Coffee houses are ubiquitous places in Toronto. Tim Horton’s, McCafes, Starbucks, Aroma Espresso Bars, and independent coffee shops seemingly mark every block in its diverse neighbourhoods. While Toronto is in an exciting era of artisanal coffee shops, the locales of the 19th century paint a much different picture in the drink’s social consumption.
Toronto’s First “Coffee Houses”
The first establishment in Toronto to call itself a coffee house was the “Toronto Coffee House”. It was opened in 1801 by William Cooper on the east side of Jarvis Street between King Street and Yonge Street near today’s St. Lawrence Market. Despite the name, historian Chris Bateman writes Cooper’s two-storey establishment was more a tavern than a café, which served liquor, ale, and some food. The name was meant to inspire respectability, drawing on the influence of similarly-named establishments in Great Britain. It also hosted an inn and general store. The coffee house was sold five years after it opened.
In the 1830s, “The (New) British Coffee House” opened in the Chewitt Building at the southeast corner of King Street and York Street. Completed in 1835, the structure was considered Toronto’s first office block. Its ground floor had the Coffee House, which was rented by a Mr. Keating and followed the British tradition in offering a meeting place for influential people. Again, this “Coffee House” likely resembled an establishment serving ale in the British way more than the modern conceptualization of an espresso bar type establishment.
In the 1837 directory, the British Coffee House was listed as a “Principal Hotel” as owned by John Cotter. John Grantham’s “Old British Coffee-House” on Front Street was also listed in the category. According to John Ross Robertson, The British Coffee House was closed in 1837 following its role in the meeting of individuals of the rebellion of that year and then seized by the government and used as barracks. By 1843, the Coffee House was listed as a boarding house. By 1850, it had the added moniker of “Club House”, which Robertson stated later developed into today’s “Toronto Club”. The building was torn down for the luxurious Rossin House Hotel in 1862; an office block stands in both their places today.
“Substitutes to Drinking Saloons”
By the mid-19th century, coffee was a known and consumed commodity, albeit there was more to be learned. There seemed to have been some inconsistencies on how the drink was prepared, and apparently a farmer in Scarboro was trying to grow its own specimen of coffee which was conducive to the Canadian climate.
But finding coffee in a social setting seemed to have been a rare occurrence. In 1860, a reader of The Globe — an Alexander Somerville — lamented the lack of places for a stranger to find a cup of coffee for a fair price. He found “but one place where a passing stranger can obtain small refreshments, such as one or two cups of coffee at a fair price, at any hour in the day.” This was in Montreal for six-pence. Somerville called on the ‘Sons of Temperance’ to make this happen.
In the late 1870s, the temperance movement used the caffeinated beverage to steer people – mostly men – away from the evils of alcohol. It employed eateries to do so. One of the first coffee houses to open with this purpose in January 1878 was the Albert Street Coffee Room. It was based on the ‘coffee taverns’ and ‘coffee palaces’ established in London and other large global cities.
The Albert Coffee Room at 11-13 Albert Street opened in January 1878, and was funded by social reformer and future Toronto mayor W.H. Howland. It was described as “plainly though nicely fitted up” and containing “the bar, or public room, the billiard room, and the reading room”. All were welcome in the public room where coffee, tea, cocoa, or milk were served “with sandwiches, buns, etc, at certain low yet remunerative prices”. Irish stew was a noted dish too. The other two rooms operated with a small fee and subscription. Profane language and intoxicating liquors were forbidden, although smoking was allowed. Its existence was short-lived, however; by 1881, the Albert Coffee Room closed for unknown reasons.
“Our Coffee Room” at 115-117 York Street at Boulton Street (now Pearl Street) opened in 1879. Its owner was S G Noblett. The establishment was described by a visitor as having a billiard table on the ground floor, all the daily city newspapers downstairs, and a large reading room with a valuable collection of books upstairs. All services are free for visitors, except for the billiard table which is available for “the usual price”. The visitor also boasted the “convenience of being able at any moment to supply one with a cup of hot tea or coffee alone for three cents, or with a buttered roll for five cents”.
In the following years, a number of changes came to Our Coffee Room. In 1883, it took on the name of its proprietor and seemingly upgraded from a coffee room to a coffee house. Before it closed in 1886, it was listed as a eating house, abandoning the caffeinated drink altogether in its name.
The impact of these two coffee houses were reported by 1879. In a Globe article highlighting the “Sights of Toronto”, Temperance Coffee-Houses were presented as flourishing establishments with the goals of providing “places of entertainment and substitutes for drinking saloons, where the evil associations of the saloons are absent, and where….coffee and other mild drinks, with lunches ma be obtained with moderate prices”. Both “Albert Street Coffee Room” and “Our Coffee Rooms” were named.
Around this time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also operated a coffee house beginning in 1877 on Queen Street West near the Occident Hall at Bathurst Street. The Globe noted that the venture depleted the treasury, and by 1880 it was sold. Later in the decade, the Temperance Union had talks of resurrecting the idea, but it is unclear if it came to fruition.
The Toronto Coffee House Association
The impetus behind the Toronto Coffee House Association may have started in December 1878 meeting of the “Coffee House Committee”. It was held at Shaftesbury Hall on Queen Street at James Street, which was the headquarters of the Young Men’s Christian Association from 1873 to 1887. The committee resolved to make open two coffee houses: one in St. John’s Ward arranged by Howland and others, and another near St. Lawrence Market to accommodate farmers and others in the neighbourhood.
In 1881, the temperance movement formally organized a scheme of coffee houses. In May, there was a “well-attended meeting of parties interested in the prevention and suppression of intemperance” at Shaftesbury Hall. The Committee on Coffee-Houses recommended the formation of a joint stock company and 5,000 shares be issued at once at one dollar per share. The object of the company was “to provide public houses of refreshment and entertainment without intoxicating drink.” The committee highlighted that there were 196 licensed taverns and unknown number of unlicensed places that provided the only places of rest and refreshment. It also targeted working populations, particular men employed in the railways, port, and streetcars, and a separate entrance and room for women. The following passage from The Globe summarizes this philanthropic yet investable endeavour:
“We cannot close our report without stating that, while we wish to launch this Company entirely upoin its merits as a business enterprise, our aim is to benefit the city and promote the cause of temperance, and that we desire he help of all who have at heart the true welfare of our citizens in this good work.”“Suppression of Intemperance – Meeting in Shaftesbury Hall Yesterday Afternoon – Report on Coffee Houses,” The Globe, May 17, 1881
The organization was inspired by coffee houses in Liverpool run by the British Workman Public House Company, which in the year prior were said to have “a decrease of 1500 in cases of drunkenness.” The goals were to have a collection of strategically located coffee houses targeted towards working men. The capital of the Company was 40 thousand pounds divided in one pound shares. It was reportedly paying out at 14 per cent.
In the fall of 1881, the Toronto Coffee House Association took further steps to organize. It opened a booth at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition where it sold tea, coffee, and other temperance drinks and plain refreshments. It also met to elect a permanent board and decide the location of the coffee houses. They would be located “at the Market-square, another at the corner of Bay and Front streets, and the third in the vicinity of Brock-street.” A meeting of the Society for the Prevent and Suppression of Intolerance urged the participation of society members, particularly in canvassing new members and getting subscriptions. It was also reported that the Coffee House Association had done a number of research into coffee houses in Britain and United States, and interestingly, many people who had taken stock in the organization has never engaged in the temperance cause before.
On November 15, 1881, the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association was held at the Confederation Life Association Building. Lieutenant Governor Gzowski served as Chairman for the meeting and was also elected President of the Board of Directors (the Association was operating on a Provisional Board prior to the meeting). It was reported the success of the Liverpool coffee house scheme and that the event at the Exhibition grounds showed that the group could sell a cup of coffee and sandwich for five cents and make a profit.
St. Lawrence and Shaftesbury Coffee Houses
In February 1882, the Toronto Coffee House Association’s inaugurated its first coffee house, the St. Lawrence Coffee House. It was located in the former Small’s Hotel on Jarvis Street at East Market Square. By year’s end, the St. Lawrence Coffee House moved from Jarvis Street to 118 King Street East next to St. James Cathedral, which was a better location.
The next location to open was across the street from Shaftesbury Hall itself at 23 Queen Street West at James Street. Following the initial plans for coffee house locations, it was at the southern edge of St. John’s Ward, also known as just The Ward – a dense, immigrant enclave, looked upon unfavorably during its time by Toronto’s mainstream establishment for its slum conditions and immoral happenings. Like the St. Lawrence Coffee House at 118 King Street, its capacity was 200 patrons. Interestingly, in March 1889, a man fell through Shaftesbury Coffee House’s coal shoot and successfully sued the Toronto Coffee House Association.
In the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association, both coffee houses were reported philanthropical and financial successes in their first year. At the second annual meeting of the organization, it was reported that receipts from the year were almost three times as large as the previous year — a total net profit of $1,131.22.
In August 1895, The Globe toured through the King Street coffee house, which by 1893 moved from 118 King Street East to a building fronted at 78-80 King Street East and the adjoined 15 Court Street behind it. No reason was given for the move, although the increase in floor space is a possibility. The kitchen, broiling room, and bakery were located on the top floor. On the ground level is the lunch counter and a large, bright and airy general dining hall, where one could get a full-course meal of “two kinds of soup, fish, or one of two meats, with potatoes and vegetables, dessert pudding or pie, coffee, tea or milk” for 20 cents (and an “extra selection” for ten cents more. The next floor was the ladies and gentlemen’s dining room and a large waiting-room. A large lavatory for women flanked the waiting-room with the lower level housing the men’s lavatory. The Globe described the entire establishment as clean and well-ventilated.
Citizens of Toronto can with every confidence their friends to either Shaftesbury Coffee House, 23 Queen Street West; or to the St. Lawrence Coffee House, 78-80 King stret east, and have no fear of having to apologize for any dish served. They are equal to any of this class to be found on the continent. Visitors to the fair should make a note of where these two places are to be found.”“The Toronto Coffee House Association” The Globe, August 31, 1895.
This description of the St. Lawrence Coffee House is notable for the absence of any reference of the temperance. The purpose seems to promote the establishment as a tourist places for the visitors of The Canadian National Exhibition. Even though it refers to the Coffee House Association’s “Famous Coffee”, the menu likens it to a regular eating establishment.
There are other factoids that support the coffee house as in the same category as restaurants. In 1883, the city directories added “See Eating Houses” under the listings for Coffee Houses; in 1890s, coffee houses were not listed at all and enterprises were listed under “restaurants”. In 1886, The Globe ran an article which stated the main objective of coffee houses was not to provide cheap meals; rather, it was supposed to be an alternative to taverns without the temptation. It boldly asserted:
“They are eating houses, nothing more, nothing less. This is good so as as it goes, but this, we repeat, was not the great and chief idea dwelt upn, when these establishments were projected…
…If these establishments were simply private ventures, we should of course allow no criticisms of their merits or demerits in our columns.”“Our Coffee Houses” The Globe, April 16, 1886.
By 1899, the Toronto Coffee House Association dissolved and sold the coffee houses. Although the circumstances of the dissolution and sale are scarce, the St. Lawrence Coffee House did not operate again. All three sites of the St. Lawrence location now house modern buildings. Shaftesbury Hall was demolished shortly after for shops which eventually became part of the Eaton’s store complex and later shopping mall. Interestingly, Shaftesbury Coffee House moved to 13-15 Richmond Street West in 1900, under Hayward & Co. Proprietors. It closed once more by 1908 for good.
The Canadian Temperance League
In 1890, several new coffee houses entered the scene alongside The Coffee House Association under the Canadian Temperance League banner, which organized two years before. One opened at Edward and Terauley (Bay) Streets, and was described as having a shop and four rooms. It was open 6am to 10pm Monday to Saturday and sold coffee for two cents and sandwiches for five cents.
In only a year, a new location was needed, possibly as the old one was inadequate in size. The Temperance League Coffee House Company opened another coffee house at Elm and Terauley Streets in 1891, which was aimed at ‘workingmen’. Like Shafesbury Hall, both coffee houses were The Ward – this time in the centre of the district. The scheme was similar to the Toronto Coffee House Association with stocks sold at five dollars a piece. The Temperance League Coffee House Association and Canadian Temperance League were connected in that members of the former had to be members of the latter organization. The Canadian Temperance League held events at the Elm Street coffee house, like a February 1893 concert and a June 1894 meeting supporting Mr. O.A. Howland’s candidature in South Toronto.
The coffee houses looked to have been short-lived ventures, however. The Canadian Temperance League Coffee House at 76 Edward Street closed by 1894. The Toronto Coffee Association Coffee House at 55 Elm Street closed by 1895. The building went on to house Dr. John G.C. Adams, the father of modern public dentistry from 1897-1899.
The end of temperance coffee houses
The final years of the 1890s saw some additional calls for an alternative to liquor taverns, which were backed by Bishop Sullivan, rector of St. James Cathedral. The bishop passed away in early 1899, however, and nothing ever came of the new scheme. There were even reports to open new coffee houses in first decade of the 1900s.
Although the temperance movement continued into the 20th century and of course influencing the push for prohibition in Toronto, the heyday of coffee houses of the 1880s and 1890s had passed. It is unclear whether the coffee houses of the Toronto Coffee House Assocition and Canadian Temperance League actually succeeded in their philanthropic goal of providing the alternative to saloons. Like the “Coffee Houses” of the first half of 19th century in Toronto, they were borrowed, respected ideas taken from elsewhere, with the added bourgeois goal of turning a profit for its stock-holders. All with a cup of coffee that was never entirely the focus.
For a map of Toronto’s 19th Century Coffee Houses, click here.