The meandering path of a drink historian: not always caused by the beverage

Posted: Monday, May 16, 2022


Written by Dan Malleck

For Liquor and the Liberal State, the journey from off hand idea to a book was a long one.  In 2014 I was invited to present at a conference on the Victorian Pub in Bristol, England.  I thought “what was the Victorian pub in Ontario like?” and ran with it.  For this paper, I went through the license laws from 1867 to 1916 (when prohibition was passed into law) simply with the idea of comparing the process of law change before prohibition to the regulations expected of hotel beverage room operators by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario after prohibition.  (The LCBO is the topic of my first book, published by UBC Press in 2012).

So I made an easy to read table.

A table that doesn't appear very easy to read!

As you will see, it’s not easy to read, but it introduces a lot of questions.  In the paper I tried to answer some of them, but of course many questions emerged from a close reading of the laws.

After all, law creation, a fascinating process in itself, usually happens in response to social or cultural change, and in response often to lobbying or other representations from the people to legislators. So there was no way to understand the creation of these laws simply through reading them (even reading debates, which are not complete for the period under consideration, does not tell everything).  I therefore began to dig deeper.  And it took me in a lot of interesting directions.

My first stop was the liquor licensing records at the Archives of Ontario.  Having written a well received book on liquor control administration, I was fascinated and excited (really, believe it or not, this is what excites a nerd like me) to find a cache of records relating to the creation, in 1876, of an important new law called the Crooks Act. This law took the licensing of drinking places out of the hands of municipal councils, and created a network of unpaid, provincially appointed boards of license commissioners to oversee licensing decisions in ridings across the province.  It also mandated the hiring of provincially employed inspectors who would answer not to municipal governments, but to these boards, and also to the provincial government.

That process was interesting enough, but what I found at the archives was dozens of letters from people in ridings across the province recommending or disparaging different individuals seeking the position of inspector. The patronage and cronyism was tangible.  Yet with all these people scrabbling for the spoils of power, what informed the decisions about who was actually hired?  This became an interesting question that I try to answer in the book. 

These records, however, covered only the first few years of the new law. So I had to dig deeper. I found apparently forgotten records of special committees struck to investigate liquor; I found reports from special inspectors who travelled the province investigating the nature of drinking in the province. Then there were the many letters, petitions, tracts, and speeches from the temperance forces and the opponents to temperance or at least to the sort of prohibitionism that many temperance people were now demanding.

I am not going to tell you the whole story of the book here, but I will ask some questions that may inspire you to read more:

  • Did you know that between 1892 and 1902 Ontarians voted in three plebiscites asking if they wanted prohibition, and that normally they said yes? Do you want to know why, after each vote, they did not get their way?
  • Did you know that the liquor issue reached to the heart of the constitution, and that some of the provincial and dominion domains of authority were defined as a result of court cases involving the right to sell liquor?
  • Did you know that the federal government of John A Macdonald tried to take control of all liquor licensing with a law called the McCarthy Act? It was a legal failure, but for a time taverns in Ontario had to decide which licensing authority they wanted to heed.
  • Did you know that the temperance movement had begun to wane by the 1910s, and if it were not for the First World War, we would have never seen prohibition in this province?
  • Did you know that James Whitney was one of the most irascible, bloody minded, and contrarian premiers whose letters are an object lesson in how to tell off your closest friends and get away with it? He was so cool.
  • Did you know that debates over the role of government in managing or constraining the liquor industry reached to the heart of what the liberal state in Canada would look like?

I hope you enjoy the book. I’ll leave you with some cartoons, because if I were able, I’d write a whole book that is just a bunch of cartoons.

Grip had some great cartoons, since its editor and cartoonist J Bengough was an ardent prohibitionist. 

A black and white cartoon of an executioner beheading a man with the word 'License' written across his head

When Crooks Act was first passed, many thought the Liberal government would just kill all the Conservative licenses. It did not but Bengough was unrelenting.



A cartoon of Sir John Alexander Macdonald wearing roller skates, fallen on the ground. Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat stands above him saying 'I told you so.'

When the McCarthy Act was quashed by the Supreme Court, it was a big victory for Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat


A cartoon with the caption 'Welcome to Whitney' showing a profession with Conservative James Whitney and his followers.

When Conservative James Whitney came to power after over 30 years of Liberal rule, people thought it would be a new round of patronage and cronyism.  Whitney had little time for such shenanigans, but the papers were expecting the worst.

Dan Malleck is a professor of the history of medicine in the Department of Health Sciences at Brock University and the director of Brock's Centre for Canadian Studies. His publications include Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44, which won a Clio Prize for Ontario history, and When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada's Drug Laws.


Posted by Megan M.
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