Research Your Home's History Guide
City Directories can tell you who lived in a specific house on a year-by-year basis, also occupations, address, name of spouse and mone addresre. Use directories to easily chart property ownership at os over several years! Just remember that addresses sometimes change as new construction "in-fills" a given street. Most Ontario towns and cities have directories from the early 1860's to the present day!
Tax Assessment Rolls
Tax rolls also help chart property ownership and land values on a yearly basis. Sometimes they can indicate when a building was constructed because the assessed value may suddenly jump. Assessment rolls also provide legal description of each property. They also indicate land owners on rental property.
Study your House for "Clues"
Every building has a story to tell! You can learn a great deal about the age, architectural style and uses of your house just by studying how it was designed, built, altered and decorated over the years. Take a flashlight, magnifying glass and maybe even a hard-hat and starting sleuthing!
You can learn a great deal by looking for such clues as: shape of nails used, old paint layers and colours, wallpaper patterns and number of layers, window shapes, old or new glass, beams in the attic and basement that are either axe-cut or machine cut, type of foundations, "ghost" marks on walls and floors left behind after a porch or other feature is removed, patent stamps on old radiators and faucets, door hardware, millwork, fireplace details, brick patterns, staircase details, window and door surrounds, interior mouldings and so much more!
Look for well illustrated books and "field guides" that explore and classify architectural styles (e.g. Gothic Revival, Georgian, Art Deco, etc). Remember that few houses stand as "pure examples" of a specific architectural style. Most buildings are local hybrids composed of details from more than one architectural style. Nevertheless, you should still be able to estimate the age of your house rather easily by assessing the style(s) of architecture.
Restoration Magazines/ TV ShowsHeritage restoration and period decorating has become a major industry in recent years. Wonderful magazines such as: “Old House Interiors", “Old House Journal”, "Victorian Homes", "American Bungalow", "Canada Century Home" and "This Old House Magazine" are available at better book stores or magazine shops. They include colourful feature articles and list sources for such things as: wooden replacement windows, period wallpaper, light fixtures, reproduction furniture and more.
Television shows like: "This Old House", "Home Time" and specialty cable channels such as: "HGTV", "The Life Channel" and "A&E" broadcast great programs on restoration and home renovations.
Census records are prepared every 10 years by the Government of Canada. They list every person living in every household in a given district. Occupations, ages, religions and other key details are listed. The first Federal Census in Canada was in 1851, then 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and so on. The Government has not released the census records after 1901. Agricultural census records exist for years prior to 1851.
Maps are great tools for identifying geographical features, the layout of building lots, streets, the location of public buildings, roads, nearby factories and stores, railway lines, transit lines and so much more! 'Birds-eye" maps provide an interesting graphical view of towns and cities and show a more or less "3D" of buildings. Peterborough has at least two very interesting examples of "birds-eye" maps for the years 1875 and 1895 circa.
Try to inspect several maps of a your town over several years if possible to chart the changes made.
Fire Insurance Plans
Periodically insurance companies would commission the creation of 'fire insurance plans' - very accurate and detailed plans showing the location, floorplan, and construction materials of every building in a certain town or city. Several examples survive from the 1880's to the late 1960's for Ontario communities.
These plans are a great source when trying to determine whether or not a house had a verandah, where doors and windows were located, location of outbuildings, materials of construction, fences and other features, demolished buildings, layouts of local factories and mills and more!
Deeds/Mortgage Documents/Land Grants/Wills/Papers
Every property is owned by someone or something. Ownership is tracked and managed by a flurry of legal documents. County and City Courts, City Archives and registry offices hold such records. Many date to the earliest settlement period (1790's).
Visit the local registry office to get a "chain of title" on your property. Such requests usually involve a small fee for service. Surveys are also available at the registry office.
Related to the above are personal and family papers - usually found in the local archives or museum. Tragically however, many families never think the 'paper trail' they generate over the years has historical value. It is very common for old letters, scrapbooks and photo albums to be tossed into the garbage or sold to a flea market dealer - especially after the last surviving relatives die.
Most archives and some libraries hold photographic collections. Photographs are probably the best tool for identifying lost features on a house or building. Unfortunately, finding an early photograph of your house is more a matter of luck than certainty. Never overlook streetscape photos or family photos that may show your house in the background. Aerial photographs can also be a useful.
City Hall Records
Municipalities generally manage a great deal of information about the buildings within their jurisdictions. Look for Council minutes and committee reports. Planning, building and engineering departments often store maps, plans, blueprints, building specification documents, contracts and building and demolition permits. Fire department records often include old fire logs and other interesting material.
If your lucky, your community will have transferred its early municipal records to the local archives. The most recent records however, should still be at City Hall. Remember, that you may not have access to every record generated by a municipality because of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. But most of those listed here should be accessible.
Newspapers for most Ontario communities are now microfilmed. They should be available at your local library. If not, they can be sent via interlibrary loan. Newspapers include real estate advertising, feature articles on developments of new neighborhoods, obituaries, fires, demolitions and a variety of other useful information. Do not expect that every newspaper to be available as a complete run - some years may be missing due to early fires, loss, etc. Most early newspapers are also not indexed. Finally, be prepared form some inaccuracy in reporting!
Although possible, don't expect the local newspaper office to hold early photographs used in newspaper stories. Sadly many newspaper offices have disposed of such material to "free up storage space"!
Talk to the Neighbours!
It is always a good idea to talk to neighbors that have lived in your neighborhood for many years. They can often share interesting stories about the previous owners of your home. They may even have a few snapshots of your house from earlier years.
Some Final Points...
When you apply your research to actual restoration, always try to respect historic character, avoid too much 'guess work', take your design cues from the 'clues' the building offers, avoid drastic changes and preserve as much of the original character as you can.