What's in the Archives

Collecting Toronto: Sending Toronto



Letter folded to make its own envelope


Even before Toronto's first (log) post office was established near Frederick and King streets in the 1820s or the first Canadian postage stamp was issued in 1851, Toronto was connected to the world by mail - a connection that has been maintained by ship, stagecoach, railway, truck, airplane, and e-mail.

Stamp and postcard collectors have always been among the most numerous of collectors, and Larry Becker proved to be among the most dedicated, at least where Toronto was concerned. His small, but significant philately collection focused more on unusual markings than unusual stamps; and his postcard collection is the largest private collection ever amassed of postcards featuring Toronto.

Becker's philately begins with an October 8, 1832 letter from John Baldwin of York, Upper Canada, to Julius Quesnel of Montreal, Lower Canada, and includes such historically interesting items as: an 1897 postal card celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee; a 1901 postal card bearing the first slogan cancellation in Toronto, which was for the pre-CNE exposition; a patriotic cancellation for World War I; an airmail letter sent between Toronto and Hamilton in 1929; and a trans Canada airmail letter posted in 1939. Becker also collected novelty items, such as the note written by a laundry-worker on an Edwardian gentlemen's cuff, and the souvenir letter case addressed to an MPP and bearing souvenir stamps for the 1939 Royal Visit.


A postcard showing different scenery and writing from Martha  

Becker was especially devoted to his postcard collection, which now numbers about 6,500 items. In fact, he was rearranging it right up until his death in 1998. His approach to collecting postcards was very distinctive and unusual: he often collected many, apparently identical, copies of the same scene. Upon closer inspection, however, the various copies usually reveal differences in colour, tone, perspective, cropping, and/or captioning. Sometimes, as demonstrated here, he collected the very same photograph, treated in quite different ways: as the original black and white photograph, as a hand-tinted colour photograph of a daytime scene, and as a hand-tinted colour photograph of a nighttime scene (almost always with a full moon).

Other times he collected many views of the same landmark, revealing how it was treated over time. In a few cases, he collected "error" cards, such as postcards with incorrect captions. In addition to traditional postcards, Becker also collected novelty items, such as panoramas, pop-ups, pull-downs, and even postcards printed on leather, as well as photographic postcards printed out on photographic paper, which were usually in black and white (such as the Palais Royale at Sunnyside), and very occasionally as hand-tinted photographs (such as The Old Mill in Etobicoke).

Although the images were Becker's major interest, many of his cards contain messages that provide additional historical information. Some offered opinions about Toronto - both flattering and otherwise. Some discussed collecting postcards. Some discussed daily events. Some engaged in extended correspondence using many cards. Most wrote in English. But some wrote in French, German, Spanish ... even the artificial language of Esperanto. Becker's postcard collection is a gold mine of information about the physical, social, and economic development of Toronto, especially during the Edwardian era when postcard sending and collecting were at their peak.