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). 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 this was an alter ego of Mr. Guillet.

The set comprises four printed volumes, since Volumes #2 and #3 were bound together. They were republished at least once, in a two-volume set. The series deals mainly 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 shows in the book. True it remains that 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 covered similar subject matter but from new perspectives. For example, Julia Roberts has examined how the tavern functioned for different social classes, and particular groups within them such as women and blacks.

Historiography reflects finally the personality and background of the writers. Guillet was not an academic historian but more than a popular or antiquarian writer. I use these terms without intending anything pejorative.  Much important historical, and other learned work, has been performed outside the ivied halls, goodness knows …

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

The book does reflect its time, as consideration of liquor’s role in early communities is followed by a respectful look at the Temperance movement. Still, the book is less moralistic than one might think even though written within a generation after Prohibition ended in Ontario, within its shadow so to speak. We must factor as well that Guillet was a public servant and hence probably cautious when discussing liquor questions.

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 for the night at 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. It was sheltered by a curtain, at any rate.

The women resorted to this, he states, after a glance in his direction. This seemed to discomfit him – something novel in his experience, he adds. The physical separation proved only partly successful, as he was disturbed by the ladies’ snoring and constant chattering – in German.

A window on pioneer conditions, indeed.

The general tone of the book is even and balanced. Guillet explains 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. This could vary widely in amenity. As well, details of architecture, staffing, taverners’ origins, and entertainment are offered.

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

Why he refrained is hard to say. In 1950s Ontario 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 Guillet’s governmental position.

Maybe there was another reason for his restraint. Consider the passage below, from the introductory part of Volume One:



Guillet doesn’t state he was an abstainer, although he may have been, but clearly he did not patronize taverns or bars very often.

(Maybe this personal habit favoured his impressive writing output – over 30 volumes on a variety of historical subjects).

By drawing attention to his work, I hope a re-publishing of Pioneer Inns and Taverns will see light, with a critical introduction. His pictorial record alone – hundreds of drawings and photos of historic inns – would justify the effort. Much in the text retains value as well.