The American Housewives League was a source of inspiration for Toronto housewives. Their president, Mrs. Julian Heath, visited Toronto the winter of 1914 to help rally them in their campaign against high food prices.
The winter of 1914 was especially bitter—there was a prolonged cold spell, mass unemployment and rocketing food prices. One local politician estimated that each household was spending half of its income on food.
In an unknown chapter of Toronto civic history, women campaigned to set up local farmers markets so that they could access better food more cheaply. Many, in their outlying suburban districts, were tantalized and frustrated by the sight of farm wagons on their way to the equivalent of today’s food terminal, the St. Lawrence Market and the Wholesale Fruit Terminal. Aware that the increasingly centralized food distribution system was upping cost and lowering quality, they set out to prove that there was a consumer demand for direct trade with farmers.
market day at St. Lawerence Market 1919
A mean selection of cellar-stored root vegetables was the winter offer at the St. Lawrence market and city grocery stores for those with workers incomes. In March, the 25 percent duty on produce that came from California by way of Buffalo brought the price of cauliflower up to 20 to 40 cents, cabbage 15 and 20 cents, spinach 40 cents and carrots 3 bunches for 25 cents.
The price of butter, which along with eggs and bread formed the basis of many a household’s winter diet, had been the trigger for the formation of the Toronto Housewives’ League three years before. Having successfully organized to break a butter price-fixing scheme their membership had swelled to around 350 by 1914.
Under the topic “the High Cost of Living “The Toronto Daily Star followed the Housewives’ League campaign. Giving the story an absurdist spin by concentrating on who was to blame for the rising food prices, the paper highlighted the volley of accusations and counter accusation across gender lines. League activities were largely described through the eyes of the more “legitimate” (male) points of view: farmers, butchers, community leaders and politicians.
Davies St. Lawrence market stall 1911
Jan. 27, 1914 p. 3
HOUSEWIVES’ LEAGUES SHOULD BUY LIVE BEEF Butchers Give Advice to Assist Them in Reducing Cost of Living
“The city ought to buy a bullock alive for some of these housewives’ leagues,” said a prominent local butcher to The Star today when questioned concerning the aviator tendency of beef. “Then they should see that it was killed at the least expense, and let the league sell it, every bit of it and turn in the receipts. And then everybody could see just how much the league made out of it! And at that the leagues wouldn’t have to pay delivery charges and all the other incidentals.”
Toronto butchers, one and all, in harmonious concert declare that the present high prices may be attributed to the fact that the supply cannot meet the demand. Not only has the farming population of Ontario failed to increase in the last fifteen years proportionately to the increase in the city and town population, but there has been an actual falling off in the number of cattle raised.
“I bought yesterday,” said one of the city’s leading butchers, ‘five calves at 16 cents a pound from a country butcher, who bought directly from farmers, paying $20 a head. He lost on the deal, and so did I selling it at 10 cents a pound for that’s all you could get for it.”
Jan. 29, 1914 p. 3
WOULD WOMEN BUY THE FARMERS POOR STUFF? Philosophic Countryman Believes That the League Will Be Swamped by Summer Crops
The philosophic farmer stood on a cement island at St. Lawrence Market this morning surrounded with bags of potatoes and barrels of apples, fringed with a small growth of baskets of onions, and delivered a brand new reason for the Housewives’ League project would melt off the landscape on or about the coming of the summer crops.
“You see, “he said polishing an apple on his coat sleeve, “these women won’t buy anything but the best. It’s all right for them in a scarce season, when they can handle all the stuff for some of these farmers. But let a flush season come, with apples rotting all over the orchard for someone to take them. They would wire back to the farmer that they were sending in too many, and they couldn’t handle them. The farmer wants to sell his poor apples just as much as his good ones. He calls on a middleman and he charters a couple of peddlers to go round to the houses and sells the lot, good and bad alike, at different prices, of course.
A sale, where produce bought directly from farmers was offered to League members without mark-up, was satirically described as having the atmosphere of a suffragette demonstration:
Feb. 3, 1914 p.5
WOMEN BROKE DOORS AT LEAGUE SALE RUSH But Could Not Stampede the Police, Who Maintained Perfect Order
Promptly at eleven o’clock this morning with the crashing of broken glass, cries of “Oh, I’m fainting,” and some two hundred women of all sizes trying to stampede two large-sized policemen, the second of the sales of the Housewives League was triumphantly under way. The two largest policemen were posted one at each side of the small glass-paned door of St. Andrew’s market on Richmond street and at five minutes past eleven they could have closed their eyes and been in fancy in the midst of an English suffragette scare. But they gritted their mustaches and when the glass gave way jammed back the women and picked out the pieces still clinging to the frames lest someone should get cut. The crowd was admitted two by two and inside all was order and quietness broken only by the thud of dollar bills falling in the cash box. Supplies Were Limited Only two dozen eggs at 40 cents could be sold to each person as there were only something like 150 dozen in stock. Large rolls of dairy butter with the weight attached on a “Housewives’ League” ticket, were sold at the rate of 27 cents a pound but the creamery held its own with the retail prices ranging from 30 to 32 cents. The chickens were all marked 20 cents a pound and were of every size… Three crates of grapefruit were received at the last moment and sold for 5 cents each. …
The Head of the Women’s Institutes
Feb. 16, 1914 p. 12
TOO MANY CONSUMERS TOO FEW PRODUCERS Superintendent of 800 Women’s Institutes Addresses Household Economic Association
“Women do not understand the comparative value of foods and comparative prices. They pay prices for food in packages which are out of all proportion to the value received,” said Mr. G. A. Putnam, Superintendent of Women’s Institutes of Ontario, this afternoon in his address to the “House-hold Economic Association.” “We must educate our women in the wisest methods of buying. This is one of the strongest features of this work of reducing the cost of living in which your association is engaged. Many housekeepers mean well but are wasteful through ignorance.”
The Toronto Housewives League accused grocers and other “middle men” of price gouging and having little regard for quality. This was countered by Mr. J.W. Flavelle YMCA Director who celebrated the admirable modern efficiencies of the grading, packing and distribution system. Women should be grateful for those middle men and look to their own lack of discernment as consumers as the source of high food prices. Mr. Flavelle singled out young women, who instead of learning the skills of a good housewife and economic shopper, spent their days as stenographers in offices, in factories, telephone operators or sales clerks.
The Director of the YMCA
Feb. 18, 1914
BLAMES FARMER FOR HIGH COST OF LIVING Mr. Flavelle Also Finds Consumer Not Guiltless in Economic Struggle WOMEN ARE WASTEFUL Factory Girls Who Become Housewives Lack the Training to Make Them Efficient
“Whatever its ultimate method of distribution, the middleman must still be present as a connecting link between the scattered producer and the scattered consumer,” said Mr. J. W. Flavelle of the Y.M.C.A. “And of the three classes interested in the food problem, producer, middleman, and consumer, the middleman has been incomparably most efficient, the consumer supremely inefficient. “
The efficiency of the middleman,” he stated, arose from a natural association of organized activities, the size of the operations, and the driving force of competitive conditions. “If consumers require 10,000 young girls to work in factories, stores and offices when they set up house without training and experience in the buying and preparation of food, there is bound to be loss and inefficiency. …
The following day, the Toronto Housewives’ League responded. While its members took to heart Mr. Flavelle’s criticisms of their sex, the league pointed out that he ignored its efforts to educate women shoppers and have them oversee food safety on behalf of the public.
Feb. 19, 1914
HOUSEWIVES KNOW ALL MR. FLAVELLE CAN SAY—New Leagues All Over Canada Have Corrected the Women’s Mistakes in Their Rules
“Well there may have been some truth in what Mr. Flavelle said about us,” admitted, a Toronto housewife to The Star today, “but the force of the admission was cancelled by the address which followed.
“Did Mr. Flavelle read the rules of the new Housewive’s League carefully? And is he aware that Toronto is only one link in the chain of links which will be formed all over Canada? Ottawa has just issued a set of rules and formed a league and if Mr. Flavelle will read these rules he will see that the women realized their faults before the man pointed them out. Some of the Ottawa rules are:
To keep posted on wholesale rates in order to obtain commodities at fair prices.
To bring together producer and consumer that price may be satisfactory to both.
To demand clean shops.
To cooperate with the retailer in trying to secure commodities which are in quantity and quality what is paid for.
To insist on full weights and measures.
Members will be requested to pay all accounts promptly.
To refrain from handling articles of food exposed for sale.
To report to the society all cases of dirty shops particularly in which food is exposed to any contamination.
Understanding that they had little political clout, the strategy of the Toronto Housewives’ League was to influence ratepayers associations to, in turn, pressure local councilors for permission to establish curbside farmers markets.
In the winter of 1914 the Dovercourt Land Building & Savings was targeting builders in their marketing of the Oakwood Orchards subdivision at St. Clair and Kennedy (now Atlas) Avenue. It belonged in a recently annexed district that was now connected to the city through sewage, water, electricity and streetcar service. Since property values had risen accordingly, land agents needed to attract builders of substantial homes that could sell to middle class buyers.
Two members of the Toronto Housewives League spoke to the Oakwood British Imperial Association on April 15. “Mrs. Mearns spoke at length on the subject of markets. They had found that butter and eggs were far too high priced and vegetables were not fresh at the stores. Markets were the solution.”
On July 8 The Toronto Daily Star reported that Oakwood resident Mr. P. Graham of 25 Kennedy (Atlas) Avenue had offered some of his land to the British Imperial Association to establish a market. This donated land formally became Graham Park in the 1920’s. After the Housewives League had spearheaded the initiative they were described in the press note as being “cooperative”. Further, they were presented with the (unpaid) responsibility for setting up the market.
This report from Oakwood underscores the partial success of the 1914 Housewives League campaign to create a web of farmers markets throughout the city. In an early example of consumer activism, Toronto women leveraged local politicians and businessmen to create the infrastructure that made it possible to connect with food growers. The League’s success in Oakwood not coincidentally happened while there was an economic push to attract home buyers and investors. It was an acknowledgement that a vibrant local farmers market generates commercial activity and a healthy, connected neighbourhood.
For contemporary parallels read the previous post: Interview with Cookie Roscoe, manager of The Stop Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns.