One Fine Holiday Season in 1887

Originally published as a “Historicist’ column on Torontoist on December 22, 2012.

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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.

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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.”

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Evening Telegram, December 20, 1887.

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.”

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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.

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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.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Editorial item, The Globe, December 21, 1887.

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The Evening Telegram also weighed in on what clergymen in Boston felt about Santa.

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A poetic attempt to use jolly old St. Nick to sell some merchandise, as found in the December 21, 1887 edition of the News.

The City of Brotherly Mayors?

Originally published on Torontoist on November 29, 2012.

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Photos of Rob and Doug Ford by Christopher Drost. Howland pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A father who served as an elected representative. Run-ins with an unyielding city council. One sibling removed from office for legal reasons. The Ford brothers, right? Yes, but these characteristics also apply to the only pair of brothers to have sat in the mayor’s chair (so far), William Holmes Howland (served 1886 to 1887) and Oliver Aiken Howland (served 1901 to 1902).

Rumours regarding Doug Ford’s intentions to run for mayor if a by-election is held to replace his judicially ousted brother inspired us to take a look at the Howlands. While there wasn’t an official “Howland Nation,” William built a strong constituency among the working class in the mid-1880s by supporting labour movements and pushing for reforms to social welfare and public morality—reforms that eventually gave birth to “Toronto the Good.” William’s removal from office in February 1886 was due to an effort by supporters of defeated former mayor Alexander Manning to prove Howland didn’t own land, which at the time was a requirement of the mayoralty. Some speedy legal work, combined with no nominations for a successor, saw Howland back in office after a week’s exile.

We whipped up a diagram to illustrate the parallels between the Fords and Howlands, just in case Doug Ford ever wears the chain of office. Click the image for a zoomed-in view.

UPDATE

Rob Ford wasn’t booted from office. Doug Ford was unsuccessful in his 2014 mayoral run, and it remains to be seen how his run  to govern Ontario as leader of the Progressive Party will go.

Rebellious Councils

Originally published on Torontoist on February 8, 2012.

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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

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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

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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.