Vice & Virtue | Exhibit Digest

August 17, 2020 | Nicole

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Gallery interior with enlarged black and white photographs on walls. Title of exhibit appears at top.

This post reproduces text from Vice & Virtue exhibit, which was on display in TD Gallery at Toronto Reference Library from February 11 to April 30, 2017. The exhibit explores moral reform in Toronto as it faced rapid growth and industrialization at the turn-of-the-century.

Each one of the exhibit's main panels is found below, word for word.

Find more items from the exhibit on our Digital Archive. Find infographics about crime stats in Toronto (1879-1926) created for the exhibit in another blog post



Making “Toronto the Good”

The nickname “Toronto the Good” dates back to moral crusader William Holmes Howland who was elected mayor in 1886. Howland vowed to rid the city of drinking and vice, and his campaign was perfectly timed. Journalists of the day capitalized on rising middle-class fears about the unsavory aspects of urban life, publishing salacious stories of bawdy houses, opium dens and drunken debauchery. Meanwhile, temperance, social purity and Sunday observance organizations lobbied for legal and social reforms to curb the “evils” of city life.  

Vice & Virtue examines a period of moral reform in Toronto as it faced rapid growth and industrialization at the turn-of-the-century. The exhibit explores changing attitudes and increasing regulation of alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, gambling, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency, and prostitution. Tabloids, photographs, manuscripts, posters and pamphlets from the library’s Baldwin Collection of Canadiana reveal a seedier side of “Toronto the Good.”

Black and white photograph of Yonge St., Queen to College Sts., looking north from north of Granby St. A sign for Hatch Bros. Liquor has been digitally coloured red.
Stylized photo of Yonge Street.


Moral Reform in the City of Churches

In 1900, Toronto was a city of about 200,000 residents and almost 200 churches. Over the previous three decades the city’s population had tripled and now Toronto was facing the challenges of rapid growth and industrialization: poverty, disease and crime.

Church leaders and philanthropic groups claimed that the city’s social problems were rooted in moral failings. They targeted vice, drink and Sabbath-breaking with an evangelical zeal.

A powerful coalition of protestant churches and temperance societies, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, campaigned against the personal and social “evils” of alcohol.

The Lord’s Day Alliance of Canada was established in 1888 by the Presbyterian Church. The group successfully petitioned for “blue laws” that prohibited work, shopping and almost all public activities on Sundays.

The Methodist Church established a Department of Temperance and Moral Reform in 1902. The department distributed pamphlets and lobbied for efforts to rid the city of drunkenness, prostitution and obscenity.  

Black and white portrait of 26 women seated and standing
Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Photographer unknown. 1889. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


Read All About It!

The fuel for the moral reformers’ campaign came from Toronto’s tabloids, dailies and popular “social studies” which titillated and terrified readers with lurid accounts of crime and vice. 

A book is displayed open in a glass case. The title page is visible and begins "Of Toronto the Good."
Of Toronto the Good: A Social Study: The Queen City of Canada as it is. C.S. Clark Montreal: The Toronto Publishing Company, 1898. According to C.S. Clark’s sensationalist exposé, drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution were very much present on Toronto’s streets at the turn-of-the-century. In a travelogue of vice, Clark includes vivid descriptions and addresses of popular brothels. He also makes an argument for the legalization of prostitution in the city.


Policing Morality: The Vice Squad

One of the first acts of Mayor William Howland, elected in 1886, was to establish a police unit dedicated to cracking down on vice. The department was tasked with policing drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, trade of illicit drugs and the observance of Sunday laws.

By the 1890s, new correctional institutions had been founded in Toronto to discipline and “treat” moral offenders. Reformatories, houses of refuge and industrial schools professed to “rescue” wayward women and juvenile delinquents from a life of crime by instilling Christian virtues.   

In 1913, the vice squad added the city’s first two female officers. They were hired to patrol parks, theatres and dancehalls – places where young, single women were deemed at risk of succumbing to the temptations of immorality.  

Toronto’s morality laws were not enforced equally. The poor, unmarried women, and racialized groups were unfairly targeted as the source of the city’s perceived moral decline. 

Black and white portrait of a man with a mustache in a buttoned up jacket.
Moral reformer William Holmes Howland, 1880.


Toronto Gaol (Don Jail) Registries, 1874-1877

The Toronto Gaol (jail), also known as the Don Jail, was built on the eastern shore of the Don River in 1864. The largest jail in North America at the time, it became a notorious facility known for its overcrowded brick cells and for its gallows where 34 men were executed. Canada’s last hangings took place there in 1962. 

This register was used to record the individuals who were incarcerated from 1874-1877: their names, ages, trade, “rank in life,” offences, sentence and how they were discharged. More than half were charged with drunkenness. Vagrancy and larceny (theft) are also common offences. Here you can see those incarcerated in July of 1874, including men, women and children as young as 11. All are noted as being of the “lower class.” A number of women have “prostitute” recorded as their trade. 

A large book is displayed open in a display case. Handwritten text appears organized into several columns.
Toronto Gaol (Don Jail) registries.


City of Booze

Nineteenth-century Toronto had a conflicted relationship with beer, wine and spirits.

In the early 1800s, small breweries dotted York’s creeks and streams. Over the century, these small-batch operations were replaced by booming manufacturing plants producing for local consumption and export. Booze became big business in Toronto. By the 1860s, the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was the largest whiskey factory in the world.

Alcohol played an important role in Toronto’s development. Taverns and inns were not simply watering holes, they were important places for civic and social life. The profits from brewing and distilling, likewise, contributed to charity and city-development projects.

However, there was an increasingly vocal movement pointing to drunkenness as the root of the city’s vice and crime. Arrest records show that over half of all arrest in the nineteenth-century were for booze-related offences.

Black and white portrait of 16 men. Half are seated. Two hold barrels of beer.
Portrait of staff of O'Keefe Brewery. Photograph by Octavius Thompson (1825-1910), ca. 1890s.


Chasing the Liquor Demon: Temperance & Prohibition

The social campaign known as “temperance” emerged in the 1820s when the virtue of abstaining from liquor was preached from the pulpit.

By the late-nineteenth century, temperance was a powerful and organized political force in Canada. The movement had shifted focus from individual abstinence to legal prohibition. Women’s organizations were a key part of the campaign, leading rallies, distributing literature and mounting petitions.

Following the Canada Temperance Act of 1878, local municipalities could put the question of prohibition to vote. In 1904, the Toronto neighbourhood now known as The Junction voted to go “dry” and would remain so for the next 90 years.

The Ontario Temperance Act became law in 1916, prohibiting the sale, distribution, and public consumption of liquor in the province. It was, however, legal to manufacture alcohol for export. Toronto’s brewers, distillers and rum-running middle men made a tidy profit serving the black market south of the border.

When prohibition in Ontario was overturned in 1927, it was replaced with government-run liquor distribution regulated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

A broadside with black and red text reads "Do You Want to Stop Rum-Running, Boot-Legging, Drunkenness?" and asks for readers to vote yes to Bill 26 (Dominion) and the Sandy Bill (Provincial)
Prohibition broadside. Toronto: The Dominion Alliance (Ontario Branch), ca. 1921.


Up in Smoke: Tobacco & Illicit Drugs

Early anti-tobacco advocates, closely allied with the temperance movement, linked smoking with criminality, laziness and spiritual decline. Despite early attempts at regulation, tobacco sales boomed in the first half of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the link between smoking and lung cancer was confirmed in the 1960s that support grew for restrictions on advertising tobacco and in smoking in public.

Prior to passage of Canada’ first drug laws in 1908 and 1911, Torontonians could purchase opium, cocaine and morphine at their local pharmacy. Once tolerated, opium became the target of a huge anti-drug panic in the early 1920s, directly connected to efforts to restrict Chinese immigration.

A glass display case includes photograph, books and ephemera related to smoking and illegal drugs in Canada. A book is displayed open at right. A reproduction of a plate is visible that is titled "A Typical Group of Drug Users"
The Black Candle (displayed at right of case). Emily F. Murphy, 1868-1933. Toronto: T. Allen, c. 1922. Written by court judge and feminist activist Emily Murphy, this is the first book on drug use in Canada. It focuses on opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine, but also includes a short chapter on the “new menace” of “marihuana,” said to turn users in “raving maniacs.” Some have argued that Murphy’s work led directly to the criminalization of cannabis the following year.  To win support for her anti-drug campaign, Murphy exploited racist sentiments of the time. Traffickers are vilified as sinister Chinese or Black men, preying on innocent white women.


Games of Chance: Illegal Gambling

Until the 1890s Toronto police paid little attention to those who hosted card games or bet on the horse track for amusement. In 1892, the new Canadian Criminal Code made lotteries and gaming houses illegal. The city’s vice squad was tasked with cracking down on gaming dens.

Anti-gambling campaigners were tolerant of forms of betting associated with high society. Racetrack betting, for example, was legalized with an amendment to the Criminal Code in 1910. Legal exceptions were also made for lotteries organized by religious and charitable groups.

The suppression of gambling was tied to anti-immigration sentiment. In Toronto, Chinese-run cafés were targeted by police as places were bachelors played games like pai gow and fan-tan.

Major changes to the Criminal Code in 1967 opened the door for provincially and federally-run lotteries and, later, casinos, ushering in what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry.

A display case with photographs and ephemera related to gambling in Toronto. Playing cards are displayed at right.
Exhibit case of items related to gambling.


Bawdy Laws to Burlesque: Toronto’s Working Girls

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.

A century later, an unprecedented number of young, single women were moving to Toronto for work and leisure. Church leaders, city officials and police felt it was their duty to protect young women from the immoral temptations of city life. By the 1910s, a moral panic erupted over what was called “White Slavery.” Newspapers and church publications were filled with lurid and racist tales of innocent white women being lured into the sex trade by “foreigners.” A 1915 Toronto Social Survey report found no evidence to substantiate these claims but this did little to quell concerns about the moral character of Toronto’s “girls.”

Toronto’s strict moral laws were also used to police what was deemed obscene art and entertainment. In 1961, Torontonians voted in favour of permitting movies and live theatre on Sundays, sparking a heated debate about whether that would also include the city’s burlesque theatres.

An illustration shows a woman hesitating outside an open doorway of a Dance Hall. A man holds her arm. The caption at bottom reads "Dangerous Amusements - The Brilliant Entrance to Hell Itself"
From Fighting the traffic in young girls: or, war on the white slave trade, Ernest Albert Bell, 1865-1928. Chicago: L.H. Walter, 1911.


Pansy Boys & Gorilla Girls

In late nineteenth-century Toronto, those caught engaging in “buggery” faced 10 years to life in prison. The vaguely-defined charge of “gross indecency” became the primary weapon to suppress homosexuality in 1890. Men seeking sex with other men found each other in Toronto’s parks, public washrooms, and laneways. The city’s morality cops set up systems of surveillance to catch them in the act. Tabloids, eager to publish gossip about “pansy boys” and “gorilla girls,” inadvertently became one of few sources to discover queer places in Toronto. 

Homosexual acts were decriminalized in Canada in 1969. At the same time, an emergent LGBTQ+ rights movement had taken root in Toronto.

Front page of Hush tabloid. Headlines include "University Students Squeal on Girls,"  "Big Gambling Nest in Downtown Toronto," and "Toronto's Love-Sick Pansy Boys"
Hush, 5 June 1930.


Flash: Tabloids in Toronto

While the mainstream dailies covered city news with a certain level of decorum, the public turned to tabloids like Hush, Justice Weekly, Flash and Tab for juicier stories. Government corruption, gruesome crimes, sexual “perversions,” pin-ups and society divorces were common fodder for the scandal sheets. 

A display case with multiple copies of tabloid newspaper "Flash."
Flash. Various dates, 1950s. Flash was a weekly tabloid, launched by Samuel Lichtman and Hanmer Burt Lloyd in 1938 to compete with Hush.  Like its competitors, Flash covered topics deemed too taboo by the mainstream press – including homosexuality. While often homophobic in tone, tabloids became a source where gay men and lesbian women could learn about the city’s early gay bars and meeting places.