Taverns and Beer in Working Class Montreal,1963

In 1963 the City of Montreal took dozens of black-and-white images of a quarter known colloquially as Faubourg à M’lasse, to store in archives. The odd-sounding name comes from the fact that nearby docks unloaded barrels of molasses in the 1800s. The odour, as well as the sight of urchins licking the droppings from the tuns, gave the quarter its name.

The pictures were taken to memorialize the buildings, businesses, and daily life of the heart of the area, soon to disappear under urban renewal. The national broadcaster Radio-Canada decided with the city to build its headquarters there. Where its office tower now stands, including the parking areas, the people of the Faubourg once lived and worked.

The lands were expropriated under Crown authority, and the people were moved to new dwellings elsewhere.

You can see the photos here on two pages of Flickr uploaded by the City of Montreal. In total they make a melancholy and pensive statement, one with greater impact if you know Montreal but I think compelling for anyone interested in urban life or French Canada.

Parts of the Faubourg, in the broader radius, survive especially north of the arterial Ste. Catherine Street but the core was razed. This is where the oldest buildings stood, the small shops and manufacturing plants, workshops, garages, and the like.

The Faubourg was one of the poorest areas in the city and almost exclusively French-Canadian. It symbolized for many the inferior status of the Québecois in what they viewed as their homeland (80% or more of Quebec Province has always been francophone).

However, in recent years a more complex memory has emerged, one that recognizes the spirit of the inhabitants and pride they took in their community with a knowledge that conditions had to change.

The images really are a kind of visual form of the famous English social research project, Mass Observation.

About a dozen pictures are of taverns or grocery stores selling beer. These contain great detail for the beer historian. From them alone you can tell the domestic beers available in the city then: Dow Ale, Dow Kingsbeer (lager), Dow Champlain Porter, Molson Ale, Molson Laurentide Ale, Molson Canadian (lager), Molson Porter, Labatt 50, O’Keefe Ale, and Carling Black Label (lager).

These were the same beers still popular in the mid-1970s when my memory starts for this aspect of Montreal life, except that porter had almost (not quite) disappeared. Dow ale had declined a lot due to the additives scandal c.1965 but was still sold in the 70s, indeed to about 1990.

To see the beer-specific images, on page 1 go to the sixth row, second image; seventh row, third image; tenth row, third image; and 11th row, first image.

On page 2, it’s first row, second and third images, and fourth row, all three images. But it doesn’t take long to view all the images row by row and that way too you see how the tavern life fit in to the larger picture.

The Flickr upload permits superb magnification, you can see many details including names of cigaret brands on the backbar (Player’s, Export, Du Maurier). Note the black pants and white shirt of the waiter in the sample image above. A matching black jacket was often worn but he took it off as the pictures were taken in July, 1963. It’s 55 years ago.

The suit of clothes for this métier descended from similar dress of waiters in the 19th-century that resembled today’s tuxedo. While in international use by the early 1900s, the British surely brought it here.

In the sample image you can also see, second bottle from the left on the hoarding above the bar, Molson Porter being advertised. Ale and porter were almost exclusively the beers sold in Quebec at this time, an inheritance of British rule and cultural influence again from the 1800s.

Porter had disappeared in its home city of London by 1963 but it was still commonly available in Montreal.

I want to emphasize that not all of urban French Canada lived in conditions like these. There was of course a middle class and an elite too, from which, say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau partly issues.

And there were English-speaking deprived areas as well. Examples include Little Burgundy, Goose Village, and parts of Verdun. I should not exclude the Jewish tenements east of St. Lawrence Boulevard which were very substantial until the 1950s.

But both statistically and in the general understanding I believe it is true to say that on average French speakers were less well-off than the English minority in Quebec. That has been reversed since The Quiet Revolution, La Révolution Tranquille, which started about the time these photos were taken. The term needs no explanation, je crois.

N.B. There was no English and French beer by the way, everybody drank the same stuff.

Note re images: The image above is from the City of Montreal’s photo archive identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.