Historicist: November 11, 1919

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Historicist: November 11, 1919

Toronto celebrates the first anniversary of the armistice.

The opening of Hart House and the laying of the cornerstone for the Soldiers’ Tower. The Globe, November 12, 1919.

When news of the armistice broke in the early hours of November 11, 1918, Toronto erupted into one of the largest and most exuberant celebrations that the city has ever seen. Torontonians weren’t just celebrating the end of a long and bloody conflict, but had a clear sense of victory and triumph. The traditions of associating the armistice with poppies or a sense of solemnity were still several years away, as were the notions of seeing the First World War as futile or questioning the wisdom or motives of the commanders. The war had been strongly supported by the people of Toronto, and the enemy had been seen by many as a real and immediate threat. On July 19, 1919, when the entire British Empire celebrated Peace Day, the communities of Earlscourt, north Riverdale, and Mimico were amongst many in the Toronto area which burnt effigies of Kaiser Wilhelm.

A full year later, elements of the war continued to affect life on the home front. Those who had been to Europe were still returning to civilian life. Toronto newspapers featured regular veterans’ affairs columns which discussed a variety of issues relevant to veterans and their associations.

Money was still needed to cover costs of the war effort. Canada launched its fifth Victory Bond campaign of the war in 1919, themed around bringing the remaining troops home and reintegrating them back into Canadian society. Events were regularly organized around Toronto, encouraging the public to buy more bonds. Newspapers from the autumn of 1919 are replete with advertisements for Victory Bonds, notices of rallies and Victory Bond parades, and updates on how much the city had raised. The Toronto press saw the 1919 Victory Bond campaign as something of a competition with other Canadian cities, and reported with considerable pride when Toronto’s total surpassed that of Montreal.

Armistice Day sale at Simpson’s. The Toronto Star, November 8, 1919.

As November 11 approached, many local businesses and other organizations held events to recognize the effort and achievement made by those amongst their ranks who had made significant sacrifices for the war. Banquets, dances, and other events were held across the city during the weeks before and after November 11, most of which were promoted with a decidedly celebratory tone. Many manufacturers incorporated the approaching anniversary of Armistice Day into their advertisements, and the major department stores held Armistice Day sales.

Amongst those who sought to capitalize on the anniversary of the armistice was the Canadian Fisheries Association. Scarcity and high prices during the war had prompted Torontonians (and indeed most Canadians) to seek inexpensive alternatives to meat. During the war years, the Canadian Fisheries Association had promoted the greater consumption of fish by periodically declaring a specific date in the calendar to be “Fish Day.” Fish Day would be heavily advertised, and merchants would stock extra fish to meet the public demand. In a 1919 issue of Canadian Grocer, the founder of Fish Day, J.A. Paulhus, announced that the next Fish Day “will take place on the 11th of November next, the anniversary of the armistice. Let us prove on the occasion that we are patriots, by encouraging the development of one of our finest assets—the fisheries.”

While the 1919 Fish Day was reportedly well observed in both Vancouver and Montreal, the Telegram noted that it was less successful in Toronto than in previous years, as most local fish dealers in the city reported that sales had not significantly increased as they had in the past. “The choice of Armistice Day was unfortunate,” said one Toronto merchant. “There are so many dinner parties to celebrate tonight, and therefore poultry is more in demand.” Nevertheless, sales elsewhere in the country encouraged Paulhus. Canadian Grocer wrote that “Mr. Paulhus hoped that the day may be fixed for the 11th of November each year in order that it might become a part of the celebration which the toilers of the seas would doubtless like to perpetuate, that of Armistice Day.”

Everybody should celebrate November 11 by eating Canadian fish. The Mail and Empire, November 10, 1919.

On Friday, November 7, news reached Toronto that King George V had distributed a message to all the British colonies requesting that two minutes of silence were to take place across the British Empire at 11 a.m. local time. “During that time, except in rare cases where this might be impracticable, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone might be concentrated on reverent remembrance of our glorious dead.”

The next day, all the Toronto dailies conveyed a subsequent message from mayor Tommy Church requesting compliance with the King’s request. Church further requested that Torontonians fly flags outside their homes and businesses, and that citizens “attend the churches of their respective denominations for the purpose of giving thanks for the victory which terminated the great war and has assured an enduring peace to the nations of the world.”

While many no doubt attended local church services on Sunday, November 9, thousands attended a massive “Victory Sunday” service downtown. University Avenue was closed from College to Queen Streets—a stretch which included the armouries—with space reserved for nine different denominations, including one described in the promotional material as “Hebrew.” According to the Mail and Empire, the services began at 3 p.m., when five different brass bands, grouped at intervals along University, played “God Save the King,” after which the crowd sang “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” Simultaneous sermons came next, followed by “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and another rendition of “God Save the King.” The Mail and Empire reported that the Victory Sunday services lasted about forty minutes, after which “two American Whippet tanks, which were stationed on either side of the South African Memorial, were a centre of attraction, and hundreds of people examined them at the close of the services.”

Victory Sunday. The Mail and Empire, November 8, 1919.

November 11 fell on a Tuesday, and by all accounts began like any other weekday. Then, at 11:00, the entire city stopped. “All down Yonge Street on the stroke of the city hall clock all traffic, as if directed by a magic hand, seemed to instantly come to a standstill,” wrote the Toronto World. “People by the hundreds on the streets at the time stopped and reverently bowed their heads for the required period. Here and there a driver who had forgotten was instantly stopped by pedestrians, and the hush on the street was as pronounced as in the early hours of a morning on an ordinary night.”

“At the corner of King and Yonge,” reported the Globe, “the traffic policeman had signalled a southbound car to make the crossing, but as it reached the centre of the streets, the motorman observed the time, cut off the power, and as a signal which those around him accepted, removed his cap.” In the factories, at City Hall, even in the jails, the silence was reportedly observed. “Two minutes later,” wrote the Globe, “the windows of the C.P.R. building opened, and just as it happened last year, quantities of ticker tape floated down from them into the street.”

Comparing the crowds of 1918 to the two-minute silence of 1919. The Toronto Star, November 11, 1919.

A major ceremony during the day took place at the University of Toronto, where the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire (filling in for an ailing Arthur Currie) formally opened Hart House, the university’s new student activity centre. Construction of Hart House had begun before the start of the war, instigated by the Massey family through their foundation, with the intention of providing university students with a variety of facilities deemed important to student life outside the classroom, including a gymnasium, theatre, and rooms available for various clubs. The building was only partially completed when the war necessitated its temporary re-purposing; the theatre space had been used for rifle training, while other rooms had been used for drilling and other types of military instruction. Well into 1919, several parts of Hart House including the pool had been used for physiotherapy of wounded soldiers.

The formal presentation of Hart House to the university from the Massey Foundation began at 11:30 a.m., and attracted a large crowd. Numerous newspapers reported on the speech by Vincent Massey, who expressed his vision for Hart House: “It is greatly to be hoped that this place from the many angles at which it touches the life of the student, will exert an influence of the most positive nature, in giving him a real sense of membership in an academic family, and in making him conscious of a very noble tradition, which it is his privilege and his duty to maintain.” As per Massey’s wishes, access to Hart House was initially restricted to men only. The authors of Hart House’s self-published history A Strange Elation: Hart House—The First Eighty Years note that Massey “was a product of the Edwardian era…and in those days women were accorded a special respect and separateness that would have inhibited the sense of community to which Hart House aspired.”

Massey’s speech also acknowledged the anniversary of the armistice: “Of those who passed through these schools there were many who, had they returned, would have enriched the life of this place. We may remember them along with the great company to whose memory we do especial honour today.”

The Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire, laying the cornerstone for the Soldiers’ Tower. The Toronto Telegram, November 12, 1919.

In the late afternoon, following an official tour of the Hart House facilities, the Duke of Devonshire laid the cornerstone for what would become the Soldiers’ Tower. Alumni had begun planning a memorial several months earlier, launching the official campaign fund in October. On the afternoon of the 11th, Mr. Justice Masten, president of the Alumni Association, spoke before handing the ceremonial trowel to the Governor General, saying that the alumni were “taking that means of commemorating its many sons who had fought in the great war to maintain the traditions of our forefathers…The memory of their devotion would be an abiding inspiration to students in generations to come.”

Come evening, many organizations held dinners or other celebrations to mark the armistice. At Massey Hall, the Navy League held one of several screenings of “The Life of Lord Nelson,” a film depicting the life and career of nineteenth century British naval hero Horatio Nelson. Children were admitted for free, and a prize of $25 was offered for the best composition or essay on the subject of Nelson’s life.

French tanks and German aeroplanes on Yonge Street. The Mail and Empire, November 10, 1919.

The King Edward Hotel opened a new restaurant which they called the “Victory Room,” where the local branch of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) held an “Armistice Ball” described in the Telegram as “one of the gayest events of the season.” “Though the orchestra played through until two o’clock,” the article continues, “the throngs of dancers were untiring…Dancing took place in the Pompeian room, in the Louis salon, and even in the lounge itself, and in the hallways of the second floor.”

As with the 1918 celebration, however, the biggest spectacles took place outside.

At 8 p.m., every night that week, a pageant was staged on (and over) Yonge Street, promoted with the tagline “See what Toronto escaped!” A small squadron of German Fokker aircraft were flown by a team led by flying ace Billy Barker, who simulated a typical wartime German bombing attack while French tanks below seemingly returned fire. The World wrote that “[aeroplanes] circled above the city, performed stunts which were of the hair-raising variety, and then turned back in a burst of fireworks,” the Globe adding “they dropped bombs during the flight, and anti-aircraft guns barked angrily at them, but without avail.”

The biggest attraction on the night of November 11, however, proved to be an event on University Avenue organized by the Toronto Victory Loan Committee. This time the entire street was closed for a “Carnival and Community Dance,” with music supplied by three regimental bands. Searchlights were erected on the roofs of buildings to illuminate the street, which served as the dance floor.

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People turned up in such large numbers that University was quickly packed. “University Avenue presented almost an exact replica of Yonge Street on the memorable day when the news was first heard,” wrote the World. “It was hard to make any progress on the street, much less dance, although in a few rare spots the crowds good-naturedly made rings where a few devotees of the art tripped the light fantastic.” “Searchlights shone on the multitude of laughing, and sometimes boisterous, revellers,” added the Telegram. “The spirit of Terpsichore scattered conventionality to the winds. Syncopated music from several bands proved irresistible.”

(Left: Ad for the Armistice Night Carnival and Community Dance. The Globe, November 8, 1919.)

Some danced, as others watched. Young people reportedly climbed into trees to shoot off firecrackers. “At a community dance,” mused the Mail and Empire, “though there is pavement to take the place of a dance hall floor, it does not appear to be necessary to use it. The lawns of the abutting houses will do just as well, or even, in a case of emergency, the leftover pulpits of a previous Sunday’s open-air service…Just get the happy-go-lucky spirit, splash confetti in the faces of all the opposite sex, regardless of introductions, explode firecrackers under their heels, walk a ways, dance a ways, run a ways, do anything you feel impelled to do: even make your own music in the form of a mouth organ or a tick-tack, sing a bit, dance a bit, flirt a bit, and you will have done your share towards boosting along the big idea.”

“The pavement before the Armouries, which had so often echoed the sound of marching feet as Toronto’s sons streamed forth to war, reverberated to a quicker, care-free pace,” wrote the Telegram. “Many of those same lads caught their sweethearts in their arms and whirled them into the throng and not even thought that the unique ‘ballroom floor’ was increasing the high cost of shoe leather with every dip and sway abated the ardour of the dancers…’Come along, mother, we’ll only be young once,’ said one dignified man, and he drew a grey-haired, sweet-faced partner into the ring of youthful merry-makers.”

Many continued to celebrate into the night, long after the music had ended. Wrote the Mail and Empire: “The one regrettable feature is that it had to be held at night, and [thus] it prevented the movie-picture fiends from making a record of just how strangely Toronto can act when she feels that the call is upon her.”


Additional material from: The Canadian Fisherman (Vol. 6, No. 10 – October, 1919; Vol. 6, No. 11 – November, 1919); Canadian Grocer (Vol. 33, No. 45 – November 7, 1919; Vol. 33, No. 49 – December 5, 1919); The Globe (February 27, July 19, July 21, September 3, September 23, October 17, October 21, October 27, November 3, November 4, November 5, November 6, November 7, November 8, November 10, November 11, November 12, November 14, 1919); David Kilgour, et al., A Strange Elation: Hart House – The First Eighty Years (Hart House, 1999: Toronto); Ian Hugh Maclean Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (University of Toronto Press, 2002); The Daily Mail and Empire (November 5, November 7, November 8, November 10, November 11, November 12, 1919); Order of Proceedings at the Presentation to the University of Hart House by the Massey Foundation and the Formal Opening of the Building by His Excellency, the Duke of Devonshire, K.G. – November 11, 1919 (University of Toronto, 1919); The Toronto Star (October 29, October 31, 1918; March 18, March 20, March 22, September 9, September 20, October 15, November 4, November 5, November 6, November 7, November 8, November 10, November 11, November 12, November 14, 1919); The Evening Telegram (November 10, November 11, November 12, 1919); The Toronto World (November 3, November 6, November 8, November 11, November 12, 1919).


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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