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

Pioneer Inns and Taverns is a landmark five-volume work published by the Canadian historian Edwin C. Guillet (1898-1975), a native of Cobourg, ON. His ancestors arrived in Upper Canada in the early 1800s from Jersey. Mr. Guillet was of distant French Huguenot origin. He claimed in fact a blood connection to another distant son of Jersey and writer, Henry David Thoreau.

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

The set comprises four printed volumes since Volumes Two and Three were bound together. They were republished at least once, in a two-volume set.

Succeeding historians of early Ontario tavern life and drinking culture have acknowledged the importance of Mr. Guillet’s work while seeking to chart new directions. He was what is today called an independent researcher. Part of his career was in teaching, including at a technical high school in Toronto. He was later an archivist for the Ontario government.

Guillet held a master’s degree in history and English from McMaster University and had considerable talents as a researcher and writer. Every generation has its writers, explicating the past but, inevitably, reflecting their time. Since Guillet’s time, the academics Craig Heron, Douglas McCalla, and Julia Roberts, among others, have examined similar subject matter from new perspectives. For example, Julia Roberts has looked in her work at how the tavern functioned as a public space for different social classes and particular groups among them, such as women and blacks.

History has always been written at different levels. Mr. Guillet, as Pioneer Inns and Taverns shows, was more than a popular historian, or antiquarian. I use those terms without suggesting anything pejorative. Many non-academic writers have done important work to advance historical inquiry.

His detailed, multi-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources forms an impressive basis for his study and includes rare items not previously available for study.

His work is not referenced in the academic style, but much of the text quotes extensively from sources he identifies, so in effect it is referenced, in his particular way. He lets the writers speak and the reader can form his impressions even though no specific thesis is advanced.

The book reflects its time in that consideration of liquor’s role in various localities is followed by an outline of the temperance movement there. Still, the book is less moralistic than one might think given it was written only 25-30 years after Prohibition ended in Ontario and the fact that Mr. Guillet was a public servant (which might suggest caution in advocating for the licensed trade as it were).

The book makes amply clear Mr. Guillet was not a bluenose. For example, he recounts early in Volume One an amusing anecdote how an early traveller in Upper Canada was forced to share his room with other guests. Thinking initially he had the chamber to himself, the man was taken aback by the sudden image of five “buxom” females disrobing for the night.

To his self-professed relief, in the result they chose another part of the room to seek their repose. The traveller’s satisfaction was short-lived, however, as he was disturbed by their snoring, and chattering – in German. (They sought another place in the room after a glance in his direction – they told him this. This seemed to discomfit him, he said it was the first time his appearance resulted in sleeping the night alone. A window on pioneer conditions, indeed…).

The tone of the book is even and quite balanced. Mr. Guillet presents many absorbing aspects of early tavern and inn culture such as the food and smoking available (people shared a communal pipe), accommodations including for horses, architecture, the staffing of a pub, the origins of the tavern-keepers, entertainment, and much more.

Perhaps oddly to our ears, Guillet does not offer a detailed description of the drinks available at the inns. I read a good part of Volume One and skimmed the remaining volumes but unless I missed it, this dimension is absent.

He mentions of course whether a pub served whisky, brandy, beer, wine, etc. But he does not give a rigorous account of the types of beverages available and pricing. Some of the pioneer and traveller accounts quoted of course offer information in these areas, whether someone’s whiskey was bad, say. It’s more catch-as-catch-can though.

Why this was is hard to say. In 1950s Ontario there was no consumer alcohol appreciation akin to today’s. Moralism set the tone for public life, and an undue interest in liquid tavern offerings might have been viewed askance. Given Mr. Guillet’s government service again, he may have considered it was inapt to “go there”.

Alternatively, the reason may have been simple lack of interest. The passage below, from the introductory part of the first volume, contains a clue on this point.

Mr. Guillet doesn’t state he was an abstainer, although he may have been. But clearly he did not patronize a tavern or bar very often if ever. Maybe this circumstance favoured his impressive literary production – over 30 volumes on different aspects of Ontario history, so a boon for readers in another way.

I should add that Pioneer Inns and Taverns also covered Quebec (Lower Canada) and numerous parts of New York State. The fifth volume is a history of English pub names and signage.

By drawing attention to his work, I hope one day it can be re-published with a modern introduction. The pictorial record it contains – hundreds of drawings and photos of historic inns for example – alone justifies this although the text, and bibliography, offer many additional reasons to do so.



Leave a Comment