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Historicist: One Fine Holiday Season in 1887

Mayoral races, reflections on Christmas, and other stories behind the headlines of 125 years ago.

A Toronto-penned carol from 1887 you can play at home this season. The News, December 24, 1887.

In some ways, the holiday season that brought 1887 to a close was similar to today. People rushed around the city to pick up their Christmas gifts. Plenty of booze was downed. Discussions and editorial pages focused on the future of Toronto’s mayoralty. Digging beyond the surface, similarities via the city’s legion of newspapers shows a season that was equally celebratory and cringe-inducing.

Mail columnist H.H. Wiltshire (aka “The Flaneur”) provided the best-written observation of the state of Christmas:

Latterly the question has been often asked as to what is the meaning of the tendency everywhere during the last few years for a much more general observance of the Christmas festival. In some quarters it is attributed to increased reverence, in others to sentimentality, while we are also told that it is only seized upon as an excuse for idleness and gluttony, under the cover of hospitality. Without staying to consider how far any of these views are correct, may we not suppose that one very natural reason is the necessity we all feel for a little rest and enjoyment! Unquestionably there is more work done now in a shorter time than was ever the case before; this must cause a reaction in some form, and this season of the year has appeared most convenient because it is the nearest approach to a recognized universal holiday-time throughout the civilized world. A simple answer to the enquiry is given in the fact that that overworked humanity wants rest.

All of us with healthy minds in healthy bodies enjoy holidays and amusement, and custom, if nothing else, has made both seem especially appropriate to this time of the year. One of the best associations of Christmas undoubtedly is the increasing fondness for family and friendly re-union, when many feuds are healed and words and acts of temper are forgiven; also the inculcation and practice of the truth that there are none of us so poor in ability or in purse but that we can, by merely doing “the duty nearest hand,” make the load lighter and the day more bright for some among those whom sickness or sorrow, misfortune or folly, entitle not only to our kindness and sympathy, but also to be the unsoliciting recipients of practical and generous aid.

Advertisement, the Globe, December 23, 1887.

The rest Wiltshire extolled wasn’t present on Christmas Eve 1887, as downtown streets filled with shoppers in a rush. Though shop windows were filled with joyful displays, those entering stores to purchase gifts were, according to the Globe, hardly in a celebratory mood. “Almost everybody one met seemed to have a parcel or to be in a hurry to get one,” the paper noted. “To judge by the expression of face and the words caught in passing, the getting of the parcels seemed rather to hinder than to help the feeling of joyousness.”

The papers were filled with holiday-inspired doggerel and Christmas stories which would not be published under any circumstances today. The worst offender was a lengthy illustrated tale published in the News on Christmas Eve whose anonymous author reminisced about the glorious celebrations enjoyed by plantation slaves in the southern United States prior to the Civil War. Every imaginable derogatory term was used in a story filled with pidgin English, stock stereotypes, dancing galore, and “the wild hilarity of a negro gathering.”

Because Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, good upstanding Torontonians were expected to observe the usual pieties that created Toronto’s reputation as a place not to have any fun on the Lord’s Day for decades to come. Not that the day was devoid of pleasure—when evening rolled around, carollers hit the streets, along with impromptu brass bands playing tunes on battered instruments.

There was a sad note Christmas morning when the body of Maria Green was found in a stable behind 40 Elizabeth Street. Rather than provide any sympathy for her death from exposure, the press went into full moralizing mode. The Globe depicted Green as “an elderly woman employed as cook in a house of ill-fame on Albert Street,” while the Mail described her as “a woman of about fifty years of age, and the greater part of her life had been spent in infamy. Christmas brought to her not peace but an excess of drunkenness and debauchery with her tragic death as a wind-up.”

Left: Cartoon, the News, December 24, 1887.

The delay of most public Christmas activities to December 26 appeared to create a pent-up thirst among Torontonians, as people went wild when the bars reopened that morning. “’Moral’ Toronto Spends a Very Liquid Christmas” screamed a headline above the World’s account of “the drunkenest day that Toronto has seen for years.” Sleighs overflowed with “more young men than is allowed by the law regarding cruelty to animals.” People who claimed to have never touched a drop of alcohol were among those found in packed saloons. Some establishments closed early to avoid a steady stream of barroom brawls and police visits. “The ordinary drinking public dropped into their usual haunts and were surprised and disgusted at what they saw,” the World reported. “By 6 o’clock there were so many places closed that a usual question was ‘well, where can we go to get a drink?’” Police handled the chaos by making arrests only when necessary. The Globe theorized that the drinking orgy was due to liquor vendors attempting to demonstrate that tougher temperance laws would increase the abusive effects of booze, especially a set of bylaws on the upcoming municipal election ballot.

Alcohol control played a key role in the mayoral campaign that holiday season. On November 3, 1887, Mayor William Holmes Howland announced he would not run for a third term. While Howland spoke to Christian and temperance groups in other cities to extol the effects of his campaigns to reduce the availability of alcohol, the question arose as to who would continue his moral crusade and efforts to curb corruption at City Hall. The favoured candidate among the reformer set was rookie alderman Elias Rogers, a Quaker pro-temperance activist who was one of Toronto’s largest coal merchants.

Two other candidates emerged. Edward Frederick Clarke was a rookie Conservative member at Queen’s Park who published the Orange Sentinel newspaper. Unlike many Orangemen of the era, Clarke was seen as a broadminded man due to actions like allowing Irish Catholic activists to speak at the organization’s hall. Because he wasn’t a fervent temperance advocate, he was depicted by opponents as a friend of the saloon. Daniel Defoe was a veteran alderman who touted his long council experience but was handicapped by his Catholic faith in a very Protestant city—the best he could hope for was a spoiler role. Whoever became mayor needed to be, according to a Globe editorial, “a level-headed, painstaking, conscientious man of marked business ability.”

The campaign was well underway when official nominations were made during a raucous meeting at City Hall (now incorporated into the south St. Lawrence Market) on December 26. The loudest members of the overflow crowd were Clarke supporters, who jeered the other candidates and their nominators. Rogers received most of the verbal abuse, some of it deserved. Female electors were still a new concept—Ontario had granted spinsters and widows the vote in municipal elections in 1884—so Rogers pointed out those in attendance and indicated they were on his side. When a heckler yelled “How do you know they are?,” the Telegram noted that Rogers “knew they were on his side because the ladies were always on the right side.”

More troubling for Rogers were reports that he was the head of a “coal ring.” A series of exposes in the News written by Clarke ally and York West MP Nathaniel Clarke Wallace portrayed Rogers as the leader of a cartel who artificially inflated the price of coal in Toronto, failed to pass savings onto consumers after the federal government removed tariffs on the heating fuel, and conspired to drive competitors out of business. Rogers painted himself as a victim via a complicated explanation involving American coal combines, merciless railway companies, and forming his own ring as a protective measure.

Cartoon depicting Elias Rogers and Edward Clarke, the News, December 31, 1887.

Despite increasingly lengthy explanations about the coal ring which convinced few voters, city churches and most of the press endorsed Rogers. Endless ink was devoted to depicting him as the best man to uphold Howland’s policies and continue the moral crusade against corruption and liquor. Papers like the Telegram were smug in their certainty of a Rogers victory, declaring that the defeat “will simply be extraordinary.”

The extraordinary happened. As the votes were tallied on January 2, 1888, Howland waited for the results at Rogers’ HQ and kept the crowd pepped up. When the early results showed Clarke in the lead, Howland urged people not to leave. By 9 p.m. the race was over—Clarke defeated Rogers by nearly 1,000 votes. Clarke appeared at the window of the News’ newsroom and gave his victory speech, where he declared his win as “not a triumph of the saloon, but a triumph of the moderate over the intemperate party.”

Clarke captured two key groups that Rogers’ backers had looked upon with condescension: labour and women. He pointed out his participation in and arrest during the printer’s strike of 1872 and utilized female canvassers. There were also signs that Torontonians were tiring of heavy-handed, puritanical laws enacted by the Howland administration, such as preventing the hiring of horses on Sundays. In his recently launched paper Saturday Night, E.E. Sheppard observed that people were exasperated by the increasing self-righteousness of Howland’s allies and by “sumptuary laws more arbitrary and intolerant than those which already exist and have been found unworkable.”

Besides Rogers, voters rejected the temperance bylaws on the ballot. They also rejected a ballot proposal to fund construction of a trunk sewer to improve city sanitation, a vote which falls into the great Toronto tradition of balking at spending money on needed infrastructure projects.

Additional material from Mayor Howland The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973), Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834-1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), and the following newspapers: the December 23, 1887, December 26, 1887, and December 29, 1887 editions of the Globe; the December 24, 1887, December 26, 1887, and January 3, 1888 editions of the Mail; the December 24, 1887 edition of the News; the December 10, 1887 edition of Saturday Night; the December 27, 1887 and December 29, 1887 editions of the Telegram; and the December 27, 1887 edition of the World.

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

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