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Historicist: Victorian Streetcar Annoyances

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Relax, ladies, you no longer have to jab the conductor in the ribs to grab his attention! But watch out for the spit on the floor, okay? Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.


Question: how was your last ride on the TTC? Was it a relaxing experience marked by pleasant surroundings, easygoing staff, and amiable fellow passengers, or was it a traumatic event that left you in a cranky mood once you arrived at your destination? If it was the latter, take heart. If a newspaper article we recently discovered from the late Victorian era is any indication, Torontonians have always had bones to pick when it comes to the behaviour of employees and fellow users of public transit.
Commuters flipping through the December 27, 1899, edition of the Evening Star might have noticed a headline that promised to deliver “ANNOYANCES OF PASSENGERS ON THE STREET RAILWAY.” An unidentified reporter promised to provide tales of “surly conductors and samples of what they do,” a sampling of “offences by passengers and violation of rules,” and views on “regulations and how they should be enforced and relaxed.” In short, a sensational expose of malice and lawbreaking on Toronto Railway Company streetcars!


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Single truck car 325, at Danforth and Broadview, 1896. Photograph by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3369.


The first gripe concerned transfer abuse, especially by the fairer sex:

There is no evading the fact that a good many women “do” the company as often as they can, but very many run against the regulations through ignorance. The conductor has to be a fellow of deep discernment, sometimes, to be able to judge which is which. Most women can act fairly well, and when a conductor hands back a transfer ticket with the remark that it is overtime, or otherwise useless, there are very few who cannot offer a remarkably adequate reason for its being so, backed up by an innocent face and wide-open, truthful-looking eyes. Others try the role of the “injured innocent” and indulge in an angry tirade against the impertinent man who presumes to question their honesty. The long-suffering conductor murmurs something to himself, the transfer goes into his pocket, and the woman rides on.

Not that the long-suffering TRC employees were angels. One fine day, our intrepid reporter wanted to visit friends on Queen Street West and weaved his way along two lines from Avenue Road to Queen and Yonge. While waiting to catch a Queen car, he had enough time to call his friends from a phone in a nearby store and discovered they had moved to Major Street (one would think this was useful information to know before setting off). After he hopped on a Spadina Avenue streetcar, he indicated to the conductor that he was going to make one further connection at College.” Instead of a polite reply that the company’s rules would not allow me to transfer again on the same ticket, the man looked at the paper, stared insolently at me, and muttered something about ‘people that walk around on transfers like that,’ as he tore it to scraps.” Red-faced, our reporter missed College and got off a few stops later. “As the car moved on, I heard my amiable friend saying at me, and loud enough for other passengers to hear, ‘a nice way to get to Major Street!’” The reporter admitted he screwed up, but objected to the conductor’s snide reaction.
Another case cited travel on the Yonge streetcar, where an elderly woman reminded the conductor several times that she wanted to get off at Gerrard Street. Naturally the conductor forgot, and another passenger had to deliver the bad news when the car passed Gerrard. “Oh, you stupid man!” yelled the woman as she got off. The conductor replied angrily “You’re the stupid one! I called Gerrard.”

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Double truck open cars #1 and #3, Long Branch Line (Lakeshore Road near Indian Road), 1896. Photograph by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3371.


The article wound down with a series of helpful tips for passengers to make the streetcar experience a better one for all. While some of these suggestions are quaint, others wouldn’t be out of place on a modern subway etiquette poster and might help passengers avoid a fine.

Do not imagine the first car that comes along is the only one on the line. There are others. Unless you are in a frightful hurry, wait for the second if the first is full.
Gentlemen who cross their legs forget they are using ladies’ dresses and gentlemen’s trousers to brush the dirt from their footwear.
Ladies who wish to attract the attention of the conductor are not expected to punch him in the ribs with their umbrellas.
Men would not spit on the floor if they thought that one of the women of their own household would be the one to wipe it up with her skirts.
Women would not wipe up the pools of spit on the floor with the trains of their skirts if they could know what the men are thinking as they watch them.
Passengers who sit sideways occupy the space of two persons.
Ladies sometimes discuss their private affairs and the affairs of their families with others while sitting across the car. They should notice the expressions on the faces of the other passengers sometimes.

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