Brothel Culture, Sex Workers and Johns in 19th-century Toronto
The whole city (of Toronto) is an immense house of ill-fame, the roof of which is the blue canopy of heaven during the summer months.
C.S. Clark, Of Toronto the Good, 1898
Between 1865 and 1915, numerous houses of ill fame and thousands of sex workers and madams travelled through and operated in Toronto. While vocal moral reformers energetically campaigned against prostitution, many other Torontonians, including numerous police and city officials, privately viewed prostitution as a "necessary evil." These supporters believed that if they permitted controlled outlets for casual sex where sex workers had access to medical care that they could lower instances of sexual assault, unwed pregnancies and potentially fatal diseases like syphilis. As in many other North American cities, pro-brothel officials believed that houses of ill fame offered a kind of unofficial but necessary social service at a time when honest discussions about sexual health and reproduction were strictly policed.
For many men during this period, brothels were a secret but essential part of leisure and life in the city. Male brothel customers came from all walks of life and included business leaders, lawyers, judges, and elected officials. For example, historian C.P. Stacey argues that patrons of Toronto's red light districts included future Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. According to Stacey, King "wasted" much time in some of the city's many brothels while he was a student at the University of Toronto in the 1890s. Proceeding from the work of historians like Constance Backhouse, John McLaren, Carolyn Strange, and Marianna Valverde, this project seeks to recover these and many more compelling stories hidden in the sex trade landscapes of 19th century Toronto. Plans for an expanded digital map and app featuring dozens more of these sites are currently underway.