The wets don’t like it. The drys detest it. The Government is stuck with it. Meet the Ontario beverage room
NOBODY likes Ontario’s beverage rooms.
They are a nuisance to Government, a headache (be it ever so profitable) to the hotelmen who run them, a moral and social affront to temperance people, a blot on the landscape to people who do not use them, and an indignity to those who do.
The Ontario beverage room is not unique.
Rules for public beer sale in Alberta and British Columbia are similar. But for the moment it is in Ontario that the main guns of opposition have been aimed—possibly because Ontario accounts for more than one third of Canada’s $365 millions liquor bill.
I have covered beverage rooms in Ontario from Ottawa to Windsor, from the Lower Lakes to Ontario’s Northland—reputable and disreputable, clean and dirty, some in the best of hostelries and others in hotels with only the flimsiest of claims to the name. But for all the points of variance, I found almost all had one thing in common—their drinkmill, down-the-hatch atmosphere.
The first rule in drinking in Ontario is that you must be 21 years of age or over. Then you may secure permits for the consumption of spirits, wine or beer in other than a public place; or be served in the beverage room of a hotel, a club, military mess or aboard a few steamships.
Of Ontario’s 2,600,000 adults, almost evenly divided between men and women, 1,700,000 have taken out permits for beer, 1,500,000 for hard liquor and an even million for wine.
To meet the needs of these cash customers (no credit is permitted anywhere in the business) the Province of Ontario has established 131 liquor stores within its boundaries for the sale of spirits, wine and beer. These are operated by Government employees. In addition the Government controls directly 127 brewers’ retail stores, 25 stores in breweries and 49 wineshops. These 332 separate business premises sell their wares for consumption off the premises only.
No spirits—except by bootleggers—are sold by the glass in the province. Alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises of sale consist of beer and wine and are handled entirely by 1,240 hotels, 149 social clubs, 127 soldier and labor clubs and 222 armed forces messes. Eight Great Lakes steamships have licenses to operate beverage rooms.
Legally beer can be sold with meals on trains, and in compartments and drawing-rooms of sleeping cars. This privilege, however, is not generally exercised.
The seating capacity of the 1,240 beverage rooms is around a quarter of a million. Last year they sold $52 millions worth of beer. Largest beer parlor in the province is in the Edgewater Hotel, overlooking Toronto’s Sunnyside Beach, which has 744 chairs; one of the smallest is the men’s beverage rooms in Niagara Falls’ General Brock Hotel, seating about 50. Both these hotels are well-furnished and closely supervised, but, however oper-
ated, practically all beer parlors under present conditions are mass-drinking establishments.
Aside from clubs and messes, only hotels have beverage rooms. To qualify as a hotel the premises must contain at least six bedrooms for the travelling public and have facilities for serving meals. Then you require two rooms: one for ladies and escorts, another for men. Both must be screened from public gaze. You fill these rooms with tables and chairs, the more the better. Aisles must be left between the tables—not for customers or fire laws but to enable the waiter to get round with his tray of drinks.
Music in any form, food of any kind, entertainment of any type, any game and, of course, intoxication all are forbidden and punishable by fine or imprisonment —or both. It is also forbidden to drink in any but a seated position.
There is no typical patron of the beverage room any more than there is a typical beer parlor. Customers are drawn from every walk of life. Little hotels dotting the villages and small towns serve the farmer and a cross section of the area; in the north, establishments like the King George in North Bay and the Gold Eagle on Mackenzie Island cater almost exclusively to lumbermen and railroad workers and miners; in the downtown sections of the cities are beverage rooms for stockbrokers, bankers, clerks; most suburbs have a perimeter factory trade. Districts where living is
congested often have their beer parlors jammed with individuals as little desirable as the slums from which they come.
The serving of beer starts at 10.30 a.m., and almost every customer has fought the battle of “getting his share’’ before, two to four hours later, the bar suddenly closes. In some places waiters serve their favorite customers first, leaving those who tip the least until the last. It may be 10 to 15 minutes before two nine-ounce glasses of beer are placed in front of you. This costs 20 cents, but the waiter is pleased if you pay him a quarter. The custom of serving two glasses at a time is blamed on the manpower shortage, the theory being that it provides better service. With every chair taken it may be some time before the waiter returns. One glass will not last that long.
Neither patron nor waiter has knowledge in advance of the precise moment sale will cease. It is a nice point in psychology, usually leaves the consumer in a state that can be relieved only by as many glasses as he can drink.
The law says a beverage room may remain open until two in the afternoon. Then it is permitted to reopen from four until 6.30 and in the evening from
7.30 until 10 o’clock. Saturday hours carry through from 10.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. before the one-hour intermission which precedes the regular evening session. But few hotels maintain those hours. Hotelmen blame the rationing and quota system and say that they simply run out of beer.
Right now the ration is based on a monthly percentage of the license holder’s 1941 sales of beer. The amount varies from 50% to 90%, depending upon the season and the supplies. In many cases short supplies may be the reason for the sudden closings. In others the proprietor simply may close his beverage room when it suits him best. The crowd may be noisy, he may have a headache, any reason, or none, is good enough. As long as this type of proprietor has more customers than beer, public convenience runs a poor second.
As a result the tendency is to get into the beverage room early and to stay as long as possible. As most places close for the day before 6.30, a great deal of rush drinking takes place during working hours.
At certain times, notably about 5.30 p.m. and
12.30 Saturday noon, it is practically impossible to find a seat in most beer parlors. Through the crowds roam the floaters, the undesirable charactere known to
every hotelman—-alcoholics, panhandlers, crooks, prostitutes and troublemakers. The background of most customers may be solid— mechanics, businessmen, housewives anil respectable-appearing couples—but the undesirable characters quickly color an entire scene. Except for drunkenness or definite proof of illegal intent (pickpockets, cardsharps, confidence 1Continued on paffe 59
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men or women), the proprietor legally cannot bar anyone—except Indians. He dare not act on suspicion. Police will not act on suspicion either. In most cases, therefore, getting rid of an undesirable is a highly diplomatic business.
Once, at the doorway of a Ladies and Escorts room (always furnished more attractively than the men’s room), I was talking to the hotel manager when one of the waiters paused on his way to pick up another load of beer.
“See that old lady over there by the wall,” he said, “I want to cut her off.” “What’s the matter?” the manager asked.
The waiter said, “I don’t like the look of her. She’s mumbling and acting queer—will you tell her she can’t have any more?”
The manager had the delicate task of getting the customer out before she started trouble.
Sometimes management is not quick enough. At a leading establishment a woman reporter was pointing out to me some of the principal characters. The day was well-advanced; the beverage room had been open for nearly two hours, the ash trays were full and every table was swimming with slopped-over beer. Conversation, with 100 other voices going full blast, was an effort.
“Watch that one,” she said, pointing out an attractive young brunette. “When she leans like that, and puts half her cigarette in her mouth to light it, she’s getting near the trouble line.” Suddenly the girl got up. Her escort tried to hold her back but she shook him off. She pushed her way to a table near the centre of the room and tugged at the coat of a girl sitting there. In a loud voice she said, “You’re nothing but a dirty little so-and-so.”
The girl addressed rose like a flash and gave the aggressor a resounding slap in the face. Their escorts tangled. Before an augmented force of waiters could get to the scene the beverage room was a mass of screaming, fainting, fighting, shouting men and women. The aggressor lost most of her clothes and went home in a raincoat. The beverage room closed down.
Once there was an idea that no beverage room should be below the level of the ground. The big fellows soon knocked that out. Beverage rooms in the Royal York, Toronto, and Chateau Laurier, Ottawa, both are underground. But when less prominent places dip down into the earth, anything may happen. In one I descended 13 concrete steps to a garish chamber about 40 by 15 ft., packed with 14 tables and 64 metal folding chairs. Twenty other chairs were stacked in the corner for extra trade. Two powerful fans sucked out the dead air and put conversation on a shouting level. The toilet facilities, inadequate and in filthy condition, were in keeping with the rest of the establishment.
On the other hand, at the CPR Hotel in London I saw an example of what can be done to improve hotel premises. Twelve years ago, when the present management took over, the few carpets were threadbare, furniture was wornout, kitchens functioned in name only, and the 20-odd bedrooms needed total rehabilitation. Over the years conversion to a modern hotel took place item by item. Today the establishment glitters. The beverage rooms—though crowded—have been furnished with an eye to the comfort and pleasure of their patrons.
In Ontario five groups are actively concerned with control of liquor sales. They are the Government, Liquor Control Board (which controls liquor, wine and beer stores and is headed by Hon. William Gourlay Webster, Cabinet Minister), Liquor Authority Control Board (controlling sales in beverage rooms, clubs, service messes, and headed by a former county judge, W. T. Robb), the Ontario Hotel Association and the Ontario Temperance Federation.
The Government has announced no official plan for the future of beverage rooms, has termed “conjecture” reports that some Ontario hotels may be allowed cocktail bars in 1946. Opponents of this rumored move say it would mean a return to the old barroom days. Advocates say it would be more like a restricted version of the open-sale system used in New York State.
Main job of the Liquor Authority Control Board is to see that existing beverage rooms obey the laws governing them, and scrutinize carefully, on grounds of character and experience, all applicants for new licenses.
This policy has the close support of the Hotel Association, whose program for the immediate future is stated officially as follows;
“The creation of a distinctive Ontario Hotel System in which moderation, improved hotel service and premises, well trained staffs, are features; also elimination of all undesirable factors and elements from hotel and beverage room operation.”
The Ontario Temperance Federation, which has 30,000[payingmembers, has a 12-point program for the control of what it considers to be one of Canada’s major evils. The OTF wants a thorough educational campaign supported by the Provincial Government, against alcoholic beverages. It asks for a county option law; elimination of objectionable premises and persons; no political interference; care of inebriates; beverage rooms for men only and women only, with no mixing
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of the sexes; rigorous and persistent enforcement of existing laws; and granting of power to municipalities to restrict the number of places where alcoholic beverages are sold.
The OTF also would like to see all advertising by brewers and distillers positively forbidden. At the moment the Federation is not pressing for prohibition—though that is its ideal. Suggestions that beverage rooms be made more comfortable and clublike are regarded by the OTF merely as devices to sell more drink.
Last year, in addition to the $52 millions take of the beverage rooms, the people of the Province of Ontario spent $26 millions buying beer over the counters of the brewers’ warehouses and brewery retail stores. Sale of spirits and wine, in addition to sale of liquor permits at $1 each, brought more than $48 millions, making the grand total $127,625,000. That gave Ontario national leadership in the consumption of alcoholic beverages, ad the following table (based on official reports for last year) shows:
N. W. Territories................. $ 285.540
Yukon ........................... 713,638
New Brunswick ................. 9,463.927
Saskatchewan .................... 17,417,341
Nova Scotia...........;.......... -17.968.344
Manitoba ........................ 18,159,389
Alberta .......................... 26.720,472
British Columbia ................ 30.779,268
Quebec .......................... 93,758,398
Ontario ..............-,........... 127,624,996
Dominion Total ................. 342,891)313
The increase for 1945 is expected to amount to about $11 millions. To this must be added a guess at the size of the bootleg business—another $12 millions for a total of about $365 millions. This year, too, there may be some figures from Prince Edward Island, where qualified medical practitioners may prescribe up to one quart of spirits or 12 quarts of beer per week for their “patients.”
In this current year Canadians likely will drink 5 million gallons of spirits, 5 million gallons of wine and just over 100 million gallons of beer. This is more than twice the amount consumed 12 years ago and constitutes an alltime national record. But it is no world beater every other English-speaking
nation drinks from slightly to a great deal more.
On a per capita basis the British Empire countries drink approximately the same amount of spirits and wine; Australia, South Africa and New Zealand all consume a little over Canada’s eight gallons of beer per person per year. As the mother and father of beer drinkers Britain downs just over 33 gallons per year for each of her inhabitants.
As thus next table shows, France— long the gayest of nations—leads the world in annual per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages, mainly because of her high wine consumption. The table, from the latest available figures, is arranged in order of beer consumption (which includes all malt liquors), and gives in gallons annual consumption per head of population.
Spirits Wine Beer
(gals.) (gals.) (gals.)
United Kingdom ____ 0.2 0.3
Germany ............ 0.6 5
United States........ 1.16 0.5
New Zealand ........ 0.3 0.2
Australia ............ 0.2 0.36
France .............. 1.25 40
Canada .............. 0.4 0.4
Sweden ............. 1 0.25
Norway ............. 0.5 0.25
Italy ................ 0.36 25
There seems not enough difference in these statistics to account for the remarkable variance in drinking habits here and in other countries, but here may be the answer: In the United Kingdom there is a pub or bar to every 535 inhabitants; in Belgium one to every 72; in France one to every 80; and in Ontario one (beer only) for every 3,225!
From a poll in 1944 the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion reported that 77% of Canadians opposed prohibition—a figure raised substantially from the 57% indicated in a 1942 poll on the same question. Fifty per cent voted for no limit on liquor sales.
Another poll by the same organization indicated that from coast to coast in Canada 55% of women and 28% of men do not take a drink. That is (as women and men are divided approximately equally in Canada) about 40% of all Canadian adults claim they never use alcoholic beverages.