Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.

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Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.

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Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

Holiday Dispatches from the Toronto Daily Mail, 1888

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

For no particular reason other than it’s the holiday season (and the scanned pages of historical newspaper microfilm on Google News are working properly again), here are a few seasonal stories taken from the Toronto Daily Mail 130 years ago.

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Editorial, Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

The pre-Christmas edition of the Woman’s Kingdom page had several holiday-related items, starting with general thoughts about the occasion.

(Aside: the following year, Woman’s Kingdom was taken over by pioneering female journalist Kit Coleman)

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

There were suggestions on what to have for Christmas dinner:

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There was also a poem about mince pies:

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The strangest item on the page was this story about women’s toes:

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On Christmas Eve, the Mail published the tale of a lonely boarder, residing by themselves in the city far away from loved ones, who decided to take in a vagrant for some holiday cheer. The result, if it had happened in 2018, would be a headline on the 11 o’clock news.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 24, 1888.

Finally, a few stories published in the Christmas Day edition of the paper. It seems odd that the man who was taken in for a crime he was immediately cleared of still had to pay bail. Also note the hordes of last-minute Christmas shoppers in downtown Toronto.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 25, 1888.

Historical Holiday Hints: Carving a Turkey

Originally published on Torontoist on December 5, 2011. This was a first of a series of posts I wrote for the 2011 holiday season.

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

With the holiday season upon us, local media is full of advice on how to celebrate. From picking the best Christmas tree to a litany of gift guides, there is no shortage of tips. We like to draw our inspiration for holiday cheer from the history, even though it requires traditionalists to wade through pages of conflicting advice. While some advice is redundant, other tips still provide useful guidance for a 21st century revellers.

Take the following hints on how to carve a turkey that will impress any sized gathering.

When picking a turkey, 19th century consumers weren’t concerned with whether a bird was freezer-burned or over-plumped, pumped-up with hormones. They were dealing with live or very recently deceased gobblers. “In choosing your Christmas turkey,” the Mail noted in 1889, “see that the legs are black and smooth and the feet flexible. If old the eyes will be sunken and the feet dry.” By the 1960s, consumers were urged by the Star to look for fresh turkeys with skin that resembled “an old man’s hands—dry and slightly speckled. A watery look is a warning not to buy.”

On Christmas Day, once the turkey has cooked, will your fellow diners savour an exquisitely sliced piece of succulent meat or receive a pile of crumbling bits on their plate? The Globe relied on the test kitchen of Good Housekeeping to provide its readers with carving tips in 1887, a time when lifestyle pages were just starting to appear in local papers:

Skillful carvers do not agree as to the position of a bird on the platter. Some prefer to have the neck at the right hand, but I think the majority prefer to have it on the left. Some can cut more easily toward the right than toward the left hand, just as some women needle a thread more easily than they can thread a needle. The carving will be done with more grace if the one who carves works easily and naturally, instead of attempting to follow an arbitrary rule.

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

The uncredited advice dispenser chose the majority’s preference when positioning the neck. Next, the drumsticks were removed via a careful cut through the shoulder. Removing the side bone was left to the discretion of the carver, though it was recommended that it be left in if one were to dine on a tough old bird. At the time, the side bone was considered by many to be “the choicest portion, and is often left untouched because the carver is too negligent to offer it, or the guest does not like to express a preference for it for fear of exposing the host’s inability to carve it easily.” Breast meat was to be carved on a slant in thin slices with the skin left on. Rather than scoop out the stuffing, it was to be carved out through a series of delicate cuts, because nothing in the 19th century was ever to be simple. If the turkey was being served to a small family who wanted leftovers, the bird was to be carved only from the side closest to the carver; the remainder was to be garnished with parsley during meal number two.

The Telegram was far more creative when it offered a carving guide in 1931. Writer L.M. McKechnie recounted a vivid nightmare about poorly carving a giant turkey as a party of 15 watched in horror. When he woke up, he decided to consult experts, beginning with the Depression version of the internet, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He then talked to a librarian, who offered a book called Ten Lessons on Meat which offered the following advice in its carving chapter: “The art of carving is apparently little understood by the average person, man or woman.” He next read the following advice on holding a carving knife:

The steel should be held in the left hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the carver’s body. The knife should be held in the right hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the left hand at an angle of about 35 degrees from the steel. The knife is drawn along the side of the steel from the point of the steel toward the hand and from the handle end to the point of the knife, the strokes being reversed from side to side of the steel.

Confused? So was McKechnie (“I am still trying to figure that one out.”).

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

When the book recommended that the carver should know the anatomy of what they were cutting up, McKechnie mulled what a good surgeon would do and headed to Toronto General Hospital to have his turkey x-rayed. He then consulted Claude Baujard, master chef at the Royal York Hotel, who shook his head sadly at the loss of the fine art of carving. Baujard lamented a dinner he had recently attended where the host carved two chickens so badly that he could still hear the birds squeal. Baujard brought out a chicken and showed McKechnie his graceful technique. The secret to impressing diners was keeping everything neat when serving: “One spoon of stuffing on the plate, then lay the dark meat across the stuffing and the white meat over that.” Baujard also disclosed a technique bound to amaze any table:

If you wish to impress with the ease of your carving, it is possible to do all the carving in the kitchen except that you leave each cut just uncompleted. Then you press the slices back into place, reform your bird, hide the incisions with a little parsley. When the bird is brought to the table all you have to do is complete each cut simply and quickly and your guests will be amazed at your skill.

Feeling confident following his discussion with Baujard, McKechnie discovered that “all my zest for Christmas has returned.” He left the Royal York and, with head held high, “prepared to dismember the biggest turkey Ontario ever produced.” We hope his guests had a lovely feast.

Additional material from the December 10, 1887, edition of the Globe, the December 21, 1889, edition of the Mail, and the December 19, 1931, edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, December 22, 1931.

A few days after the Telegram offered its carving tips for 1931, the Star ran the following story about an egotistical prize-winning turkey from Manitoulin Island who, sadly, was unable to defend two championship titles in a row at the Royal Winter Fair.

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Toronto Star, December 22, 1931.

Mrs. Graham’s enlightening statement? “That gobbler was one of the most conceited turkeys I ever saw.”

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How many pounds are in that Bunyanesque turkey? The Telegram, December 21, 1932.

Once upon a time, Toronto newspapers kept readers updated on the latest prices of holiday meal staples at St. Lawrence Market. The Telegram‘s report from December 20, 1932 listed prices in line with the grocery chains: around 20 to 25 cents a pound for “large, fat, healthy-looking” turkeys, 18 to 20 cents a pound for milk-fed chickens, and 17 or 18 cents a pound for geese.

Also previewed at one market stall: a black bear. “The owner told us that it would be cut up and sold after Christmas,” the paper reported. “Anybody like bear meat?”