Edwin Guillet’s “Pioneers Inns and Taverns” – an Appreciation


Pioneer Inns and Taverns is a landmark five-volume work published by Canadian historian Edwin C. Guillet (1898-1975). Born in Cobourg, Ontario, his ancestors, of French Huguenot lineage, arrived in Upper Canada in the early 1800s, from Jersey. He claimed in fact a blood connection to another son (distantly) of Jersey, American writer Henry Thoreau.

The first volume was issued in 1954, and the remainder by 1962. Volume One indicates clearly that it was self-published; the other volumes bear the imprint “Ontario Publishing Company” but I think it was an alter ego of Mr. Guillet.

The set comprised four printed volumes since Volumes Two and Three were bound together. They were republished at least once, in a two-volume set. The series deals principally with early Upper Canada but Lower Canada (Quebec) and parts of New York State are also covered. The fifth volume is a history of British pub names and signage.


Later researchers of early Ontario tavern life and drinking practises have acknowledged the importance of Guillet’s work. He was what today is called an independent or unaffiliated researcher. He worked in teaching, including at a technical high school in Toronto, and later as an archivist for the Ontario government.

Guillet held a master’s degree in both history and English from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and this background shows in the book. And true it is every generation has its writers who elucidate the past but inevitably, reflect their time. Since Guillet’s time the academics Craig Heron, Douglas McCalla, and Julia Roberts, among others, have examined similar subject matter but from new perspectives. For example, Julia Roberts has examined how the tavern functioned for different social classes, and particular groups among them such as women and blacks.

History has always been written at differing levels, reflecting finally the personality and background of the writers. Guillet was not an academic historian but more than a popular or antiquarian writer. I use the latter terms without meaning anything pejorative.  Much important historical, and other learned work, has been performed outside the ivied halls…

Guillet’s work is not referenced in the usual academic way but rather, he quotes extensively from his wide range of sources. He lets the sources speak for themselves and since no analytical framework is applied, at least not expressly, the readers can form their own impressions.

The book does reflect its time in that consideration of liquor’s role in early communities is followed by an examination of the Temperance movement. Still, the book is less moralistic than one might think given it was written within a generation after prohibition ended in Ontario, and factoring too that Guillet was a public servant and hence cautious to be seen possibly as advocating for liquor interests.

His essentially modern sensibility appears in a number of ways, for example an amusing anecdote in Volume One. He relates that a male traveller in early Upper Canada was preparing to retire in an inn. Thinking he had the room to himself, he was taken aback by the sudden appearance of five “buxom” females who started disrobing for the night. To his self-professed relief they chose another part of the room for their repose, one that could shelter from his by a curtain, at any rate.

The women arranged this, he says, after a glance in his direction, which seemed to discomfit him, as he considered his appearance the cause of their retreat, something novel in his experience, he adds. The physical separation proved only partly successful as he was disturbed by the ladies’ snoring and also their chattering – in German. A window on pioneer conditions, indeed.

The general tone of the book is even and balanced. Mr. Guillet presents absorbing aspects of early tavern and inn culture such as food and smoking facilities – people shared a communal pipe – and the accommodations available including for horses, which could vary widely in amenity. As well, details of architecture, staffing, tavern-keepers’ origins, and also entertainment are offered.

Perhaps oddly to our ears Guillet does not describe in any detail the drinks available. I read a good part of Volume One and paged the remaining volumes, but this dimension seems absent. He mentions sometimes whether a pub served whisky, brandy, beer, wine, etc. But he does not give a rigorous account of each type and pricing. Some pioneer and traveller accounts he quotes offered some information, whether someone’s whiskey was “bad”, say. But withal little light is shed on this area.

Why he refrained for this dimension is hard to say. In 1950s Ontario alcohol had no official role in society, not in any positive or benign sense that is. A well-defined albeit post-prohibition moralism set the public tone. An undue interest in liquid offerings, even from a historical standpoint, may have raised eyebrows, given especially again Mr. Guillet’s government position.

But there may have been another reason for his restraint. Consider the passage below, from the introductory part of Volume One:

Mr. Guillet doesn’t state he was an abstainer from liquor, although he may have been, but clearly he did not patronize taverns or bars very often. Maybe these personal habits favoured his impressive literary output – over 30 volumes on a variety of historical subjects.

By drawing attention to his work I hope it will encourage a re-publishing of Pioneer Inns and Taverns with a new introduction. The pictorial record alone – hundreds of drawings and photos of historic inns among them – would justify the effort, not to mention the still-valuable textual studies.