28 March 2017





The series of digital stories about Toronto history and culture which make up this project are the work of fifty-three Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) graduate students. The project was inspired by the 2015 Myseum Intersections – Telling Toronto’s Stories and invited each storyteller to select an object from local collections which has significance to Toronto’s past and present. The objects inspired the authors to connect historical events with contemporary context so that they tell stories about the multiple intersections that happen in the city.

Musings will be posting collected stories once a cycle. We hope that, after reading the stories, you will know Toronto a little bit better. And perhaps you will find similar stories in your own objects!

Our partners for this project, to which we are extremely thankful, are:
Now, without further ado, object stories from the Toronto District School Board Archives.



Did you know that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Museum and Archives houses the largest collection of public education artefacts in Canada? Amongst them is a Heintzman Square Grand Piano that belonged to the Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf in the 1920s. Why is this particular piano important? Well, it was used by hard-of-hearing students in the TDSB to feel the vibrations on the wood and in their bodies while the piano keys were played by the teacher, allowing these children to also have access to music in the school system.

Heintzman Square Grand Piano, Rosewood, built in 1873. Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives, Toronto, ON. Photo by E. Berg
Heintzman and Co. Ltd. was a Toronto based piano manufacturer founded by Theodore Heintzman (1817-1899), a German immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1850 and came to Toronto in 1860, where he applied his wood-working, machinery, and instrument making skills. The world renowned Heintzman pianos were considered some of the finest pianos built in Canada, winning several first prize awards and gold medals while being exhibited in the United States and in Canada, including at what is now known as the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Canadians no longer had to import high-quality pianos.

The piano at the TDSB Museum and Archives was built in December 1873, and is made of high-quality rosewood, which is one of finest finishes for instruments. It is quite large, and if you think this looks the size of a large desk or couch, you are right.

TDSB Archivist, Greg McKinnon, noted that students would lay across the piano or put their hands and head down against the piano to hear, feel, and experience the musical vibrations. Their bodies acted as resonance cavities and the music creates a tingling sensation in our bones, muscles and nerves. Lower notes are often felt in the legs and thighs, while higher pitches resonate in the chest and face. Learning to “hear” different tones with their bodies teaches hard-of-hearing children about music.

Hard-of-hearing students placing their hands on a piano. Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf (N.D.)
Out of the Silence. Toronto: Toronto District School Board. [catalogue]
They were using the Orff-Schulwerk multi-sensory method, whereby children can discover, explore, and create music combining singing, dancing, listening, speaking rhythms, and playing instruments. Children use these playful sensorial intersections to experience the changes in resonances within their bodies. Learning music together creates an important collective experience, opening up creativity and encouraging conversations about music.

Today, music therapists believe that music should be available for hard-of-hearing students to learn more about themselves, as well as aiding in their speech development. How wonderful that the TDSB knew the value and positive experiences that children would have using this piano almost a century ago.

Although the Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf closed two years ago, there is a hard-of-hearing program run at Faywood Arts-Based Curriculum public school in North York. Today, a special music instructor uses drums instead of a piano with children to help them learn music and feel the vibrations. Music nurtures and builds self-expression, confidence, and better communication skills in all children, including those with disabilities.

Darrow, A.A. (2007). Teaching Students with Hearing Losses. General Music Today, 20(2), 27-30.

Darrow, A.A. (2006). The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Deaf Student’s Perception of Emotion in Music. Journal of Music Therapy, (43)1, 2-15.

Heintzman and Co. Ltd. (c. 1880-1899) Archival Collection. Baldwin Collection of Canadiana. Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, Toronto Reference Library. Toronto, ON.

McKinnon, G. Personal Communication. Oct. 20, 2015, Oct. 27, 2015 and Nov. 3, 2015.

Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf. Out of the Silence. Toronto: Toronto District School Board. [catalogue]

Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives. Toronto, ON.



“Elmer and I never forget!” was a phrase uttered by schoolchildren across Canada during the 1960s, reminding each other to play safely around roads and busy intersections. So how did this popular pachyderm catch his big break and what has become of him?

Elmer the Safety Elephant is a beloved Canadian mascot that was created by Bas Mason and Vernon Page in 1947 with the purpose of educating Toronto’s elementary school children on traffic safety. As noted by Greg McKinnon, chief archivist at the Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives, the program was so successful in its first year that traffic accidents among schoolchildren in Toronto dropped a staggering 44 percent, even as the number of registered vehicles increased by 10 percent. Word of Elmer’s success in Toronto spread to other municipalities in Ontario, and eventually the Elmer safety program was implemented in other provinces.

Archival footage from a 1955 CBC news story shows how the program included in-school safety demonstrations by local police officers, a song which helped children remember traffic safety rules and most memorably, an Elmer flag which was displayed in front of schools. McKinnon spoke of one example of an Elmer pennant flag housed in the museum’s collection. “This particular example is dated to the 1960s, and was often the pride of the school that displayed it.” According to McKinnon, “the Elmer flag was used as bragging rights among Toronto children” as schools could fly the flag when accruing 30 accident-free days.

“Elmer the Safety Elephant” flag (c.1965), TDSB Archives and Museum,
photo by Khristine Chua
So what exactly happened to Elmer after his years of glory? During the 1980s and 1990s, Elmer’s popularity waned and he disappeared from schools. A resurgence in the program that was prompted by the Canada Safety Council during the early 2000s lead to a revamping of Elmer’s image – he ditched the 1940s Disney duds and traded them in for a baseball cap and sneakers. Elmer still lives on today in the form of an interactive website. He continues to educate children on traffic safety, but updated his topics to include contemporary issues such as internet safety. Some have criticised Elmer as being too tame for today’s youth and no longer relevant, but I think he deserves some credit! Elmer paved the way for other safety initiatives and mascots. Remember McGruff the Crime Dog?. Will Elmer ever reach the fame that he did in the 1950s? It’s hard to predict, but in an ever-growing city with its increasing reliance on vehicles, Elmer’s rules should be practiced more than ever.

A special thanks to Greg McKinnon and the Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives at 16 Phin Avenue, for his help conducting research.

Works Cited
Note: All sources used have been linked in the preceding blog post.



If you’re like me and do not enjoy the dentists, take a minute to reconsider the comfort and security of the dental chair you sit in. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Museum and Archive is home to Child’s Chair No. 2, a dental chair patented December 10, 1907, by S.S. White Technologies, Inc. Founded in 1844 by Dr. Samuel Stockton White, the multifaceted technological company remains in operation today.

Child’s Chair No. 2 is the only dental chair in the TDSB Museum and Archive. It provides an example of the early collaborations between health professionals and educators in the Toronto public school system. The black leather, metal, and dark wooden chair is child-size both in the dimensions of the seat and the distance to the upper headrest. As the aesthetic qualities of the chair give it a ‘creepy’ and austere appearance, is it possible that these early dental chairs contributed to the fear of going to the dentists?
S.S. White. Child’s Chair No. 2, 1907.
Front view. Photo Source: Maya Donkers
Research on this chair led to some unexpected findings. Surprisingly, it is the Annual Report of the Inspector for the Public Schools of the City of Toronto in 1880, which provides some answers to my questions through the record of a general meeting held to discuss school hygiene. This left me wondering: When was an adequate health and hygiene practice introduced into Toronto’s public school system?

The TDSB Museum and Archive highlights that in 1910, the Toronto Board of Education organized a system of school visitations and medical inspections to battle health risks associated with unsanitary living conditions, crowded classrooms, and a general lack of knowledge about health and hygiene. According to the Ontario Dental Association, pressure from the association forced the City of Toronto to open a six-chair dental clinic to treat city children in 1911. The ODA states that within a year, the educational proficiency of children who received dental care and oral hygiene instruction through the clinic increased by 54 per cent. However, it was not until 1913 that dental clinics were designed within schools to test and treat children with severe illnesses and infections.

S.S. White. Child’s Chair No. 2, 1907. Side view.
Photo Source: Maya Donkers
So when did Child’s Chair No. 2 enter the school system? Although the exact date is unknown, TDSB archivist Greg McKinnon informed me that, “It was one of the very first dental chairs to enter Toronto’s school system… between 1907-1913.” I wonder how students would have reacted to this dental chair. Would the chair have been new and exciting or unknown and horrifying? As tooth decay was identified as a major concern at the time, I would imagine the latter. Although this dental chair is only one example of the many objects that record the history of Toronto’s public school system, it certainly provides a fascinating intersection of education and dental health in Toronto.

Works Cited James Hughes. (1881). Annual Report of the Inspector of the Public Schools of the City of Toronto: for the Year Ending December 31st 1880. Toronto: Patterson & Co, Steam Printers, p. 29.

Toronto District School Board Museum and Archive. (n.d.). Health and Wellness [Label]. In Exhibition Room. Toronto, Canada.
Toronto District School Board Museum and Archive. (n.d.). Medical and Dental Care [Label]. In Exhibition Room. Toronto, Canada.



Imagine you have just graduated from a vocational high school in Toronto in the 1920s and are looking for a job in the technology sector. What kind of jobs would be available? What kind of job would you want? For many women, becoming a telephone switchboard operator was a highly desired job. It was not only a profession where the large majority of workers were women, but it was also one of the few technology jobs where women also served in many supervision positions. Women were preferred as they were seen to be “steadier, do not drink beer and are always on hand.” [1] By the 1890s, men were no longer employed as operators, as they had a tendency to swear at and play pranks on callers. The job required manually connecting callers to each other, therefore workers needed a good attention to detail and strong communication skills. The job could be very demanding if you worked in a large city, or be very slow and monotonous if you worked in a small town where there may only be a few people with telephones.

The Private Branch Exchange at the Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives.
 The metallic book on the top right of the image is a directory
of employees working at the Toronto District School Board in 1984.
Photo: Curtis Frederick

Telephone companies were not the only businesses that required switchboard operators. Many large companies, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), had their own private switchboard systems, known as a Private Branch Exchange (PBX). A PBX connected all the telephones in the office to each other and routed incoming calls to the operator, who then connected them to the correct office. The TDSB’s PBX was likely made in the 1920s or 1930s by Western Electric for Bell Canada and was used until 1984 when it was acquired by the museum after the school board switched to an automatic system.

Detail view of the Private Branch Exchange. The plugs at the back were plugged
into the holes on the switching board, the vertical portion of the PBX,
to connect callers to one another. The operator could also
connect callers directly to an outside phone number  by using the rotary dial.
Photo: Curtis Frederick
To encourage new female graduates to become switchboard operators, many large companies advertised directly to high school students. In the 1950s, Bell Canada advertised to high school girls promising them “a good salary, plenty of opportunities to get ahead, and off-hour social activities.” [2]

According to the TDSB Museum archivist Greg McKinnon, the TDSB was an early adopter of many different forms of technology. In the 1920s, technologies such as the telephone, radio, and typewriters, were used in Toronto’s Commerce and Technical High Schools to teach students concrete skills that they would need to work in different industries. The commerce high schools, which focused more on business and secretarial skills, tended to be more popular with girls. Conversely, the technical high schools, which taught skills such as auto repair, plumbing, and carpentry, tended to be more popular with boys. Do you think that this gender divide still exists today? Which type of school would you want to attend?

The Toronto District School Board Museum and Archives [3] are located in the Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute. In addition to a large collection of artefacts from schools all over Toronto, the archives hold a number of materials including meeting minutes, yearbooks, and photographs.
1. Chapuis, P.J. and A. E. Joel. (1982). 100 years of telephone switching (1878-1978). Amsterdam, NY: North Holland, p. 54.
2. Your place in the business world! [Advertisement]. (c. 1955). Montreal, QC: Bell Telephone Company of Canada.
3. http://www.museumsontario.ca/museum/Museum-and-Archives---Toronto



Today, special education is an integral part of the Toronto public education system; the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) annually updates its Special Education Plan for students with special needs. As it turns out, the antique speech correction board currently located at the TDSB Museum and Archives had its part to play in the history of special education practices in the city. For years, the board was used in Toronto’s Davisville Junior Public School as a speech correction tool for hearing impaired children. Although the exact date of manufacture is unknown, TDSB archivist Greg McKinnon estimates that the speech correction board was made sometime in the 1930s and was housed in Davisville before arriving at the TDSB Archives in the 1980s.

The speech correction board located in the TDSB Museum and Archives.
Photograph by Mairead Murphy.
The TDSB speech correction board consists of a small chalkboard mounted above a large square mirror, which is then joined to two support legs. Using a series of metal hinges and mechanisms, the board can either be locked in place or flipped vertically in order to reveal a large chalkboard surface on the other side, complete with a small shelf for holding sticks of chalk. Since it is made of wood, the whole board could be moved from classroom to classroom fairly easily.

The board appears to be an artifact from the era of the “pure oralist method” of deaf education in Toronto. In the early 20th century, Toronto schools discouraged hearing impaired students from learning sign language. Instead, teachers promoted lip-reading and talking aloud. According to McKinnon, teachers would write words onto the board’s chalk surface. Then, teacher and student would read the words out loud in front of the mirror and the deaf student could observe his or her mouth movements and the formations of the teacher’s mouth simultaneously. Teachers did this in the hope that hearing impaired children would learn how to pronounce words.

This informational pamphlet about Davisville Junior Public School
was found in the TDSB Museum and Archives.
The pamphlet features an image of a teacher and student using a speech correction board
similar to the one found in the Museum.
Photograph by Mairead Murphy.
Today, sign language is an important aspect of deaf education in Toronto and the speech correction board is a relic rather than a tool. The question remains: how effective was the speech correction board? Dozens of chalk stains on the chalkboard show that it was used many times, but anecdotal or personal testimony about how well this specific form of therapy worked is hard to find.

Regardless, the speech correction board was a step toward modern special education practices. Now that the object sits in a museum instead of a classroom, it exists as a representation of a distinct point in time in the development of Toronto’s learning strategies for students with special needs. The board is not only physical evidence of the city of Toronto’s investment in early childhood education but also a piece of history relating to the experiences of its hearing impaired citizens. For decades, hearing impaired students would have met at the common intersection of the TDSB speech correction board and left with a shared experience.

Works Cited
 Ellis, Jason A. 2014. All methods—and wedded to none: The deaf education methods debate and progressive educational reform in Toronto, Canada, 1922-1945. Paedagogica Historica, 50(3), 371-389. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2013.833273

TDSB Special Education Plan. (2015, July 31.) Retrieved from http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/EarlyYears/docs/SpecialEducationPlan.pdf

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