By Nicholas Thompson, originally published April 15, 2010
How the postal service played a critical role in Toronto’s development
Present in the daily lives of generations of Torontonians, the postal service played a crucial role in the city’s social and economic development. Tracing its trajectory, from elite colonial affair to democratized public service, one is struck by the central importance of something as mundane as delivering the mail. The evolving postal service helped integrate Toronto politically into regional and national contexts; provided a reliable and accessible means of communication to the masses; fostered the expansion and improvement of transportation networks; and facilitated financial growth and competitiveness (not least, for instance, Timothy Eaton’s mail-order empire). Post offices physically symbolised this role; their siting, materials, and changing architectural expressions reveal a great deal about Toronto and the postal service’s contribution to its growth.
Until the establishment of the Canadian postal service in 1851, the post was controlled by the colonial administration; local postmasters reported to the Postmaster General for British North America, who in turn reported to London. The postmaster, appointed official and representative of colonial authority, was an important and respected figure. Likewise, the post office was a prominent public building and the focal point for many colonial communities. As York grew, so too did the need for expanded postal service; the town’s fourth post office, commissioned by postmaster James Scott Howard, was built in 1833 on Duke (Adelaide) Street. A finely proportioned Georgian building reflecting the strong British architectural influence typical of the time, Howard and his family originally lived in the residences upstairs. Upon Toronto’s incorporation the following year, it became the new city’s first post office, and, somewhat miraculously, it still stands today (and functions as a post office no less – despite a century-long hiatus and many other uses in between).
By the opening of Toronto’s seventh post office, in 1853, the city had grown considerably in size and, as the building’s design suggests, in stature. For the Toronto Street site, prolific local architect Frederic Cumberland abandoned the Georgian look for the formal symmetry of Greek Neo-Classicism. This reflected not only changing architectural preferences, but also the increasing importance accorded the post office, a civic structure of the first order. The building’s dramatic facade of grand ionic columns and a carved coat of arms lent a certain dignity to Toronto Street while allowing ample room for sorting and processing mail off the rear. With slight exterior modifications, the building remains today, one of the last vestiges of the street’s former self.
The city’s continuous population and economic growth, along with the increasing popularity of letter mail, eventually overwhelmed the Toronto street office, while entry into the Dominion in 1867 meant the new Canadian government was willing to financially contribute to impressive public buildings, especially those of its new national postal department. Toronto’s eighth postal building, known as the General Post Office, was completed in 1873 on Adelaide, at the head of Toronto Street. The federal government spared no expense in constructing this grandiose edifice – in point of fact, it was their most expensive post-Confederation undertaking. Designed in the Second Empire style by Henry Langley, few buildings could match its splendour; as William Dendy writes, “it established standards for fine design and materials and for sheer grandeur of effect.” Sadly, it was razed in 1958.
The General Post Office, a bold symbol of prosperity and permanence, was also a model of postal efficiency, designed to maximize productivity and exploit the latest technology. The postal service faced the enormous task of processing increasingly large volumes of letters, parcels, catalogues and newspapers by hand. The labour intensive nature of processing mail required hundreds of employees, many of whom crammed cheek by jowl into vast sorting rooms. Receiving and delivering mail to Torontonians required constant innovation and expansion; in order to continue offering a democratic service at an inexpensive rate, all manner of time and cost saving measures were experimented with. The first pillar mailboxes in Toronto appeared in 1859, and soon became commonplace fixtures throughout the city. Bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks were harnessed for faster postal delivery. Three branch offices were opened in 1881 to keep pace with the city’s growth and relieve the burden on the General office, and many more were opened afterwards – by the turn of the century over fifty existed, soon accompanied by a system of postal zones.
Constant modernization was necessary for the postal service to manage the exponential growth of mail volume and the pressure of delivering to streetcar suburbs. The early twentieth century was characterized by a drive towards automated solutions, and postal buildings whose scale and function was consistent with the needs of a large modern city. In the 1930s, postal service in Toronto benefited from funds provided by the federal government for large public works projects. The result was the Postal Delivery Building, a colossal sorting facility completed in 1941 near the city’s rail and industrial area. Charles Dolphin’s streamlined design, influenced by the Deco and Moderne styles popular at the time, featured sleek curves and fantastic ornamentation to suggest a society enthralled by speed, technology and communication.
Toronto’s later post offices revealed the increased emphasis on automated sorting technology and shifting architectural expressions. The clean lines and horizontal simplicity of postwar postal buildings, such as Postal Station E on Dovercourt Road and John Parkin’s Don Mills Post Office, presented Torontonians with a postal service for the Modern age. These buildings, like their predecessors, are testament to the post’s symbolic place in Toronto’s history.