Historicist: Labour Day '29

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Historicist: Labour Day ’29

Torontonians enjoyed the last days of summer before back to school, unaware of the economic hardships to come.

This Historicist installment originally appeared on September 5, 2009.

Princes’ Gates, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, (Commercial Department), photographed by Alfred Pearson, August 12, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 7108.

Princes’ Gates, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, (Commercial Department), photographed by Alfred Pearson, August 12, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 7108.

What were the ingredients needed to produce a Labour Day weekend in Toronto 87 years ago? A visit to the CNE? Check. Tourists crowding local highways? Check. A day at a beach? Check. Union members proudly marching in a parade wearing white suits and straw hats? Check. Controversy in the sporting world? Check. Rumours of a provincial election in the offing? Check. Economic worries? Not yet (wait a few weeks). Thieves with a penchant for stealing trousers? Check…?!?

A flip through the local newspapers during the last long summer weekend of 1929 provides almost no hint of the economic darkness to come. From all appearances, the 1920s were still roaring and Torontonians could sit back, relax, and enjoy the holiday with few cares.

Ernst Vierkoetter (left) and Eddie Keating (right) settle their differences with the help of Mayor Samuel McBride. The Mail and Empire, September 2, 1929.

Ernst Vierkoetter (left) and Eddie Keating (right) settle their differences with the help of Mayor Samuel McBride. The Mail and Empire, September 2, 1929.

Headlines early in the weekend screamed in shocked tones over the poor sportsmanship shown by American swimmer Eddie Keating after his victory in the Wrigley swim marathon over German-Canadian Ernst Vierkoetter on Friday night. The trouble began when Keating was brought to the winner’s podium to speak to the crowd and a radio audience after the eight-hour, fifteen-mile race wrapped up. According to the Star:

He rather astonished those on the finish float by the bitterness of his animosity. You might have thought that a man, having won the world’s swimming championship and more money in eight hours than the premier of Ontario earns in a year, would be rather benign. But not Keating. It stuck in his memory that there had been an allegation that he was towed when he won the Lake George marathon a couple of years ago and he vented it on Vierkoetter. Keating finished first out of the 237 swimmers…he finished strongly, evidently urged on to the very last stroke by his venom. True his eyes were raw and his flesh was blue when he came out. But so was his mood. He managed to put up with Mayor [Samuel] McBride’s friendly advances, but when he advanced to the microphone to tell the waiting world how he had done it, all he said was ‘I hope Vierkoetter will now apologize for what he said at Lake George.’

A stunned radio announcer told listeners that “had we known he was going to say that we would not have asked him to speak.”

Keating had nursed a grudge for two years after allegations made by Vierkoetter’s then-manager, which Keating had interpreted to have come from the swimmer himself. Vierkoetter attempted to offer congratulations, but Keating refused to talk to him. The irritated winner told a reporter, “If they want to be bum sports, I don’t want to shake hands with them.” All of the Toronto papers defended the sportsmanship of Vierkoetter, who had recently become a Canadian citizen, and condemned Keating with all the venom they had possible—it was pointed out he gruffly tossed away a tomato sandwich Mayor McBride gave him (the cad!). With all of the bad press, Keating apologized and posed for a photo op with McBride and Vierkoetter on Saturday in a ceremony at the CNE Grandstand. The mayor chalked up Keating’s reaction to the strain of the race:

People will say things when they are not in the condition in which they would like to be. He is sorry to-day for what he said yesterday. I am sure everyone is glad to know that the misapprehension has been cleared away and that Keating has been sportsman enough to admit that he made a mistake. Eddie and Ernst are friends now.

The new Automotive Building waits for its first visitors at the Canadian National Exhibition. The Telegram, August 22, 1929.

The new Automotive Building waits for its first visitors at the Canadian National Exhibition. The Telegram, August 22, 1929.

Tourism officials had many reasons to be happy that weekend. The Toronto Tourist and Convention Association estimated that more than one hundred thousand people visited the city on Labour Day, a 25 per cent increase over 1928. Package tours to Toronto filled hotels, with the largest being a group of 3,000 who had paid $10 each for an excursion from Philadelphia packaged by the Reading Railroad and Canada Steamship Lines.

More than 240,000 people went to the Canadian National Exhibition on Labour Day, a slight decrease from the record set a year earlier that barely bothered fair officials. The Mail and Empire noted that on Labour Day “there were crowds everywhere, carefree crowds. Not a crowd that laughed heartily or chatted briskly—but a complacent group which made the most of Labour Day, without labour…a happy-go-lucky lot. No one made haste. No one seemed to have a destination in view. They simply glimpsed what could be seen without effort.” Nearby homeowners were happy to see relaxed crowds, partly due to the added income they brought into the neighbourhood. The Telegram reported that many homes in lower Parkdale sported cards advertising parking space. “In the area comprised within the bounds of Dunn and King Streets and Springhurst Avenue were about 3,000 cars parked on front lawns, generally not more than three each.” Some of those car owners may have made their way to the new Automotive Building, where a wide variety of 1930 models from North American car makers was on display.

Were any of these students heading back to school among those who spent time at the Lost Children Building at the CNE? The Telegram, September 3, 1929.

Were any of these students heading back to school among those who spent time at the Lost Children Building at the CNE? The Telegram, September 3, 1929.

One area of the CNE that saw steady business was the Lost Children Building, where more than 500 children passed time while waiting for a reunion with their parents.
The Star observed the activity there:

“Don’t cry, mother,” said one little fellow cheerfully when his weeping parent arrived to look for him. She was in tears, but he was perfectly happy getting around the outside of a generous ice cream cone…A few parents…were mean enough to leave their children, to remain there all day. Two little boys named Desmond and Roy were on hand for several hours, but they put the time in profitably by cheering up their mates who weren’t as philosophic about their detention as they were.

Officials dealt with children left at the end of the day by sending them home in cars or calling their parents, some of who resented being forced to pick up their kids.

Cartoons from the Mail and Empire, September 2, 1929 (left), and the Telegram, August 31, 1929 (right).

Cartoons from the Mail and Empire, September 2, 1929 (left), and the Telegram, August 31, 1929 (right).

The CNE grounds marked the end point for the annual Labour Day parade. Though organizers had hoped more than 14,000 union members would march in the procession, the number was closer to 5,000. One group not made welcome by parade officials were local Communists and their affiliated political groups, who had asked to carry banners championing free speech in the wake of police actions against them. Only accredited unions were allowed to participate in the procession and the athletic events that followed. For their part, Communist Party officials weren’t bothered—as one representative told the Star, “Labour Day doesn’t represent anything vital to us.”

The parade route started at Queen’s Park, then headed south on University to Queen. The procession moved westward to Dufferin, then south until it reached the Dufferin Gate. Marchers dressed in a variety of neat suits and snazzy headwear. For the first time, female union members joined the procession, as six women belonging to the bookbinders’ union strode along with parasols in hand. The only incident during the parade happened when a boy pressing towards the front of the crowd went home with two broken toes accidentally crushed by a police horse. An editorial in the Globe found that the parade “was remarkable for the number of advertising floats prepared by manufacturing concerns, in co-operation with their employees. It attests mutual confidence.” The next few years wouldn’t do wonders for that “confidence.”

And now, a few words from our sponsors:

Left: Gray Coach advertisement from the Globe, August 31, 1929. Right: Eaton’s advertisement from the Globe, September 2, 1929.

Left: Gray Coach advertisement from the Globe, August 31, 1929. Right: Eaton’s advertisement from the Globe, September 2, 1929.

Crime knows no holiday, and Labour Day weekend was no exception, as the police blotter filled up with indiscretions and misdeeds. Some seem laughable now, if tinged with potential for discrimination, as in the case of six Polish immigrants who were arrested on Sunday at a home on Walton Street for the heinous act of “gambling on the Lord’s Day.” Alcohol-related offences provided the majority of cases, including that of 19-year-old Clifford Ruth, who was charged with stealing a car and with drunkenness after having received three bottles of wine from a winery at Queen and Sackville. Ruth was given a year’s probation and told that anyone who plied him with booze during that time was subject to a 30-day vacation in jail. One case saw seven men from England charged with vagrancy. When one man was asked why he had left a farm job, he replied “the food wasn’t right.” Food was also at the heart of the $10 fine Henry Dunn received for an altercation with a waiter at a restaurant at 370 College Street. The waiter testified that Dunn asked “What kind of a place is this that you serve stale rolls?” before the surly customer punched him in the nose. Dunn claimed self-defence after the waiter told him to leave, to which the judge replied “then you had your chance to get out and you didn’t take it.”

The most colourful crime happened at 44 D’Arcy Street during Labour Day, where Hymie Grader found himself the victim of, in the words of the Telegram, “a pants burglar.”

According to reports in the hands of the police…[the burglar] stole a pair of real good trousers from near the head of the bed where the owner slept, and decamped with the garments and $550 which was in the pockets…A roomer in the house, who grinned when he saw the trouserless victim groping around for trace of an intruder, lost his hilarity when he discovered $15 missing from his own trousers pocket. Police learned from several people who had been sitting on a verandah several doors away that a man had been seen to change his boots, enter the house and then decamp. An intensive police search was started, but neither pants nor burglar have been found.

The Star added that Grader also lost a gold watch in the incident. His losses in the long might have been far less than what other Torontonians would soon experience.


Additional material from the August 31, 1929 and September 2, 1929 editions of the Globe; the August 31, 1929, September 2, 1929, and September 3, 1929 editions of the Mail and Empire; the August 31, 1929 and September 3, 1929 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 22, 1929, August 31, 1929, and September 3, 1929 editions of the Telegram.


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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