Vintage Toronto Ads: Holy Hippozoonomadon!

Originally published on Torontoist on July 31, 2012.


The Globe, July 15, 1862.

While plastering an ad with the word “circus” might not draw too many stares, naming a travelling animal menagerie a “hippozoonomadon” was a guaranteed eye-grabber. Toronto was among the stops veteran showman Lewis Lent brought his exotic mix of elephants, equestrians, and hippos to during a grand tour of Canada West (present-day Ontario) during the summer of 1862.


The Globe, July 15, 1862.

We dare you to say “athleolympimantheum” five times fast. We also noticed that the elephants received more dignified names (historical figures ranging from Cleopatra to American politician Daniel Webster) than the mules mentioned below, who were stuck with monikers typically found in a minstrel show.


The Globe, July 15, 1862.

The Globe seemed impressed, if generically so, by the circus, which drew a crowd of around 2,000 during its opening night:

The great attraction is the Hippopotamus or River Horse of the White Nile. This strange looking animal is accompanied by an Egyptian who assisted at its capture. Taken together, they are great curiosities and well worth a visit. Next come the wonderful performing Elephants who perform several extraordinary feats, winding up by one of them turning a barrel organ, while a second dances to the music on the bottom of an inverted tub. The equestrians, male and female, performed some very daring feats, and the acrobats displayed much agility.

Additional material from the July 22, 1862 edition of the Globe.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 8

The Dapper Debt Collector

Originally published on Torontoist on December 27, 2011.


The Toronto City Directory for 1890 (Toronto: R.L. Polk & Co., 1890).

Despite dressing him up in glistening brass buttons and a dapper waxed moustache, we doubt that these stylish touches increased the popularity of the friendly neighbourhood debt collector. We also doubt that pinning a “Collector of Bad Debts” badge persuaded delinquent accounts to settle up, unless the sight of such adornments struck shame in the hearts of 1890s debtors.

The “music in the air” ranged from the sweet sounds of songbird Madame Gruntly outlining, via a jaunty tune, the continued residency of the debtor in her rooming house, to the chin music that accompanied the debtor’s bouncing of the collector. A debtor unmoved by those tunes waited until the collector’s larger, hulking brute of a colleague came to the door to deliver a performance full of operatic fury.

He’ll Huff, and He’ll Puff

Originally published on Torontoist on March 6, 2012.


Maclean’s, February 2, 1987.

Like many classic fairy tales, the saga of the Three Little Pigs has been interpreted in numerous ways. There’s the Walt Disney version, which popularized the question “who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” In the Looney Tunes universe, the pigs were a cool jazz trio pestered by a wolf from Squaresville. Last week, the Guardian newspaper provided a modern media spin on the tale.

Amid those visions comes today’s ad, brought to you to by the Ontario Concrete Block Association. In this version, the Big Bad Wolf appears well acquainted with the fine arts of arson and home invasion. Sure, the pigs are feeling secure in their solidly-built concrete domicile, but let’s hope that glass is shatter resistant.

Twistercise with Toshiba

Originally published on Torontoist on May 29, 2012.


Time, September 24, 1984.

In an era of popular workout programs from the likes of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and Miss Piggy, it was inevitable that the business world would cash in. To encourage sales of their copiers, Toshiba launched “Twistercise” in 1984. The idea was simple: for the few moments the typical office worker left their desk to use the copier, they could give their upper torso a brief but effective workout. With the legs positioned as shown in today’s ad, the twisterciser would stand with the original document then twist down to place it in the copier. Hovering over the machine, the twisterciser would glance at the copier until the duplicate was made then twist away from the machine. After holding the position for 30 seconds, they would return to their original stance. How often the motion was repeated depended on the number of copies—to be a truly effective workout, the copier was programmed to only print one sheet at a time, with 55-second intervals between pages.

While Twistercise was effective with modern copiers, offices that attempted to adopt the program to aging equipment experienced mixed results. Medical officials did not recommend the exercise for anyone using a ditto machine because of prolonged exposure to duplicating fluid.

Get Rid of Dandruff Overnight? HA! HA! HA!

Originally published on Torontoist on June 26, 2012.


Canadian Home Journal, August 1950.

The good doctor couldn’t help but scoff. Day after day for 15 years he had holed up in his home laboratory on a quest to discover a speedy solution for dandruff sufferers. He knew that Listerine had made many claims about its wonder powers over the years, from masking body odour to killing mouth germs. To him, the antiseptic liquid’s advertisements were little more than 19th-century medicine-show hyperbole. Friends who saw its possibilities as a dandruff home remedydisagreed, but they also thought he’d spent too many hours hunched over the microscope.

In the end, our incredulous doctor was approached by Procter and Gamble to work on a top-secret dandruff-shampoo project that promised to be head and shoulders above any other product on the market.

Talkin’ ’Bout the War of 1812

Originally published on Torontoist on May 28, 2012.


Proclamation issued by the Province of Upper Canada, 1812. Toronto Public Library.

As the bicentennial celebrations surrounding the War of 1812 kick into high gear, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. For those curious about how the conflict affected all corners of present-day Toronto, or why the battles were significant in the development of Canada, the War of 1812: Bicentennial Talks program of discussions and lectures may provide answers.

“Heritage Toronto was interested in an 1812-related lecture series,” notes Gary Miedema, the agency’s chief historian, “and was aware that the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Public Library might be doing something as well.” After discussions with the administrator of the city’s 1812 bicentennial celebrations, each organization contributed events to the series; the project has also drawn in local historical societies and the Luminato festival.

When considering how the War of 1812 affected what would become the City of Toronto, the focus is usually on the invasion of the Town of York, but the surrounding rural townships were hardly isolated from the conflict. Three of the lectures focus on these areas, including one we attended last week at North York Central Library about York Township. Genealogist Janice Nickerson presented her talk from the perspective of resident Sophia Playter five years after hostilities had ceased—choosing Playter because both her father and husband were tavern keepers, which might have made her privy to local gossip. It was an approach that lent a better sense of what someone’s opinion of unfolding events would have been.

Nickerson began with a backgrounder on the township, which was bounded by the Humber River, Lake Ontario, present-day Steeles Avenue, and present-day Victoria Park Avenue. When the war began in 1812, only 750 people lived in the township. While Yonge Street was the main artery, it was a poorly maintained road full of hazards like boulders, mud, swamps, and tree stumps, which often made travel by foot as fast as horseback. During the war, farmers sold their excess crops to the militia for a tidy profit.


Reunion of War of 1812 veterans at William Botsford Jarvis’s home, Rosedale, October 23, 1861. Toronto Public Library.

Loyalties within the township were not all on the side of the crown. Many early inhabitants were loyalists who migrated from the United States, and some still had family members there. As the war dragged on, there were thoughts that an American victory wouldn’t be a bad outcome—seven residents were charged with sedition. Nickerson noted that a speech given by Bishop John Strachan following the war—which attempted to persuade residents that they should be satisfied with the war’s resolution thanks to the survival of British rule, the rooting out of traitors, and healthy donations to the Loyal and Patriotic Society to support war victims and their families—didn’t impress those who thought the conflict was a waste of time and resources. While prices for crops collapsed and military pensions were suspended in the years following the war, the population grew and roads were improved. Disgust with the government grew as officials rewarded themselves with high salaries and seemed increasingly detached from the concerns of the local farmers. Sophia Playter could not have known that in 1820 the seeds of a rebellion that would take place nearly two decades later were already sprouting.

The three lectures held so far have drawn a favourable response, with Denise Harris’s talk on Etobicoke’s role in the war having been booked at least four more times. “There is clearly an interest in the War of 1812 in general,” Miedema tells us, “and in how it affected this city.” Topics for the remaining talks include perspectives on Scarborough, the conflict’s impact on North America, and key figures like Isaac Brock and Tecumseh.


Luminato 2012: Coveting Canada

Originally published on Torontoist on June 11, 2012.


Naval action on Lake Ontario, 1813. Illustration by C.W. Jefferys. The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Volume 2 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945).

“Are we still fighting the War of 1812 every time we cross the border?”

Moderator Michael Bliss’s joke about the occasional hassles Canadians face when visiting the United States set the tone for the debate that unfolded at Koerner Hall Friday night over the resolution “The U.S. has coveted Canada since the War of 1812.”

The evening, which was part of a lecture series run by Luminato, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Heritage Toronto, brought together two seasoned debaters. Speaking for the resolution was political economist Stephen Clarkson, who received a hearty round of applause when Bliss referred to his run for mayor in 1969 and asked if he was considering a comeback. Speaking against was historian Jack Granatstein, whose confident tone and smooth prose contrasted against Clarkson’s slow, seemingly off-the-cuff building up of arguments (which at one point included a recitation of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows).

The case for: 
Clarkson’s position was that the Americans have long had a “strategy” toward integrating Canada within its economic and military sphere, through efforts like free trade and border security agreements. He noted that the power of the U.S. is such that it’s hard for Canadian homegrown industries to compete, which has led to our acceptance of American branch plants dominating our manufacturing sector.

The case against:
Granatstein argued that Canada is strong and prosperous because we share the continent with a great democracy. We may think we are different, but there are in fact many similarities between the two nations; he pointed out the ease with which we have adopted American fashions and entertainment, for one. Another example Granatstein cited, to show our own attitude to such matters: a contest on CBC Radio’s Morningside, which asked listeners to fill in the phrase “As Canadian as…” The winner was “As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.” He did, however, concede that our southern neighbours wanted our territory long before the War of 1812, even if usually it was to protect themselves from the British. As Granatstein joked, “who would not want to covet this great country?”

The questions from the audience leaned toward the “covet” end of the debate, starting with one person’s belief that Canada was still enslaved by the United States. When the second questioner called Canada “a fur-lined prison,” Granatstein shot back with “it’s pretty good fur.” After Clarkson brought up Sweden as an example of an independently innovative country, an audience member replied that thanks to social problems, Sweden was “a failed state.” That particular speaker proceeded to rant about how the National Energy Program ruined Alberta and about the horrors of multiculturalism. (We barely heard the last of his points, as the audience was busy urging him to shut up.)

Bliss took straw polls of the audience before and after the debate. Before words flew, the audience was evenly split on the resolution. After, there was little question there was a shift over to Clarkson’s position: the U.S., those in the room agreed, really did covet us. Such a shift was unsurprising, given that Granatstein’s defense of the closeness of our relationship tended to reinforce the notion that the United States already effectively controlled Canada, along with his insistence that we shouldn’t get too uppity when questioning American economic and military policies. Perhaps a stronger resolution than one which both debaters seemed to question the wording of might have produced sharper contrasts between their positions. Meanwhile, we hope anyone who raised their hand in support of the resolution won’t be questioned about it next time they cross the Niagara River.


Rebellious Councils

Originally published on Torontoist on February 8, 2012.


City Hall, Front Street East at Jarvis Street, north elevation, 1895 (now the site of the St. Lawrence Market South). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 98.

Rebellion has been brewing at city council. Today’s special meeting points to the increasing frustrations some of our elected representatives have had with the bull-headed management style of Mayor Rob Ford. But today’s debate on the future of public transit in Toronto is hardly the first time a large segment of council has decided not to toe the mayor’s line. In the past, when council has risen against a mayor’s modus operandi, the results have varied. In the examples we’ve exhumed, mayors have found themselves losing critical votes, losing councillors through en-masse resignations, and even losing their office due to opponents who exploit a great opportunity.

1853: John George Bowes and the Ten Thousand Pound Job


Portrait of John George Bowes from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto Volume 6 (Toronto: John Ross Robertson, 1914). Right: Portrait of Sir Francis Hincks from History of Toronto and County of York Volume 1 (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1885).

Going into his third term as Toronto’s mayor in 1853, John George Bowes had a sterling reputation. The dry goods merchant was known as a man of the people who acted with his fists, occasionally suffering, as Toronto mayoralty chronicler Victor Loring Russell noted, “a broken head.”

Bowes may have wondered if he had cracked his head once too often after his involvement in a scandal known as the “Ten Thousand Pound Job.” Canada West Premier Sir Francis Hincks schemed with Bowes to replace depreciated bonds issued by the City of Toronto to the Northern Railway with a new, more valuable issue. The two leaders quietly bought 40,000 pounds (the local currency before the dollar) worth of old bonds and, as enabled under provincial legislation devised by Hincks, exchanged them for 50,000 pounds worth of new ones, producing a 10,000 pound profit. When Hincks’ role in the scheme became public in the fall of 1853, Bowes denied to his fellow councillors that he’d had any direct connection with the sale.

After Bowes finally fessed up in court about his role, Councillor John Smith moved a resolution at the October 10, 1853, council meeting to censure the mayor for “having practiced such systematic deception towards the Council collectively and its members individually,” and adding, for good measure, that he had “forfeited the confidence of the Citizens of Toronto and of their representatives on this Council assembled.” Bowes’ ally Ogle Gowan introduced several amendments to the resolution to protect the mayor. The first, which resolved that the city shouldn’t attempt to predict the outcome of a judicial investigation, failed by one vote. But the second, which not only stated that none of Bowes’ dealings hurting the citizens of Toronto but also claimed that the mayor had done his utmost to promote citizens’ interests, was left for a future meeting.

When council reconvened on October 24, sparks flew. Gowan’s second amendment was defeated. A series of increasingly testy motions to censure the mayor for lying were also defeated. A final motion introduced by Alderman Samuel Thompson, which regretted Bowes’ lack of candour but stated that his service to Toronto “should exempt him from any further censure from this council in relation to that transaction” passed by two votes.

Councillors outraged by the actions of the mayor and his defenders failed to show up for the next scheduled meeting on October 31. At the November 3 meeting, eight of the 28 sitting councillors submitted a resignation letter. With their concerns overruled by the majority, the departing officials felt that they had little choice but to quit an institution they could no longer trust.

By-elections were called and held within two weeks.

While Bowes decided not to run for a fourth term in 1854, his political career was hardly ruined by the incident. He served in the provincial legislature alongside Hincks, then returned to municipal politics. Bowes was re-elected as mayor in 1861 and served for three more terms.

1886: William Holmes Howland and Liquor Reduction


William Holmes Howland. Wikimedia Commons.

During his two years as mayor, William Holmes Howland helped birth the notion of “Toronto the Good.” His efforts at civic reform were aimed at moral purification, which seemed to appeal to voters in 1886. Unfortunately for Howland, most of the councillors elected with him were men he denounced during the campaign as stooges of corporations and the liquor trade. This attitude gave the new council little reason to be amenable to Howland’s agenda. Of the 12 councillors who formed the new executive committee, only two could be called staunch allies of the new mayor.

In his inaugural address, Howland proposed several methods of controlling liquor offences, the most controversial of which was a vow to reduce the number of licenses issued to local grocery stores and tavern keepers. The issue was sent to a special committee, whose report included a clause recommending that licenses be capped at 68 stores and 200 taverns, and that the existing license fee be raised by 20 dollars. Howland and his allies spent most of his first month in office trying to persuade councillors to get behind his policies, but a series of late-night meetings frayed everyone’s tempers. When the executive committee received the report on February 18, 1886, it was concerned about how those who lost their licenses through reduction would be compensated. They felt liquor control was a provincial matter, and that since license commissioners already existed, city council had no business getting in their way. The executive committee prepared to shelve the report.

The next day saw a raucous full-council meeting. The World reported that:

The galleries and the benches that run along the walls behind the aldermen’s seats were crowded with spectators. The throngs in the gallery thought it had the right to make a noisy demonstration when it pleased them, and his worship had to suppress them on threats of clearing the room. The proceedings of the city fathers was as Babelish and indecorous as ever. The World would advise some of them to go down to the local legislature and take lessons in parliamentary procedure and order in debate.

Howland grew testy during the meeting, lashing out at the executive committee for illegally interfering with the special committee that had prepared the report. Howland made the fatal mistake of alienating a key ally when he accused Alderman Newman Steiner of cowardice for suggesting that fewer liquor licenses would provoke a rise in illegal establishments. When the report came to a vote, it was defeated 21 to 15.

Opponents used the defeat to pounce on Howland. Supporters of defeated former mayor Alexander Manning produced evidence that Howland lacked the legal property requirements to run for office. The result was a mayor-less city for a week, until a combination of quick legal manoeuvres, public sympathy, and the failure of anyone else to step up at a nomination meeting returned Howland to office. The mayor would have the last laugh, as the municipal election of 1887 brought in a slate of councillors better aligned with his views, which eventually led to a favourable vote on license reduction.

2007: David Miller and the Deferred Tax Vote

As Torontoist’s headline put it, “Davy Had a Bad, Bad Day.” When council voted on July 16, 2007 to defer a final decision on two revenue-generating tax proposals championed by Mayor David Miller, the result was a nail-biter.

Armed with the newly legislated City of Toronto Act, Miller recommended that the city enact a land-transfer tax of up to 2 per cent on home purchases, and a $60 tax applied to motor vehicle registrations. While Miller and his allies crafted the tax proposals, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong assembled a coalition of business and lobby groups to oppose the proposed taxes and lean on undecided councillors, especially the “mushy middle.”

As the tax-proposal vote approached, Councillor Suzan Hall devised a plan to defer a decision until October 22, 2007, which would be two weeks after the upcoming provincial election. Hall reasoned that the campaign period could be used to urge the Ontario government to upload social-services costs, which would have enabled the City to forgo the new taxes. Described by the Star as “a quiet councillor not known as a trailblazer,” Hall came up with the deferral idea after meeting with the Toronto Board of Trade.

When Hall’s proposal was debated on July 16, the National Post felt a speech by Anthony Peruzza marked the point where it appeared Miller was going to lose. Admitting he made his decision five minutes before he spoke, Peruzza, a former NDP MPP, stated that the new format of fixed-date provincial elections provided a “real unique opportunity,” presumably to provide time for political manoeuvring. One member of the executive committee also decided to vote for the deferral: Brian Ashton, who was willing to pay the political consequences so that there was time for tax opponents like the Board of Trade and the Toronto Real Estate Board to aid the city in working out new fiscal relations with the province.

When the votes were tallied, 23 were in favour of deferral, 22 against. Starcolumnist Royson James blamed the result on the city executive’s failure to court the middle, and on Miller acting “more like a monarch than a mayor.” Miller felt that it was unrealistic to expect the province to upload $500 million in social-services costs. “My concern is for the city of Toronto,” Miller told the Globe and Mail. “It is very difficult to look people in the eye and say the resources are not there to meet the needs of Toronto, but that is the fact.”

During the deferral period, headlines were filled with threats of cuts and closures to community centres, libraries, and ice rinks. When the taxes were finally voted on in October, they passed (26–19 for the land-transfer tax, 25–20 for the vehicle-registry tax). Reactions were predictable: Miller told the Star that “It was a tough decision to impose new taxes on the people of Toronto but it’s an essential decision if we want to do our part in creating the kind of city that Torontonians want,” while Minnan-Wong warned the National Post that “The Mayor is coming back for more. There are going to be more increased taxes…that could be in the way of higher property taxes the residents of the City of Toronto have never seen before or more new revenue tools being used.”

Miller, seen as vulnerable, came under increasing attack from his opponents during the remainder of his term. The perception that his administration loved to tax the public was among the factors that propelled Rob Ford into office, which in a way led to the council rebellion that is currently unfolding.

Additional material from The Union of the Canadas by J. M. S. Careless (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 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), the minutes of Toronto City Council from 1853, and the following newspapers: the July 17, 2007 edition of the Globe and Mail; the November 5, 1853 edition of the Leader; the February 19, 1886 edition of the Mail; the July 17, 2007 and October 23, 2007 editions of the National Post; the July 17, 2007 and October 23, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 20, 1886 edition of the Toronto World.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Top-Rung Advertising

Originally published on Torontoist on February 28, 2012.


The Toronto Daily Mail, March 1, 1892.

Newspapers have always wanted to sit atop the wall of public opinion. While we don’t think the children trying to climb the ladder represent any particular rival papers, we imagine that the two brats at fisticuffs by the “good work” rung could easily be the Mail’s nineteenth-century rivals, the Globe and the Telegram. The kid sprawled on the ground could be the Empire, which was established when the Conservative Party found the Mail no longer willing to toe its party line without question.

The Mail‘s editorial page on the day this ad appeared (March 1, 1892) shows no evidence of opinions that would have swayed public thought. The Mail’s push to sell eggs by weight, due to the inability of hens to lay uniformly-sized eggs, was obviously not successful, since we still buy them by the dozen. The editors’ energy was also devoted to pitching the value of the Mail as an impartial observer of the new session of Parliament (even if, despite the break with the ruling Tories, the paper tended to lean in their political direction). As the editors put it:

The Parliament of the Dominion is now in session. The proceedings during the next few months will no doubt be of unusual interest, not only by reason of the importance of the measures promised and the discussions thereon, but because exhaustive enquiries will be instituted regarding boodling [whose root, boodle, is defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as “money, esp. when gained or used dishonestly, e.g. as a bribe.”] operations in various places. The Mail has made liberal and extensive arrangements for reports of the House and Committee proceedings, which will be prepared by an able staff of reporters and correspondents, whose instructions are to tell the whole truth, regardless of the interest of either political party. People who desire the truth must therefore read the Mail, and they will acquire such an accurate knowledge of the political situation as will enable them intelligently to consider and discuss all the important questions of State. Every patriotic Canadian should subscribe for Canada’s great independent paper.

We imagine a follow-up ad would have depicted new subscribers sitting on the wall alongside the flag-bearing boy, with the objective reporting of the Mail providing the balance required to prevent them from tumbling off like Humpty Dumpty.


“There Are Opium Dens in Toronto”

Originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011.


The Empire, June 30, 1892.

When Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) mused in Monday’s  Sun about the possibility of opium dens lurking within some Toronto massage parlours, we couldn’t help but conjure up pulpy images of seedy locales dripping with racist Yellow Peril stereotypes. Which got us thinking: did Toronto have a problem with opium dens back when Asians were always quoted in pidgin English and readers devoured tales of drug lords like Dr. Fu Manchu?

As a late-19th century newspaper expose succinctly put it: “There are opium dens in Toronto.”

Over the course of three days in the early summer of 1892, the Empire titillated readers with the account of a fearless reporter’s journey into the underworld of Toronto’s opium dens. Guided by a reformed “opium fiend” from Chicago, the uncredited journalist promised to astound the public “with a surprise approaching incredulity.” In the neighbourhoods where dens were located, police and residents claimed ignorance of their existence: “Some went as far as to pooh-pooh the very idea that they could exist in moral Toronto without the fact becoming known to the morality department at least.” While partaking of opium was once so socially accepted that raw materials were advertised in the Globe, by the 1890s it was seen as a shameful activity presided over by Chinese immigrants.

The media often laid the blame for the dens solely on their operators and usually glossed over the culpability of their white patrons.

In order to access the dens, the reporter had his guide bring a letter of reference written in Chinese from a den owner in Chicago. They were denied entry to dens located at 18 Queen Street East and 42 Jarvis Street (which the duo blamed on their healthy appearances), but they succeeded when they reached the premises of Sam Lee at 321 Parliament Street:

The exterior of the shop is very unpretentious indeed, and its interior is no better. The front window is closed up with shutters, and the place has the appearance of being kept by a man whose interest in life is gone. As the ex-smoker entered the shop the old man at the ironing board sighed, and again bent down to his work on the bosom of a shirt. The letter was shoved over to him, and he stopped ironing long enough to read it. After perusing its long columns he folded it up, raised a face wasted by 40 years of opium smoking. Wearily he shook his head.

“Me no smokee,” was his answer, in a husky voice.

The guide and the old man questioned each other for several minutes before access was granted to a narrow, musty stall in the corner of the store. The partitioned-off area contained a bed, pillows, and all of the equipment required to enjoy opium. A lengthy description of how to smoke the drug followed. Among the other users they encountered, at least one was deathly afraid that their Sunday school teacher would find them patronizing a den.

As the pair visited other dens, word spread around the proprietors and they were soon denied access. The reporter concluded that despite the suspicion he encountered, and their own occasional opium-taking, the Chinese community in Toronto were “a much superior class to those who are found in American cities. But for their extreme suspiciousness they would probably be a hospitable lot of men, quite as anxious to do a suffering ‘fiend’ a kindness as to take the few cents charged for the favour.” His final thought was that “no good would follow the extension of the horrible fetish of whose dominion only a glimpse has been given.”

News of the exposé spread as far as Saint John, New Brunswick, where the front page of the Daily Sun proclaimed that “now that the dens have been pointed out, it is quite likely a police crusade will be in order.” It wasn’t just yet; as a police officer admitted to the Empire, there weren’t any laws prohibiting the use of opium or den keeping, which left the force powerless.


A squalid scene next door to an opium den. Slum interior, 152 York Street, January 20, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 1.

The legal situation changed in 1908, when federal Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King drafted the Opium Act, which criminalized trafficking and possession for sale. The law seemed squarely aimed at the Chinese community, especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, as other provisions of the act allowed respectable pharmacists to continue selling opiates with no problem. The first charges in Toronto under the new act were laid in July 1909, when Lee Chung Lung of 154 York Street and Tie You of 169 Richmond Street West were fined $100 each for operating opium dens on their premises. Police Magistrate Rupert Kingsford warned that the two men were being let off lightly, as future offenders would be jailed. Ten found-ins were also brought to court, but their charges were dropped as “the keeper is most to blame, getting those poor wretches into his place to smoke that stuff.”

Over the next two decades, the Chinese community complained of receiving harsh treatment from the police whenever people were found in opium or gambling dens. Charges were often reduced or dropped by judicial officials with paternalistic streaks toward the Chinese. Stories about opium gradually faded from the news, and seem so far in the past now that even if Councillor Mammoliti’s current claims are true, the nature of the issue makes his concerns fit neatly with his penchant for bizarre actions in the name of the public good—can we expect to see him park outside a suspicious parlour with video camera in hand?

Additional material from Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’ Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961 by Clayton James Mosher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and the following newspapers: the June 30, 1892, and July 2, 1892, editions of the Empire; the July 1, 1892, edition of the St. John Daily Sun; and the July 28, 1909, edition of the Toronto Star.


The complete Empire series on opium dens. Because of the size of the files, you’ll find them via these links:

June 30, 1892 front page.

June 30, 1892 page two.

July 1, 1892 front page.

July 1, 1892 page two.

July 2, 1892 conclusion of series.