Signs of Urban Life: A History of Visual Communication in Toronto Indefinite Run

Article excerpt

Signs of Urban Life: A History of Visual Communication in Toronto Indfinite run

City of Toronto Archives

Early in the fall of 2004, a new breed of sign began to appear on Toronto streets, or rather, on Toronto sidewalks. These signs were advertisements sprayed onto the sidewalks with chalk paint and stencils, and just like those annoying television ads for medical products, some of the signs were coy about what was actually being marketed. Nevertheless, the interest of many pedestrians was piqued as revealed by the fact that the website clue on one of the "street installations" received 3,000 visits in September. Cheap to make, fun, and boldly insolent like graffiti tags, the sidewalk signs were soon all over downtown Toronto. As intriguing as these signs may have been at first, the allure began to pall once they became as common as trash receptacles, and city officials began to issue tickets for the infraction known as "fouling of the street."

Signs of Urban Life, the most recent exhibit mounted by the City of Toronto Archives, explores this conundrum of our love-hate relationship with signs. Starting with the late nineteenth century, the exhibit examines the evolution of signage in our public spaces, and the effect that the explosion of outdoor advertising has on our lives. The City of Toronto Archives is well able to tell this story, since its holdings include a rich archival collection donated by Mediacom in 1984. Now known as Viacom Outdoor, this company is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a billboard in Canada, the United States, or Europe. Viacom's roots go back to 1904 with the founding of the original firm E. L. Ruddy in Toronto. Ruddy was scrupulous in photographing their billboards and signs, and these images are now part of the archives' holdings. They are a source of information and, for some of us, enormous enjoyment for their documentation of products, design, and political and social messages. They also bring to mind a Toronto past, which is now disappearing at an unimaginable rate.

In nineteenth-century Toronto, the most common form of advertising was the poster composed mostly of text. It was also popular to paint large text ads on the sides of brick buildings. These signs were few and far between and were geared to a pace of life slower than the one we are used to. By the time that E. L. Ruddy started in business, however, things were beginning to change. In an age of mass consumerism, a far larger range of products was available. Soon people would be whizzing by in new-fangled automobiles, leaving no time to read lengthy texts on small signs. Advertisers responded by increasing the number and size of their signs, and by depending more on the use of imagery with high-impact messages.

Inevitably, this free-for-all gave rise to concerns about visual clutter, illustrated perfectly in the exhibit by a series of photographs by William James, which show the street scene as a virtual wall of sundry advertisements. The plethora of hanging signs over sidewalks was a threat to personal safety, while moral safety was compromised by lurid theatre signs and ads for alcohol and tobacco. By the 1920s these concerns, and the chance to collect fees, led the city of Toronto to institute the licensing of signage with controlling regulations. As the photographs in the exhibit clearly show, many vacant lots owned by the city were leased out for billboards, providing a sweet revenue stream for municipal coffers.

A trio of display cases in the exhibit chart the evolution of signs from 1910 to the 1970s. The archives' splendid collection of photographs illustrates how early downtown chain stores, such as F. W. Woolworth and Loblaw Groceterias, depended heavily on window displays to lure passing pedestrians into their shops. …