The origins of Toronto’s manhole covers

Manhole covers are perhaps the ultimate piece of urban infrastructure — specific to cities, they are the portals to a whole world of civic engineering beneath our feet. They’ve inspired several Spacing stories over the years. Last Sunday, the Star ran a great story by about the origins of Toronto’s particular manhole cover design.

I had always thought of it as a kind of non-design — the manhole cover you get when no-one makes an effort — but the Star reveals that it was, in fact, designed by Toronto’s official photographer in the first half of the 20th century, Arthur S. Goss. The article gave me a new appreciation of this ubiquitous piece of civic design. The author notes:

Look harder, and Toronto’s cast-iron manholes show a muscular beauty, a brutalist charm. With their grey-iron grid of square shapes and perforations, they resemble waffle irons. Designed in 1910, in a pattern typical of the era, they embody the robust, turbulent city of the early 20th century.


  1. One thing has often puzzled me. Why are so many of the street drain covers in Toronto labled with the date 1889? (These are the covers of drains at the sides of roads at the edges of the sidewalk.)

    Did the City place a huge order for them that year or did they simply use the same mold for many decades?

  2. There is a manhole cover here, on the property of the Bain Co-op, where I live, in the heart of Riverdale, dated 1910. Apparently the buildings that make up the co-op opened for business in 1911 — so I guess a manhole cover is one of the first things to go in place, and can date when the neighbourhood around it was built.

    Oh, utility hole, come here to me tonight.

  3. I have always been fascinated with manhole covers because I’ve always wanted to redesign them. I love the differences in designs I’ve seen around the world – city emblems, checker board patters, etc. They are a perfect medium for industrial design and can competely change the feel of a street. Hey spacing people – how bout a manhole cover design contest? spruce up the streets a bit in a fun way?

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