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Toronto's Girl Problem

Toronto's Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930

  • Book Info
    Toronto's Girl Problem
    Book Description:

    With the turn of the century came increased industrialization and urbanization, and in Toronto one of the most visible results of this modernization was the influx of young, single women to the city. They came seeking work, independence, and excitement, but they were not to realize these goals without contention.

    Carolyn Strange examines the rise of the Toronto 'working girl,' the various agencies that 'discovered' her, the nature of 'the girl problem' from the point of view of moral overseers, the various strategies devised to solve this 'problem,' and lastly, the young women's responses to moral regulation. The 'working girl' seemed a problem to reformers, evangelists, social investigators, police, the courts, and journalists - men, mostly, who saw women's debasement as certain and appointed themselves as protectors of morality. They portrayed single women as victims of potential economic and sexual exploitation and urban immorality. Such characterization drew attention away from the greater problems these women faced: poverty, unemployment, poor housing and nutrition, and low wages.

    In the course of her investigation, Strange suggests fresh approaches to working-class and urban history. Her sources include the census, court papers, newspaper accounts, philanthropic society reports, and royal commissions, but Strange also employs less conventional sources, such as photographs and popular songs. She approaches the topic from a feminist viewpoint that is equally sensitive to the class and racial dimensions of the 'girl problem,' and compares her findings with the emergence of the working woman in contemporary United States and Great Britain.

    The overriding observation is that Torontonians projected their fears and hopes about urban industrialization onto the figure of the working girl. Young women were regulated from factories and offices, to streetcars and dancehalls, in an effort to control the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism. By the First World War however, their value as contributors to the expanding economy began to outweigh fear of their moral endangerment. As Torontonians grew accustomed to life in the industrial metropolis, the 'working girl' came to be seen as a valuable resource.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8269-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    If historians had found the study of single wage-earning women nearly as compelling as turn-of-the-century urbanites did, this book would have joined a chorus of studies on the topic. Instead, it asks questions about working women and cities that most Canadian womenʹs, labour, and urban historians have not pursued, questions about the rise of the single woman as an economic and social actor and the various responses to her entrance on the stage of urban life. Because the ʹworking girl,ʹ as she came to be known, was not a career woman, was only rarely a unionized worker, and was never...

  5. 2 City Work, Moral Dilemmas
    (pp. 21-52)

    ʹHelp wanted, femaleʹ was the call. Beginning in the 1880s, Toronto newspaper employment columns advertised not only for domestic help but for young women to work in small factories and shops. In 1895 the TorontoNewscarried the Leading Employment Exchangeʹs advertisement for ʹactive and reliable girls and womenʹ to work as salesladies, office help, dressmakers, and tailoresses; another ad, placed by the Universal Knitting Company, called for power knitting-machine operators. By the early 1900s ads for a host of garment industry operators dominated the ʹSituations Vacant – Femaleʹ column in theStar: ʹexperienced paper boxmakers, also girls to learn,ʹ...

  6. 3 Ruined Girls and Fallen Women
    (pp. 53-88)

    On 7 July 1888 the body of a twenty-year-old woman, an apparent suicide, was fished out of the Toronto Bay. The ensuing coronerʹs inquest disclosed that two weeks earlier Jennie Irving had gone to a widowʹs home on Mission Street in the poorest section of town to seek live-in employment as a dressmaker. Her employer, Mrs Glassey, soon found the woman incompetent and told her she must leave. With nowhere to turn, Irving implored that she be kept on until she found another situation. Mrs Glassey relented, but several days later she ordered her out after discovering the dressmaker on...

    (pp. None)
  8. 4 The Social Evil in the Queen City
    (pp. 89-115)

    Prior to the publication of his notorious exposé of immorality in Toronto, Montreal journalist Christopher St George Clark thought it wise to ascertain whether the controversial subject-matter might expose him to prosecution on obscenity charges. On 24 April 1898 he wrote Deputy Attorney General J.R. Cartwright a provocative letter, warning that he intended to uncover the sexual depravity that festered underneath the nose of the Morality Department. He claimed that the policy of raiding brothels had led to the spread of immorality. The result was that apparently respectable working girls had taken over sexual services previously provided by professionals: ʹYoung...

  9. 5 Good Times and Bad Girls
    (pp. 116-143)

    Disguised as a working girl, journalist Maud Petit infiltrated a Toronto biscuit factory, not in search of secret recipes but to uncover the secrets of working womenʹs ability to survive on meagre wages. Under the pen name of ʹVidere,ʹ a name that implied omniscient powers of observation, Maud Petit wrote about her attempt to find decent housing and nourishment on her salary of five dollars per week as a jam-dolloper.¹ What intrigued her most, however, was the question of leisure. How could working girls manage to amuse themselves in their time off when they lived on next to nothing?² Videre...

  10. 6 Temptations, Crimes, and Follies
    (pp. 144-174)

    As working girlsʹ visibility both as workers and as participants in the urban leisure scene increased, tales of women adrift in the city seemed less credible. In the columns of Toronto daily newspapers, dramatic accounts of white slavery and sympathetic sketches of ʹfallen angelsʹ appeared alongside grittier tales of ʹperoxide blondes who chew gum while their lawyers dwell on their virtues ... females with cream puff intellects and ice cream hearts.ʹ Police court reporter Harry Wodson thought that ʹlady scribesʹ and their soft-hearted readers had the picture of vice and immorality all wrong. Pathetic stories of frail and erring women...

  11. 7 Citizens, Workers, and Mothers of the Race
    (pp. 175-208)

    The working girl of the early-twentieth century was hard to miss. She was still closeted behind the walls of impressive homes and stuck behind power sewing machines in the cityʹs garment factories, but she was also the person who gathered moviegoersʹ tickets, answered the phone in law offices, and served up luncheon specials in restaurants. Tens of thousands of young single women took up jobs as stenographers, typists, clerks, and bookkeepers as the city became a centre of commerce and communications. For young women hoping to find well-paying jobs, knowing the ropes of the business world helped a great deal....

  12. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 209-216)

    By the end of the 1920s Torontoʹs single working women had come into their own. A working girlʹs presence on a downtown street no longer elicited pity or fear of domestic breakdown. Perhaps she was bustling off to work at a garment factory or, more likely, one of the cityʹs skyscrapers or retail palaces. She might be waiting for a streetcar after having had her hair marcelled for a date with her boss. Or possibly she was returning to her boarding-house after a dip in a YWCA pool. Even the most conservative Torontonians realized that working girls had made the...

  13. APPENDIX A Single Women and Torontoʹs Industrial Development, 1880–1930
    (pp. 217-221)
  14. APPENDIX B Sex, Crime, and Policing, 1880–1930
    (pp. 222-224)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 225-262)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-287)
  17. Picture Credits
    (pp. 288-288)
  18. Index
    (pp. 289-299)