory as today. Most people bought homes only once in a lifetime. They raised their children in them and remained in the same house after their children had grown and departed. Similarly, it was not uncommon for people to be employed for their entire lives by only one company, beginning when they were young and retiring from the same firm. Unlike today, it was rare for people to be suddenly transferred to cities thousands of miles away, and then after a few years, transferred once more. People put down deep roots in their communities, where they knew their neighbours and shared their concerns.
Frequently, teachers in schools educated the children of parents whom they had taught when they were kids. Married women were not allowed to work as teachers; if they married, they were forced to resign. This meant that female teachers did not take time off to have children and raise them, so the staffs of schools changed little from year to year. The community knew the names of the teachers within their local school, so the teachers were sometimes the topic of discussions in the corner stores.
Our street was no exception. Most families had resided there for many years, a few of them for more than a generation. It was ethnically cohesive, as almost everyone traced their ancestry to the British Isles, as did most of Torontonians. There were also quite a few Newfoundlanders in our neighbourhood, who had immigrated to Canada before their native isle joined Canada in 1949. On our street, when a neighbour died, their passing was mourned by everyone. People offered assistance, which often consisted of food, and grieved with the family that had lost a loved one. Similarly, if a neighbour moved away, which was not often, everyone on the street wished them well, helped them move, and shed a tear as they departed. At the end of of World War II in 1945, as the soldiers returned from overseas, each homecoming was a “village” celebration, not a one-family event. The same was true after the Korean Conflict.
Similar to a rural village, we knew when we departed the boundaries of our “street-village.” We no longer recognized the people passing on the sidewalk. My family knew almost everyone by name for about a quarter of a mile to the north or south of our house. Only one family on our street owned a car, a black bustle-back 1938 Chevrolet. In the 1940s, everyone walked or boarded a streetcar to go to church or attend a movie theatre. We also walked to the local shops, which were an integral part of our village. Visits to them always entailed meeting neighbours and stopping to chat. When I was a boy, older people greeted me and enquired about my studies at school. I secretly rated adults by the quality of the treats they “shelled-out” on Halloween, or by the amount of the tip they gave me at Christmas time, since I was their paperboy who delivered their daily newspapers.
However, the most important of all the shops were the “corner stores.” We visited them every day, sometimes more than once, as opposed to the churches and theatres that we attended once a week. The “corner stores” varied. They might be a drug store, a variety store, or a grocery store. If you were lucky, your street contained all three, or at least two of these types. Our neighbourhood had a drug store and a grocery store.
Corner stores adjusted their merchandise to accommodate the neighbourhoods. If a grocery store did not sell ice cream, the drug store filled the void. Often, corner stores sold everything except prescriptions, unless it was a drug store. Sometimes, they even stocked items that would normally be found in hardware stores. As a child, I purchased penny candy in them. The endless boxes of sweets were truly a sight to behold, the licorice cigars being my favourite. Today, the only place I know where I am able to see a similar array of candies is in the Kensington Market, at Casa Acoreana, at 297 Augusta Avenue. In this shop, the candies are contained in large bottles. However, there is nothing available for a penny, even the penny now having disappeared into history.
On hot summer days, at the corner drug store, we bought orange Popsicles for 5 cents, or a Melrose ice cream cone that was 6 cents. There were only three flavours of cones—vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. A single serving of a Melrose ice cream was wrapped in white, wax-coated paper that was peeled back to allow it to be inserted into the cone. This allowed the store owner to place the ice cream in the cone without touching it. Using a scoop to form a ball of ice cream and then placing it in a cone had not yet appeared on the scene. Sprinkles on top of cones only appeared after they were scooped from large containers.
My family sometimes purchased a “brick” of ice cream, on a humid summer evening. An ice cream brick was rectangular in shape, similar to a small building brick. Our favourite flavour was Neapolitan (vanilla, strawberry and chocolate), which had a strip of orange in the centre that was similar in texture and taste to an orange Popsicle. Sometimes my dad bought a quart bottle of “Wilson’s Golden Amber Ginger Ale” to make an ice cream float. “Kik Cola” was another favourite soda pop used for this purpose. Sitting on the veranda after dark on a steamy August evening, observing the passing scene on the street, and sipping on an ice cream float or consuming a slice of ice cream cut from a brick, was our definition of heaven.
Our neighbourhood grocery store was where my family purchased our daily needs, though every Saturday my mother went to a small Dominion Store that was a ten-minute walk from our house. Our local grocery store was owned by two brothers, one of whom was the butcher. He never came out from behind the counter during working hours, and some kid started a rumour that the reason was that he did not wear any trousers. Kids giggled whenever they observed him in the store, while trying to determine if the the rumour were true. No child ever solved the mystery.
The corner store was where my mother purchased butter, sugar, Jell-O powder, and meat. All these items were rationed during the war years, so she handed over government-issued coupons whenever she purchased them. In autumn, outside the store, the rich scent of the purple Concord grapes from Niagara filled the air. They were employed to make jelly to spread on toast on cold winter mornings. Bushels of Ontario sweet corn were stacked alongside baskets of apples, pears, peaches and plums, all adding to the colourful display. My mother bought generous quantities of the fruits to fill her preserving jars. These were stored in our root cellar during the winter months. Similarly, each autumn my father brought home a burlap sack of potatoes and also onions. These were also stored in the root cellar for winter meals. Imported fruits and vegetables were not available in the 1940s and many foods were in short supply because of the war.
The corner store was where the news of the “street-village” was disseminated, along with generous portions of gossip. Not all the comments were kind. It was a decade when divorced women, as well as those who had children out of wedlock, were considered shameful. Neighbours who did not properly sweep the sidewalks in front of their houses or whose laundry on the clothesline did not appear clean, were criticized. Those who did not attend any church or worshipped at a synagogue also received a good share of criticism.
However, corner stores were also where people shared their problems and supported each other. The harsh realities of life were softened by discussing them with neighbours. Health difficulties, problems providing food for the table, loneliness as sons or a husband were overseas, as well as day-to-day stresses were ameliorated by a few words spoken at corner stores.
Politics, soap operas on the radio, Hollywood hairstyles, movie stars, and the current movies at the local theatre, were all discussed. Another favourite of the gossip mills was the antics of a local Romeo or a woman of “loose morals.” Most streets possessed at least one child who spoke about the visits of an “Uncle Harry” on Wednesday nights when their father worked late. The 1940s was a decade when coal, bread and milk were delivered directly to homes, often by horse-drawn wagons. A handsome delivery man elicited many remarks, as well as a few knowing smiles. A child that was better looking than either of his parents was jokingly referred to as another product delivered by the milk or bread man.
News from the war front was usually avoided in the corner shops. Almost every family was touched by the war, as they had a relative, friend or neighbour serving overseas. Discussing the latest battles or casualty reports added to people’s fears. However, though not often discussed, the war remained a concern that lingered beneath the surface of the lives of everyone.
If people wished to discuss conflict with a fierce opponent, a recent argument with a cantankerous mother-in-law sufficed. She did not seem quite so bad after a few jokes about her dentures or new girdle. A bit of laughter healed many wounds and kept the demons of war at bay. The mundane topics at the corner store, along with those that were humorous and tragic, reflected the daily life of the community. I do believe that texting in the modern era fulfills the same role. The personal touch is missing as there is no visual contact, and Skype is not a particularly good substitute.
After World War II ended, a flood of immigrants and refugees arrived in Toronto. Neighbourhoods began to change as many Torontonians fled to the suburbs. Immigrants purchased their homes in the older neighbourhoods. Multi-cultural Toronto was on the horizon, with its influx of new customs and different foods. Life in Toronto became more transient. Immigrants did not stay in the older areas for long. As they prospered, they too relocated. The village feeling of neighbourhoods diminished, although ethnic enclaves continued many of the traditions of Toronto of old.
I miss the Toronto of old. Social media and smart phones have replaced conversations in cafes, restaurants and neighbourhoods. However, I believe that the city is now far more exciting, thanks in part to the immigrants who have made Toronto their home.
A corner drug store, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266. Item 18008.
Corner store at Davenport and Dupont Street, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 2080.
Store at Dundas and Ontario Streets, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, Fl. 0009, Item 0025.
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A link to view previous posts about the movie houses of Toronto—historic and modern.
A link to view posts that explore Toronto’s Heritage Buildings:
The publication entitled, “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” was written by the author of this blog. It explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories by the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book:
Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Shop, and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791 (ISBN 978.1.62619.450.2)
Another book, published by Dundurn Press, containing 80 of Toronto’s old movie theatres will be released in the spring of 2016. It is entitled, “Toronto’s Movie Theatres of Yesteryear—Brought Back to Thrill You Again.” It contains over 130 archival photographs.
A second publication, “Toronto Then and Now,” published by Pavilion Press (London, England) explores 75 of the city’s heritage sites. This book will also be released in the spring of 2016.