Canada reads…in vintage photos

We are a nation of readers: in 2015, we bought 52 million books, amounting to more than $983 million sales. We’ve embraced electronic but still prefer paper (source: booknet).

We have an annual battle of the books called “Canada Reads”, which is hosted by CBC radio every year. We even worry that we are not reading enough.

Where, why, how do we read? Look no further than Library and Archives Canada. I’ve been exploring their digital image collection for years–and what I’ve found is a wealth of historical images of people reading.

Here’s what I found: First peoples’ and fur trappers, settlers and soldiers, country and city dwellers. If we’re at war, if we’re in a remote region, if we’re building a city, if we’re out in the woods or going to bed–we bring along something to read.

Mostly, we read to educate or entertain, sometimes for propaganda (to attract settlers and immigrants, for example) and, tragically, for assimilation (Indigenous people in Canada are working to reclaim their languages).

I’ve selected some of my favourites, and in the process, it has resulted in a visual tour of Canadian history over the last century. We may not agree on everything, but we are a country united–by geography, by history, by “hope and hard work”, and by books!

Canada reads.

We read at home.

1950 Rymer Point, N.W.T., [Nunavut]
Inuit reading “book of wisdom”, Rymer Point, N.W.T, 1950 (photo credit, S.J. Bailey)

We read in log cabins.

Promotional photo of frontiersmen in log cabin “reading room” (no date)

We read in monasteries.

Monks reading in a cloister, trappist monastery near Oka, Quebec, 1890

We read in bed.

Trapper “George Lush reads Time magazine in bed,” N.W.T, 1949-50 (photo credit: Richard Harrington/Library and Archives Canada)
Western Canada, 1954-1963 (Credit: Mary Gilliat Eaton)

We read in tents.

camping 2
Rosemary Gilliat, 1954
camping 3
Fraser, B.C., 1954 (photo credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton)
Canadian soldier, 1916

We read by lamplight.

Young woman reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. Shilly Shally Lodge, Gatineau Park. gilliat
Gatineau Park, photo by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton
Capt J de Dominico reading a book on deployment in Laos, 1955 (credit: Herb Taylor)

We read in the snow.

Gatineau Park, Quebec, (credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton)

We read on moose antlers.

(photo credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton, 1956)

We read at war.


Leading Wren Ruth Church, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, delivers books to Able Seaman Bill Swetman of HMCS Petrolia, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Nov. 1944 (photo credit: Lt. F.R. Kemp)

We read at the library.

(photo credit: Toronto Public Library)
Young girl reading a book. Central Circulating Library at College and St. George streets, Toronto. Photo National Film Board of Canada.
(photo credit: National Film Board)
Toronto Public Library (1930-1960) (photo credit: Citizenship and Immigration)

We read at mobile libraries.

Teachers and students of a one-room school house in northwestern Ontario reading books outside a Bookmobile. On

We read at school.


We read in the country.

Wilson P. MacDonald reading to a group of people under a tree.

We read in small towns.

Poet Wilson P. MacDonald gives reading, Cheapside, Ontario, 1960 (credit: Ken E. Muma)

We read in the city.

hopebookstoreinterior (2)
James Hope and Sons bookstore, Ottawa, @ 1900 (source)
Toronto, 1957 (photo credit: Michel Lambeth)
“People walking down a Toronto sidewalk, a sign for an evangelical bookshop and a tavern side-by side,” January 1946 (photo credit: Ronny Jaques)

Happy Canada Day!

And thank you for reading.

MERCI (français)
THANK YOU (english)
Wli Wni (abénaquis)
Meegwetch (algonquin)
Mikwetc (atikamekw)
Meegwetch (cris)
Tshinashkumitin (innu)
Qujannamiik/Nakurmiik / Ai(inuit)
Welaliog (micmac)
Niá : wen (mohawk)
Chiniskomiitin (naskapis)
Tiawenhk! (wendat)


Unless otherwise noted, source for all photographs: Library and Archives Canada


  1. interesting, i would be lost if i could not read. as a senoir i am always looking for the next book. mom

  2. What a FANTASTIC post!! It shows what gift reading is…as soon as people master it, they read everywhere at anytime. I always love observing people’s faces when they are reading, I love those far away expressions. What would we be without reading, without books…lost!!! Happy Canada Day Anne!! xoxoxo Johanna

  3. I agree, we love to read. I can’t live without a book, a newspaper or a magazine. The photos say it all! I think I will stop folding laundry and go read a book. Thanks Anne.

  4. This is wonderful – those photos are stunning! And in the spirit of reading, what stories must lie behind those photos and the people in them? It’s fascinating – thank you for sharing them 🙂 We are very seriously contemplating moving to Canada now…

  5. I always have a book on the go. My parents, my husband and my children are also readers. I still read the newspaper every morning, as does my husband, although he reads more than one on line now. Could not imagine a day without a book. My last job was working at a second hand bookstore, so I rarely buy new anymore. Great post, love the old photos and especially the reading in the snow image. How very Canadian!

  6. What a fabulous and enlightening post and photos. Thank you! We Canadians spend so much time indoors to avoid the cold outdoors, it’s no wonder we read so much. But I just recalled that I grew up in a tropical country and I was a complete bookworm, so that may not explain it either!

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