Battling "The Bane of Our Cities": Class, Territory, and the Prohibition Debate in Toronto, 1877

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In the nineteenth century, the tavern was an important institution in urban working-class life. Because of the social ills associated with alcohol abuse and public drinking, there were frequent attempts to lessen the tavern's importance or to eliminate it entirely. This paper examines several tavern-related issues that emerged in Toronto in the 1870s and 1880s. The Crooks Act, passed in 1876, employed powerful measures to deal with political and temperance questions simultaneously. The intersection of class, politics, temperance, and urban life led to a territorial solution to the liquor question. These issues were dealt with by the people of Toronto in 1877, when they declined to prohibit public drinking in the city via the Dunkin Act, a local option prohibition statute of the Province of Canada.


Au 19ieme siecle, la taverne etait une institution importante de la classe ouvriere urbaine. Ily a eu, du aux maux sociaux associes a l'abus de l'acool et a sa consommation publique, des essais frequents d'amoindrir ou eliminer cette importance. Cette monographe examine d'abord plusieurs debats, axees sur la taverne, qui ont emerges a Toronto aux decennies 1870 et 1880. Ensuite, l'auteur examine en bref les implications du mouvement-anti-alcool vis-a-vis la classe et le genre, ainsi que les consequences du'Crooks Act' de 1876, un tentatif a resoudre simultanement les questions de politque urbaine et du controle de la taverne. L'auteur developpe l'argument que l'intersection de classe, de politque, de prohibition, et de la vie urbaine s'est resolue avec une solution territoriale--la concentr ation des etablissements licencies aux zones commerciaux. Finalement, cette monographe offre une discussion des actions et des interpretatyions des Torontois a propos de ces issus en 1877, lors d'un tentatif, abortif, a fermer les tavernes de la ville par referendum selon les provisions du 'Dunkin Act', un statut de prohibition locale de la Province de Canada.


Taverns were an important aspect of the nineteenth-century urban working-class experience, yet there are few systematic examinations of tavern life, and fewer still that assess its significance in the culture of the city as a whole. (1) This paper will make a case for closer scrutiny of tavern life and its regulation, as part of a call for a more inclusive approach to the study of workers and cities. It will survey the class and gender issues of temperance, discuss major changes in the regulation of Ontario's taverns in the 1870s and 1880s, and examine events that preceded what I call a territorial solution to the liquor question.

By the end of the 1880s, Ontario's laws included mechanisms that effectively eradicated taverns within many residential areas, but created a relatively large number of them in commercial areas. Residential areas that retained licensed (2) establishments were usually inhabited by members of the working class. I call this feature of liquor law a "territorial solution" because territorial division and areal differentiation were used to achieve a compromise on a contentious and divisive issue. This regulatory regime, which persisted until prohibition in Ontario (1916-1927) and was revived afterward, can be traced to class divisions, working-class drinking patterns and ways of life, and the increasing segregation of classes within Canadian cities. (3) In 1877, the citizens of Toronto spent most of the summer debating, via a referendum campaign, the merits of closing all of the city's taverns at once. The fact that territorial considerations were muted in the campaign show that the failed attempt to combat the liquor trade on a city-wide basis forced the later adoption of territorial options.

The Tavern in the City: Objections, accommodations, and regulations, 1870s-1890s

During the 1870s and 1880s, liquor control in Ontario moved from being nonexistent to being a set of restrictions prescribing acceptable times and places for buying and consuming beer and spirits. …