By Jay Young
During the many hours I spent conducting research for my dissertation at the City of Toronto Archives, I was struck by the number of people who wanted to know the history of their home. Everyday, individuals came into the archives for the first time and quickly became engaged in the process of historical research: viewing and comparing old documents to answer questions based on change and continuity over time. Along with researching family history, uncovering the history of a home is one of the most common experiences that non-professionals have with archival research. What explains the popular desire to know the history of a home?
Like genealogy, home history connects very personal pasts with the wider contexts of history. It provides opportunities for people to ask how larger forces have influenced our everyday lives. Why was my home built when it was? Why was it built where it was? Who has lived in my home and in what ways were their lives similar and different to me? Some of the popularity of home history may be based on the hopes of uncovering that someone famous used to reside in the home, but much more common is the realization that the home has been inhabited by people of various backgrounds whose lives have intersected with larger historical forces. In Neil Harris’ engaging Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages (1999), he argues that physical structures go through a kind of life history and share similar rites as humans. Buildings proceed through birth, adolescence, adulthood, and finally death. In a sense, then, home history centres around asking questions about the evolving lives of a physical structure that has immense meaning to the individual who inhabits it.
Megan Schlase, an archivist at the City of Vancouver Archives, agrees that home history research is one of the most popular reasons that non-professional historians come to the archives. “[H]ome history research introduces research skills to ordinary folks,” she observes. “They learn to use the finding aids, microfilm reader/printers, and make requests for materials from storage, and they receive the same orientations on how to handle original materials . . . that academic or professional researchers do.” And as Schlase points out, home historians then create a narrative from the evidence they have found. The City of Vancouver Archives partners with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to organize workshops at the archives on home research. The events attract around 12 to 15 participants who often come back to the archives and share their experiences with others. Real estate agents, Schlase notes, also conduct home history research at the archives to help them sell homes.
How does one go about researching the history of their home? I say “home” rather than “house” because apartment renters, like myself, can also research aspects of the structure they call home.
The strategies and sources used will differ, of course, based on where you live and the age of your home. Urban dwellers and those who live in older homes will probably find more information compared to their rural counterparts or those residing in newer structures. Municipal archives have reference staff to assist you. Many municipal archives also provide easy-to-understand guides to help you research your home. Sometimes they can be found online, as is the case with Vancouver and Calgary. Smaller cities also have municipal archives. The archives of Cambridge, Ontario has information about heritage designated properties, municipal directories, and historic maps. Fire insurance maps (more on this below) for Cambridge can be found at the city’s Gore Mutual Fire Insurance Company archives. Counties in Ontario also have land registry offices, which can be a good place to start your research.
The City of Toronto Archives has an excellent “Researching Your House” guide that is available in print at the archives and also online. The guide’s introduction mentions useful research advice not unique to home history: “Researching a property can be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle – one with missing pieces, as well as pieces that belong to another puzzle! Be patient. Assemble information before you come to any conclusions. Cross-reference information from a variety of sources. Be aware that not all sources are 100% accurate!” This would be great advice for a student researching an undergraduate history paper.
The Toronto Archives guide suggests researchers consult a number of sources. Fire insurance plans are an excellent starting point. These plans were used by insurance companies to calculate insurance premiums based on the risk of fire. They contain not only structural information about building materials, using different colours to indicate brick and wood structures, but also details such as address numbers, lot sizes, and certain landscape features like rivers and hills. Comparing various years of fire insurance maps allows home researchers to see how the physical characteristics of their neighbourhood has changed over time. I’ve witnessed many people look with amazement at historic maps of their neighbourhood that depict the area with far fewer structures than the present.
The archives also houses aerial photographs (1947-1992) and numerous atlases. If you’re lucky, there may even be photographs of your home, street, or neighbourhood. The Toronto Archives is increasingly digitizing its photographic collection, making it easy to enter search terms using their online database to find digitized images. Council minutes are another great source; they include council proceedings, committee reports, and bylaws. Minutes can reveal changes in municipal service provision or controversial neighbourhood issues.
The Toronto Archives has documents that can contain information about people who previously resided in a home. Assessment rolls, for example, reveal details like the name, occupation, income, and creed of the “head of the household” and the assessed value of the property. City directories are another useful source to uncover the lives of your home’s previous dwellers. They contain entries like “Brown Mrs Kate, cook American Hotel, h 47 Wellington e”, illustrating the head of the household’s name, profession, and residential status (“h” indicates a home owner, while “bds” indicates a renter).
Outside the archives, you can also use newspapers. In Toronto, a public library card means you have access to digitized versions of the Toronto Star going back to 1892 and The Globe since 1844. You can enter the name of your street, neighbourhood, or even previous residents’ names (which you might have discovered using city directories or assessment rolls, although identical names can be common) to find advertisements, articles, and images. I found an advertisement for vacancies in my apartment, built in the early 1930s. The rent has increased since then!
A further option would be to see if there are municipal histories or even neighbourhood histories of the area in which you live. This will help you contextualize the discoveries you have made at the archives. For Toronto, J.M.S. Careless’s Toronto to 1918 (1983) and James Lemon’s Toronto since 1918 (1985) are excellent starting points. Many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods also have their own histories, which can be found at local library branches and in the Toronto Archives’ reference collection.
For those who have less interest in archival research, but still want to know their home history, you can pay someone to do it for you. Robin Burgoyne is the founder of the Toronto-based Caerwent HouseStories. She has an MA in history and offers to do this research for a fee. She conducts the research and presents the information in a bound book for her clients. James Johnstone, based in Vancouver, offers a similar service called Home History Research Services.
Home history is a great way for people to learn not only the pasts of their everyday spaces, but also the processes and sources of historical research.
Thanks to Karen Dearlove for information on Cambridge and the Ontario Land Registry offices.
Nice post, Jay. Interesting, so ordinary people can do research just like proper academics… hmm, that’s blasphemy. Just kidding. Thanks for the very useful tips.
Glad you enjoyed the post, Zee. Academic historians certainly bring a level of expertise gained from years of study and well-honed research skills, but non-professionals can also build similar skills when conducting research, such as the home history research that I’ve described in the post.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the link to my main website. So far, I have researched over 800 houses here in Vancouver, and about 40 in New Westminster, and a few in North Vancouver. It seems the more research skills and expertise you accumulate, you know there is always a way to dig deeper. And though my website tagline says, “Let me turn mystery into history”, mysteries always remain.
What I have been totally bowled over by is the fact that every house, no matter how humble and bedraggled looking has a history, and that when an owner bothers to embark on a research project through me, that often their relationship to their house and its future changes.
I live in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, Strathcona. Over 250 of the 800 Vancouver houses I have researched are right here. Though it is great to be hired to research the stately homes of Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale, it is often the stories about the people who lived in the smaller, more humble houses that are more compelling. Some of the stories from my more interesting research projects are posted on my blog.
Since August of last year, I have been offering neighbourhood history walks in the East End, West End, and Mount Pleasant. This was a natural outgrowth of my house history research efforts and a great way to share my findings and interesting house stories with an audience that goes way beyond the clients who hire me.
I have always loved history, but for most of my life that meant reading books about ancient Rome, Byzantium, Egypt, etc. Now my love keeps me busy closer to home, unearthing the stories of the diverse array of people who moved to Vancouver from all corners of the globe to start a new life here. Many succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In my own neighbourhood stand the houses of the “Shingle King of North America” and a world welterweight champion boxer. A few blocks from where I live once stood the house of a world renowned theoretical physicist, a protégé of Einstein (we have knocked down a lot of our history in Vancouver, sadly). but thee are lots of horror stories and unhappy endings as well. One day I hope to put up all my East End research on an interactive neighbourhood history mapping website…
Anyway, I best get back to work. One thing before I go, there is another person in Canada who does this professionally, Dana King in Toronto. Her website is http://www.househistory.ca/
Thanks again for including me in your post.
Thanks for reading the post and sharing your experiences as a professional home history researcher. I’m particularly interested – although not surprised – that you feel less affluent homes often have been sites of the more fascinating home histories.
Thanks also for noting Dana King’s services in Toronto.
Really great article thank you! I’ve always been intrigued by the homes in my community in Calgary. The houses in my neighborhood were actually built for workers of our big manufacturing plant as dictated by the owner. He had 4 architects design the houses so that there was as little overlap in style between the homes as possible. We all love it.
It’s been a while since James Johnstone provided a link to Toronto house researcher Dana King in his comment and I want to let folks know that she left the business in 2015. However, I’ll be offering this service to Ontario homeowners starting this summer and if people are interested in finding out more they can check out my site at http://www.househistories.ca.