New Book – Undressed Toronto

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Dale Barbour, Undressed Toronto: From the Swimming Hole to Sunnyside, How a City Learned to Love the Beach, 1850–1935 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, Oct 2021)

Undressed Toronto is a cultural study of recreation spaces in Toronto, an examination of how the City of Toronto and the Toronto Harbour Commission managed and redeveloped the waterfront for recreation, and a look at how people in Toronto navigated their relationship with the waterfront and rivers.

Writing the book has transformed how I think about the urban environment. When I began, about a dozen years ago, I dove into the archives looking to find out more about how Torontonians used their beaches. I expected to find that the city’s beaches were lively cultural spaces and part of a growing set of public spaces where people played and men and women courted. I had already done a study on Manitoba’s Winnipeg Beach but this time I envisioned a project that looked at beaches across Canada to see if I could find a particularly Canadian story in what I considered to be a North Atlantic cultural institution. In other words, I went in thinking I knew what beaches were all about.

But what I found was places like the Credit Valley Wharf: photographs, fire insurance maps, and birds-eye-view maps of Toronto told me it was a delipidated dock, hemmed in by railroad tracks in the middle of the Toronto’s industrial waterfront. But a Globe reporter visiting the wharf in 1887 described this scene:

On fine warm days this wharf, from end to end, forms a gallery of living statuary of all sizes. The urchins paddle naked in the warm, dirty water near the shore, which the scum floating on the surface renders perfectly opaque, while a little further out are to be found those who are better swimmers, and have ambitions towards the end of the dock. This later point is the stamping grounds for a number of young men almost full-grown, with a certain following of boys who, boylike, are over anxious to follow in the footsteps of their leaders no matter into what danger it may lead them. All of them, of course, are guiltless of attire, and when not diving into the deep water stand in rows upon the end of the wharf waiting until they feel like another plunge.1

The naked masculinity of Toronto’s working-class was displaying itself without a hint of shame.

I might have dismissed this as just an example of men and boys behaving badly if the Globe had followed with a finger-wagging call for police intervention, but the reporter did something more interesting. They accepted as given that the men and boys would not be driven off the docks, and would never—as the city’s bylaws demanded—wear a neck-to-knee bathing dress. Rather, the reporter argued, the city should bend the law to meet the bathers half way by allowing them to wear bathing trunks, a piece of clothing made with eco-friendly screen printer that always seemed readily available in Toronto but would remain illegal on public swimming beaches until the 1930s.

And there was more: a letter writer berated the reporter for snooping where the boys had been bathing. “Poor boys,” A. Johnson argued, “just let them bathe where your young man saw them. No person is obliged to go and look at them. Evil be to him who evil thinks.”2

Toronto’s newspapers, personal memoirs, and city council records are alive with moments just like this and capture a city that hinged on the edge between enforcement and indulgence. The city even set aside legal nude bathing spaces in the 1890s, years after rules calling for people to wear bathing suits had been put in place. Bathers persevered and navigated their way around the flotsam and pollution of the industrial waterfront to the end of the nineteenth century: they were chased from the ferry docks by police but in more industrial areas their presence was often greeted by a wink and a smile from authorities who saw the spaces as fortifying for young masculinity. In the Don River, indulgence went even further to imagine the skinny-dipping boy as a folk figure laden with pre-industrial innocence, to borrow a concept from Ian McKay, and city photographers such as William James promoted that image well into the 1920s.3

Photographer William James helped craft the image of boyhood innocence in the Don River Valley: but the boys looking back in this photograph suggest they knew their image was being used. “Skinny dipping on the Don River,” William James family Fonds 1244, Item 1797, Date of creation circa 1909. Image courtesy City of Toronto Archives.

So, I followed the bathers and Undressed Toronto became a very different book than I had originally imagined.

I am still interested in beaches. I look at Toronto’s beaches as cultural spaces and systems of governance composed of symbols, rules, and expectations that told men and women how they should behave, what they should wear, and how they should interact with each other. I consider how they evolved as lively spaces of negotiation. I look at debates over how bathing suits should look—cotton is too thin but wool … clings—and whether men and women should enter the water together. I track the under-studied efforts of the Toronto Harbour Commission as it built Sunnyside Beach for Toronto and watch its leaders plan everything from the width of the beach to the type of silverware in their dining pavilion along the boardwalk.

But I also explore the Don, the city’s waterfront, and the western end of Toronto Island, as areas where the cultural expectations of a public beach were resisted and a counter logic for bathing tenaciously clung on with civic indulgence.

Why does it matter how people bathed or swam in Toronto?

It’s easy to see nineteenth-century Toronto through the reform movement and the trope of Toronto the Good. Undressed Toronto examines the tools of governance and the people who tried to build a Toronto the Good but also lays out their limits: the urban environment was more porous than the catalogue of bylaw infractions, moralizing headlines, and proscriptive maps and photographs would have us believe. It suggests how we need to get beyond declensionist narratives when we look at the urban environment. It’s easy to use environmental history to track how humans have imposed themselves on other-than-human creatures and forces. But if we’re truly interested in how human beings are in a relationship with these other-than-human creatures and forces then I think we need to spend more time thinking about bathing. Toronto’s industrial waterfront and the polluted Don River come alive as human environments when we look at what people were doing within them. People were not driven to these spaces out of desperation or to escape the baleful eye of a controlling elite class, but rather out of agency and community. If we look at the nineteenth-century city and all we see is pollution and degradation, then we need to hold our noses and look again.


1. “Bathing in Public,” The Globe, 10 August, 1887, 5.
2. “Against Bathing Dresses,” The Globe, 12 August, 1887, 6.
3. Ian McKay, The Quest for the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia (Montreal & Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1994).
Feature image: The Toronto Harbour Commission is best known for reshaping Toronto’s industrial waterfront at the start of the twentieth century. But the commission also developed Sunnyside beach and tried to control the tone of the resort. “Making land for boulevard, Sunnyside, looking east,” William James family Fonds 1244, Item 1117, Date of creation circa 1920. Image courtesy City of Toronto Archives.
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Dale Barbour

University of Toronto PhD and now H. Sanford Riley Post-doctoral Fellow in Canadian History at University of Winnipeg (2021). Penned a book on Winnipeg Beach and new this fall is Undressed Toronto, an innovative look at how Toronto used its waterfront in the nineteenth century.

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