Booze, Broads & Sunday Laws: New Exhibit Looks at Toronto's History of Vice & Virtue

February 6, 2017 | Nicole

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Ever wonder where the nickname "Toronto the Good" comes from? Opening this Saturday, February 11, our new exhibit Vice & Virtue takes a look back at the moral reformers and the moral panics that shaped Toronto's reputation as a strait-laced city in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Admission is free. The exhibit is on display in Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery until April 30. 


VV-053_1919 Stop

Prohibition broadside. Toronto: The Dominion Alliance (Ontario Branch), ca. 1921

Vice & Virtue showcases materials from the library's Baldwin Collection of Canadiana including sensationalist tabloids, crime stats, photographs, an original registry from the Don Jail, temperance posters and pamphlets, and published journalistic accounts of the city's "seedy" underbelly. From booze to opium, bawdy houses to burlesque, the exhibit explores changing efforts to regulate and reform the "unseemly" parts of city life. Check out the following five ways to dive deeper into Toronto's history through Vice & Virtue.


Portrait of staff of O'Keefe Brewery. Photograph by Octavius Thompson (1825-1910), ca. 1890s.

1. Get a taste for Toronto's boozy past

Join us this Thursday, February 9, for an illustrated talk with author and noted beer expert Jordan St. John about the buildings, people and stories of Toronto's brewing history, featuring images from the Baldwin Collection of Canadiana. Jordan St. John was likely Canada's first national beer columnist (QMI/Sun Media), and has written and contributed to several books about brewing and beer: How to Make Your Own Brewskis: The Go-To Guide for Craft Brew Enthusiasts, The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, Ontario Beer and Lost Breweries of Toronto



From Fighting the traffic in young girls: or, war on the white slave tradeErnest Albert Bell, 1865-1928. Chicago: L.H. Walter, 1911

2. Discover the secret economy of sex work in 19th century Toronto 

 “Houses of ill-fame in Toronto? Certainly not. The whole city is an immense house of ill-fame…”

̶  CS Clark, Of Toronto the Good: The Queen City of Canada as it is, 1898 

Prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, was present even in the early days of Toronto. Charges of “keeping a bawdy house” date back to 1804, when York was a provincial town of 400 people. Intrigued? On March 6, Professor Laurie K. Bertram of the University of Toronto's Department of History will discuss the real-life men and women who participated in Toronto's sex work economy from the mid-19th century to the turn-of-the 20th century. 


Advertisement for the Roxy Theatre, in Hush, 24 December 1931.

3. Celebrate the art of burlesque onscreen

The titillating art of burlesque has been performed in Toronto since at least the early 1930s. On April 4, celebrate the enduring popularity of the "girlyshow" with a free screening of Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Set in a burlesque house, the virtuous Judy (Maureen O'Hara) and the brazen Bubbles (Lucille Ball) strike up an intense rivalry after realizing they're after the same man in Dorothy Arzner's hilarious and revolutionary film about the politics of vice and virtue. The screening will be introduced by Alicia Fletcher, curator of Silent Revue (Revue Cinema) and Ladies of Burlesque (The Royal). 

  Hush June 5 1930 p1Hush, 5 June 1930.

4. Hear untold stories of Toronto's early LGBTQ+ history

"Some of Canada's leading citizens could be implicated just as Oscar Wilde was implicated, if some of these bell boys chose to make public what they knew. I know two different merchants in the city of Toronto who have a similar reputation."

 ̶  CS Clark, Of Toronto the Good, 1898 

Toronto Public Library is proud to partner with the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives (CLGA) to shed light on queer history in Toronto in the early 20th century. The Vice & Virtue exhibit features a remarkable item from the CLGA collection on public display for the first time: the 1911-1913 journal of a wealthy British immigrant named Sidney Hugh Godolphin Osborne. It offers a rare first-hand account of the life of a gay man living in Ontario in the early twentieth century. You can explore the diary on our Digital Archive here.

Interested in hearing more? Join the CLGA at Toronto Reference Library on March 1, for a lively discussion about what we know about early 20th century LGBTQ+ history in Toronto.  


5. Augment your gallery visit with guided tours & Aurasma 

Interested in learning more stories behind the materials on display? Join us Tuesdays at 2 pm for a weekly guided tour of the exhibit.

Vice & Virtue also incorporates some hidden augmented reality elements that you can access with your smartphone in the gallery using Aurasma. Aurasma is a free app for iOS and Android devices that uses advanced image recognition to blend the real-world artifacts with rich interactive content called “Auras”. Using Aurasma you will discover animations and videos related to the items on display, including videos created by Queerstory. Queerstory is an award-winning interactive locative documentary app that maps over a century of LGBTQ history in 37 sites across Toronto.

 Queerstory logo