In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada (review)
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In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada. By Julia Roberts (Vancouver, Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2009. x plus 228 pp.).

The history of Upper Canada has been without a thorough and scholarly study of taverns. In Mixed Company probes the region's public drinking records, and relays an image of a multi-layered experience within the colony's bars, taverns, and inns, thereby filling this gap in the literature. The time period covered is largely that of colonial Upper Canada, though Roberts does reach beyond 1841. She casts a wide net in this book as it examines the relationship between taverns and gender formation, 'race' relations, class identity, and even tavern architecture. These sections are connected through the conception of institutions of drink as 'places' in which social relations were negotiated. In this way In Mixed Company can be associated with the historiography of colonial America in which taverns and saloons are shown to be an influential part of a community's development.1

One of the strengths of Julia Roberts' study is that the monograph does not rely upon an abstract idea of what a colonial tavern or inn was like. Indeed, she provides a preliminary chapter in which tavern architecture is dissected so that a detailed sense of the material setting is conveyed. She shows that Upper Canada contained a variety of 'types' of locations in which drink and food was enjoyed, from the colonial tavern that was little more that a kitchen with seating for guests, to those of Georgian design that contained separate rooms and parlours for a community's elite. This setting of the story, in addition to the inclusion of numerous diary entries from barkeeps and tavern-goers across the colony, allows for the experience of communal drinking to be absorbed.

Despite the inclusion of a hierarchical typology of drinking institutions, the study avoids offering an image of public drinking that would reference a divided public or customer base by 'race', class, or sex. Whereas some narratives have shown taverns as places in which attendees sought like company, Roberts argues that though such a practice may have been developing, the colony's bars and inns [End Page 639] also contained a variety of peoples that encountered each other over drink and fare. The mixing of peoples in taverns is what gives the title of the work its name, and is the central focus of the book: Upper Canada's First Nations populations were at times excluded from tavern ritual, while at others included; women found a seat along the bar with male comrades or, conversely, retired with female company to a Georgian parlour for 'respectable' conversation; and middle-class drinkers attended both elite hotels and lower class saloons. Roberts therefore argues that this varied experience of public drinking reflects an era in Upper Canadian history in which the colony's social divisions were still in flux and were open to both recognition and subversion. She contributes to an understanding of tavern life as a unique place in which such testing was possible, though also sometimes refused.

One section that stands out from the others is that entitled "Public Houses as Colonial Public Space." Here Roberts shows the reasons for tavern resilience in the face of Temperance Crusades and attacks by the colony's reformers. She argues that the institutions were vital to the economy by facilitating transportation, as well as deliberative democracy via open networks of communication and through the housing of the colony's voluntary associations. While more remains to be said about the specific functions of taverns in local economies, by engaging in the current debate surrounding Upper Canadian democracy Roberts effectively brings drink literature into contact with recent studies of state formation and public politics. This section of the book deserves particular attention since it offers new avenues of research in tavern history in the Canadian context, and connects it with American studies. On the whole, the book both paves new ground and furthers other debates of drink and public ritual. It therefore deserves an examination by drink historians and others as well.

Nicholas Van Allen
University of Guelph