Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund: Transcendental Rescue in a Modern City, 1900-1915

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund: Transcendental Rescue in a Modern City, 1900-1915

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1901 the Toronto Daily Star reporter Madge Merton showed her readers how Toronto's other half were coping with the latest heat wave. Throughout poor neighborhoods "the sun [beats] upon unprotected windows, in little rooms ... where there are no means for keeping food cool; in the stuffy bedrooms where too many people sleep[,] ... babies pine and die[,] ... mothers grow gaunt and hollow-eyed from care and work" (TDS, 6 July 1901, 12). Here, where "foul" air from "narrow streets" perforated "tiny houses," the heat, odors, and pollution were insufferable. Inadequate inner-city housing brought only "wretchedness and weakness, flies [and] smells" and "torment[ed] ... the huddled poor in the down town districts." Worse, it sheltered "eight thousand" of the city's children (6 July 1901, 12; 8 July 1901, 1).

These children lived "in narrow stifling homes," on "narrow streets, crowded tenements, and in back alleys behind high buildings, amid airs which are devoid of ozone [healthful air] and reek[ed] of odors that offend and which are filled with germs of all kinds of disease" (TDS, 6 July 1901, 12). In an era famous for its sacralization of childhood (Zelizer 1985), the belief that childhood was sacred and required moral and environmental protection, these conditions were intolerable. Merton lamented poor children's inaccessibility to "summer in the pure air of the country, beside a lake," a summer of "birds and flowers and frolics" (TDS, 6 July 1901, 12). On the strength of such reporting, the newspaper initiated its now-centenarian tradition in Toronto: the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund (FAF).

The FAF provided relief, but we are skeptical. If rescuing children from immiserating geographies of heat, smoke, and smell in Toronto's underprivileged neighborhoods was commonsense, why did fresh-air reformers moralize the issue? Or frame their good deeds with bourgeois claims about the moral effects of nature? Bourgeois prejudices against the space and people of the Victorian and Edwardian street abounded (Riis [1890] 1957; Addams 1909; Woodsworth [1911] 1972; Wirth 1938; Sennett 1994; Domosh 1998, 2001; Baldwin 1999; Wilder 2000; Mitchell 2002; Mackintosh 2005a, 2005b). Bourgeois fresh-air reformers used their disdain for the disorderly, impoverished city not only to rescue children but also to demonstrate their faith in nature. Accordingly, Toronto's hinterland became a geography of salvation for the FAF. It ostensibly made model/moral citizens of poor children.

This idea that nature could induce human redemption evokes transcendentalism. Galen Cranz suggested that, at the turn of the twentieth century, a "softened popular version of transcendentalist ideals ... paved the way for park propaganda and park design theory" (1982, 7). Nature--trees, grass, flowers, meadows and fields, rivers, lakes, streams, blue skies, sunshine, moonlight and stars--impelled social uplift. As Horace McFarland put it, "Trees [were] provided by the Creator for the resting of tired brains and the healing of ruffled spirits as well as utility" (1904, v). Transcendentalists thought nature actively modified behavior; Jane Addams noted the era's penchant for "geographical salvation" (Addams 1899, 55), the presumption that specific geographies contained moral environmental properties of either urban social salvation or damnation (Mackintosh 2005a, 699-700).

Accordingly, we argue the FAF was an expression of bourgeois, transcendentalist environmental determinism. The beauty of nature, the hygiene of fresh air, and the antiurbanism of bourgeois reformers combined with a simple environmentalism. This created the irrational expectation that "nature" could convert the antibourgeois behavior of poor children, disadvantaged by geographies of heat, smoke, and smell, into the respectable demeanor of their Anglo-Canadian "betters."

To make this argument we focus on the Toronto Star, which was--and is--Canada's leading progressive, national newspaper. …

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