Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

IA Book of the Week: Hamilton: the electric city

Date posted: Mon, Jul. 06, 2020

Every Monday, we feature an Internet Archive Book of the Week, which will highlight an item from the 25,000 or so Fisher items that are freely available on the Internet Archive. This week, Samantha Summers takes a look at the city of Hamilton. 

It is an ill-kept secret that many Torontonians are fleeing the city for Hamilton, choosing to move to Toronto’s neighbour to the southwest rather than face the rising rents and property prices in Toronto. As a born and bred Hamiltonian, this writer is thrilled to see more Torontonians taking an interest in the history and diversity of “the Hammer.” It is a city well worth exploring. Known equally for its role in Canada’s steel trade and its many waterfalls, this is not the first time Hamilton has experienced a bit of a population boom.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trade in Hamilton was growing, and so was the population. Published circa 1900 (the exact date is unclear), Hamilton: The Electric City is a brief pamphlet which provides a geographical, historical, and economic sketch of Hamilton at the time of publication, in addition to a list and short description of a variety of businesses and industries in the city. While the publisher of this document is unknown, its cover was illustrated by famed Ontario artist J. R. Seavey. He was greatly inspired by Hamilton and its surroundings and was known for his line work in a variety of media. This cover is a classic example of his work.

This pamphlet is beautifully illustrated with photos of early Hamilton architecture, such as the famous historical site Dundurn Park (p. 4), the beautifully neo-Romanesque Hamilton Collegiate Institute and Ontario Normal College (p. 11), and the distinctly commercial Balfour, Smye & Co. Wholesale Grocers building (p. 27). Flipping through, we can also find examples of downtown Hamilton bustling with life, such as King Street East (p. 7) and James Street North (p. 35). This pamphlet also features two of Hamilton’s beautiful waterfalls; Ancaster falls (p. [3]) and Chedoke Falls (p. 5). Also included is a beautiful sneak peek inside J. R. Seavey’s art studio, filled with beautiful paintings and rich fabrics (p. 36).

Hamilton has of course changed since this guide was published, and many of the beautiful buildings featured in this text are no longer standing. My personal favourite, the flamboyantly signed William Dodson & Co sign painters at 35 and 37 John Street North (p. 23), is long since gone. However, to anybody who knows Hamilton, the city in these images is still easy to recognize. Hamilton remains a vibrant city with bustling crowded streets; a space where entrepreneurs start businesses and communities are created in local shops and gathering places.

One of the truly wonderful things about early city guides like this is the ability to appreciate our cities for both their history and their growth. Many of these buildings are gone, and that may break the heart of an architecture aficionado, but the Hamilton we know today is a testament to how the city has grown and adapted over the past century to meet the developing needs of its expanding communities. These guides also invite us to imagine what our cities will look like one century from now. Which familiar buildings will still be standing (perhaps designated historical sites by then), and which will be demolished but memorialized in guides like these? Which will be forgotten entirely?

We are lucky to have this treasure digitized on the Internet Archive. Reading it is a lovely way to learn about one of southern Ontario’s largest cities. Take a look through Hamilton: The Electric City yourself and let us know which images or business descriptions stand out most to you. Alternatively, look through our Internet Archive collection to see what other famous cities you are able to explore through our holdings. We are excited to hear about what you find and learn.

- Samantha Summers, Fisher TALInt student