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  • In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada
  • Béatrice Craig
Roberts, Julia — In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009. Pp. 228.

Nineteenth-century taverns evoke images of working class male sociability, if not working-class rowdiness — or worse. Did the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada not start in a tavern? This slim book forces readers to reconsider this stereotype. The painting reproduced on the cover already provides a clue to the book’s main point: it depicts three well-dressed gentlemen (white trousers, vests, high crown hats) enjoying a drink in the yard of a very bucolic establishment overlooking a pretty bay, served by a respectable looking, but fashionably dressed, young woman. No rabble or rowdiness is evident in this 1849 “country tavern near Cobourg.” [End Page 172]

Order and decorum had to be preserved not solely because disorder led to losing one’s tavern licence, but also because taverns played a critical role in early Upper Canadian life. By law, taverns had to provide services to all comers at all times of the day and night; they made travel possible by providing food and lodging to travellers and their horses, but also because they were the equivalent of bus stations. Taverns were where one went to find out the stagecoach schedules and to book a seat. Until the 1840s, taverns were often also the focal points of their communities. They provided rudimentary banking services, were places where people went to conduct their business or set up shop temporarily (travelling hairdressers, dress-makers, jewellers, portrait painters, and dentists were among those who welcomed their patrons in the tavern’s parlours), practise their professions (physicians and lawyers), or run the meetings of their organizations. In taverns, sheriffs auctioned seized goods, the coroner held his inquests, the court sat if no hall had yet been erected, and religious congregations conducted their services. Township by-laws were kept at taverns, public notices posted on their doors, and newspapers made available to the patrons, all encouraging discussions of public matters. Ritualized alcohol consumption facilitated many of those interactions.

This multiplicity of functions meant that people from different walks of life rubbed shoulders rather promiscuously in taverns — what mattered to gain access was less rank (or race or sex) than respect for the rules of engagement. Natives and blacks used the services and spaces of the taverns, and, in the case of Natives at least, “race” was more a matter of behaviour and culture than of physical characteristics or pedigree: dressing and behaving like an Englishman made one an Englishman. Blacks, on the other hand, appear to have been expected to be deferent and “know their place.”

Women were an integral part of tavern life. Some taverns were run by women (about 4 per cent of licensees). Most taverns were family businesses, and the family shared the premises with the patrons. The work of women (wives, daughters, sisters, servants) was also indispensable to their functioning: women cooked and cleaned and even mended clothes and laundered. In addition, women, like men, could use the tavern when travelling, to conduct their legitimate business (the author found no evidence of prostitutes plying their trade from taverns), and to socialize with other women, or in mixed groups, in the parlour.

Tavern life was thus subject to unwritten rules that ensured that respectability and respect for the social order were preserved at all times as much as was humanly possible. Space allocation was manipulated to reach this end. In all but the backwoods taverns, different rooms accommodated different categories of patrons with different expectations and carrying out different types of activities. Barrooms and dining areas were open to all, but greater decorum was expected in the latter; upstairs meeting rooms allowed the “better sort” to separate from the hoi polloi downstairs; and parlours could be monopolized by ladies and their company. Principal houses in larger towns provided separate rooms for those who wanted greater privacy.

The book is very good at description, at bringing to life the world of the nineteenth-century tavern, and at demonstrating its importance in the life of their [End Page...


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pp. 172-175
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