Sylvia Schwartz

Sylvia Schwartz (1914–1998) was born in Toronto to Joseph and Gertrude Schwartz. Her family moved to Toronto around 1903. Sylvia had three older sisters: Fannie, Helen, and Rosetta (Ruth). Joseph owned J. Schwartz & Co. Ltd., a fur-manufacturing company on Madison Avenue. He later became a partner in the Park Plaza Hotel on Avenue Road.

Sylvia became a prominent portrait photographer in Toronto and owned a studio on Grenville Road. She began her career during the 1940s, capturing images of families, brides, and military personnel during the war. She eventually carved out a niche specializing in child portraiture. In addition to her professional activities, she was also recognized for her commitment to Communism. She travelled across the border frequently to attend meetings and to work with her American comrades. In 1959, she visited Europe, where she met Paul Robeson and attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna and a taping of the Ed Sullivan Show in Moscow.

Sylvia befriended many famous Canadian and American artists, such as Duke Ellington, Willie Bryant, Todd Duncan, Calvin Jackson, Isabelle Lucas, Phyllis Marshall, Herbert Mills (of the Mills Brothers), Libby Morris, Bert Niosi, Bennie Payne, Walter “Foots” Thomas, John Weinzweig, and Portia White, as well as Frank Shuster and Johnny Wayne of Wayne and Shuster fame. A number of brilliant photographs of these artists are included in her collection.

In 1976, Sylvia set up a special children’s book award named the Ruth Schwartz Award to honour her late sister Ruth, who was a respected Toronto bookseller. In 2004, six years after Sylvia’s death, her family changed the name of the award to the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Awards to honour the memory of both sisters. Two awards are presented annually, one for picture books and one for young adult/middle readers.

The Sylvia Schwartz collection at the OJA includes over three thousand photographs in the form of proofs and negatives that were taken by Sylvia. It epitomizes her very successful career in photography, and her knack in having the children sit quietly and pose for the camera is obvious in these charming photographs. The collection mainly comprises portraits of children, prominent Jewish Torontonians, well-known American and Canadian entertainers from the 1940s and 50s, and WWII military personnel who were members of Toronto’s Jewish community. It also includes photographs depicting her family, often at their cottage in northern Ontario; photographs featuring her 1959 European trip; and portraits of individuals taken to mark important lifecycle events such as bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings.

Archivist Notes

Portraiture has always been one of the most expressional and powerful art genres. A portrait represents not only the appearance of an individual but also their personality and other qualities, and sometimes even the broader cultural and societal context. Portraiture is also a storytelling medium—a portrait can immediately capture the audience’s eyes and make them wonder about the individual being depicted. The Sylvia Schwartz collection is definitely one of the most significant photographic collections at the OJA. As a collective visual presentation of Jewish Torontonians from the mid-twentieth century, it narrates the history of Toronto’s Jewish community in a broader sense; it also tells the life story of each individual being featured in those fabulous portraits, creating a unique connection between people in the past and the present.

2 Responses

    1. Hi Stephen, thank you for your interest in the Ontario Jewish Archives. I have added you to our mailing list.


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