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That time Toronto got its first taste of the LCBO

Posted by Chris Bateman / May 31, 2014

toronto david blythe hannaDavid Blythe Hanna was confident the big day would go off without a hitch. As the first chairman of the newly-established Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the former railway manager was charged with making sure the province's loosened licensing laws would be followed to the letter. June 1, 1927 was to be the first day of public alcohol sales since the start of prohibition 11 years earlier. Before that, alcohol was dispensed by prescription only.

In 1916, Ontario partially nixed the sale of alcohol, partly as a wartime austerity measure. The Temperance movement became all-out prohibition when the restrictions were beefed up in the 1920s. Inevitably, bootleggers from the United States ran liquor across Lake Ontario and the Detroit River, sometimes in the false bottoms of small boats, to underground bars and blind tigers.

Notorious gangster Rocco Perri was one Ontario's bootlegging kingpins. Based out of Hamilton, the Italian immigrant rose to prominence off the back of a series of brazen smuggling missions in the mid-1920s. The self-described "King of the Bootleggers" saw himself as a sort of Robin Hood character, delivering alcohol to a thirsty province subdued by unfair rules.

"It is an unjust law. I have a right to violate it if I can get away with it," he told the Toronto Star in sensational 1924 interview. "Men do it in what you call legitimate business until they get caught. I shall do it in my business until I get caught. Am I a criminal because I violate a law that the people do not want?"

On the other side, The Globe was a supporter of the Ontario Temperance Act, the legislation keeping the province dry. "With all its faults, the [act] was a step in the right direction of eliminating the evils that have been associated with the liquor traffic and developing a generation of sober, temperate people," read an editorial on the eve of birth of the LCBO. "Government control makes for the breakdown of sobriety, aids drunkenness, and provides easy facilities for the obtaining an abundance of liquor."

But the majority of people in Ontario appeared happy for prohibition to end up on the scrap heap. In 1927, the LCBO, the government body charged with ensuring no-one had much fun as a result of the new rules, set up its first 12 stores, six of them in Toronto, and established the process by which liquor would henceforth dispensed.

toronto temperanceOn the morning of the first day of sales, hundreds of people queued outside the Toronto stores, hours ahead of the official opening time at 10:00 a.m. Some women brought empty strollers to use as shopping carts and, despite long waits, "there was very little jostling," according to the Globe. Some people showed up in taxicabs, others in limousines.

Procuring a tipple quickly proved a bureaucratic nightmare. Anyone wanting, say, a case of O'Keefe's Special Half and Half -- an "extra mild blend of O'Keefe's Special Ale and Special Stout for smoothness and flavor unequaled" -- would first have to apply for a license at the liquor store or at a dedicated outpost on King St. In Toronto, the store locations were: 1271 Dundas St. W., 154 Wellington St. West, Church and Lombard, 170 Danforth Ave., 1271 Queen Street West in Parkdale, and Queen and Woodbine in the Beach.

The crowd around the licensing window was tight, The Star wrote. "One had to be a contortionist to get one arm free to write out a slip." Once furnished with a license to buy alcohol, customers were allowed to proceed to the store proper, where there was a team of censors who checked and vetted paperwork. A pink slip had to be completed for delivery orders or a white slip for "cash and carry."

For reasons that weren't made clear, differing brands were not permitted on the same form. "This is absolutely the worst system I have ever seen," said one customer. "Me for the bootleggers," said another, departing. "where you can get fast service."

"Getting through Uncle Sam's immigration turnstiles was child's play compared with running this gauntlet," The Star wrote. "The crowd of purchasers moved as slowly as a great mogul engine being derricked out of a ditch."

D. B. Hanna's LCBO set strict limits on the amount each person could carry out. No more than a single six pack of beer was permitted to leave the store in the hands of a member of the public and mixing types of alcohol was also banned: no whiskey and wine on the same visit. Delivery was mandatory on larger orders, at a fee of 30-cents.

No "repeating," placing two large orders on successive days. Cash only.

"The purchase of the liquor required much ingenuity and patience," The Star said. Many left empty-handed.

toronto lcbo cartoonThough permits had been available a week in advance, few people had claimed one, and lines moved slowly. The Star reported that 1,070 had been served as of 2:00 pm on the first afternoon across all of Toronto. The biggest purchase of the day was for "an assortment of wines and spirits" at the Dundas store. The bill was $68.50--close to $1,000 in today's money.

Customers unfamiliar with the complex ordering procedure scattered spoiled pink and white slips on the floor and tempers occasionally flared, especially when it came close to closing time. There were 200 people still waiting in line when the central store at Church and Lombard closed at 9:30, and police were called to escort the crowd away.

Hanna blamed the lack of organization on the public: the drinkers of Toronto should have applied for their permits in advance. "It was the people that came [to the stores] for their permits who caused the congestion," he said. Critics also bemoaned the narrow selection in the small stores.

The Toronto Star put it poetically: "Mr. Hanna can now appreciate the truth of the saying that the best laid plans gang aft agley. If he aimed at dignity he got a scramble and confusion and made many as they abandoned the hunt exclaim that after all prohibition was better than no liquor at all."

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: "D. B. Hanna, Ontario Liquor Commission," Feb 8. 1927, Globe and Mail fonds, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9936; "The great deceiver: water & alcohol alike in appearance, different is effect," 192-, Dominion Scientific Temperance Committee, Toronto Public Library, Item 9. M; "Out To-Day--A Great Day for Ducks," June 1 1927, Toronto Star.



RB / May 31, 2014 at 07:09 am
I remember shopping at the LCBO in the late 60s. You were required to fill out a form which you signed and presented to a looking clerk who disappeared into the warehouse hidden from public view to retrieve your purchase. It was then handed to you in a plain brown paper bag. It was about the same as trying to purchase skin mags at the news stand.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from RB / May 31, 2014 at 08:11 am
Continues to day in most Beer Stores, but without the forms.
Kevin / May 31, 2014 at 09:39 am
Back in the old days LCBO provided home delivery to some Toronto areas, nowadays this service has been passed over to Always Dial A Bottle in Toronto - 416-890-7451.
Then again.... / May 31, 2014 at 11:21 am
@W. K. Lis
I'm no fan of liquor and beer monopolies but it should be obvious to anyone that the reason you wait in a line and they pull beer out of the big back refrigerated storeroom is that the average Beer Store stocks hundreds of types of beer. HUNDREDS. Having self-service refrigerators would require a store the size of a massive supermarket. Choosing from 300-400 beers is not quite the same as choosing between 15-20.
then again not replying to a comment from Then again.... / May 31, 2014 at 01:19 pm
huh??? or you can have glass faced fridges like the milk section in the supermarket. Hardly novel and would not take up that much space.
BIG MIKE replying to a comment from RB / May 31, 2014 at 01:22 pm
I recall the LCBO at Leslie and Finch was like that when I was young. At the time I just liked playing with the pens on the chains
Then again.. / May 31, 2014 at 01:26 pm
There ARE glass faced fridges in the beerstore. You open it, reach in, pull out your beer and go to the till. It is a selection of the top selling brands, and is equivalent to what you get at an average dep in Montreal. For the other hundreds of beers that are stacked up in the refrigerated back on racks obviously someone has to go get them for you. Simple concept if you put your mind to it.
Kate / May 31, 2014 at 01:56 pm
yup, Leslie and Finch was still operating under the old system as late as 1990.

The Beer Store just opened at the Stockyards is almost entirely self serve (quite large).
Ling Gu / June 1, 2014 at 12:25 am
This province is better since the Anglicans stopped running Ontario.
Ling Guine / June 1, 2014 at 01:13 am
I had no idea that Conservatives are Anglicans!
Random Reader / June 2, 2014 at 10:56 am
A good article for those underappreciating the work done by the LCBO:

PS: The Beer Store still sucks.
Jimmy / June 2, 2014 at 11:24 am
Nice to see the Beer Store apoligists posting - I sure hope you work there - or else it is just sad.

I went to an overhauled beer store on Bathurst - and it was clearly a step backward. On the wall was a painted list of beers - with a note that they might not be available at this location. And then they offered two computer terminals with the worst user interface I have seen in many years - you can't actually put in an order with the terminal.

This a clear attempt to keep the big guys big - and the little guys small or gone.
Then again.... / June 2, 2014 at 07:19 pm
Jimmy, clearly you did not read what I said. I am not a fan of The Beer Store, or the LCBO and would like to see both organizations entirely scrapped. Having said that, there is a reason why a small store cannot store hundreds of varieties of beer in self serve fridges. Common sense that the beer would be stacked on shelves in the back. Rather than search through 400 brands of beer, an employee does it for me. If you think that stating basic fact is being an "apologist" then so be it.
bob loblaw / June 3, 2014 at 04:26 pm
The Beer Store hates the self serve stores b/c when people see other, interesting and new beers they buy them rather than the swill (Bud, Cdn, Coors Light) from the industrial brewers.
Justin replying to a comment from RB / June 4, 2014 at 07:24 pm
I was a boy and remember my parents purchasing booze and receiving an adhesive star from a bottle on my shoulder from the clerk behind the counter! Whiskey perhaps? Cannot remember the brand
Japhet / March 19, 2016 at 05:52 am
Have yet to see a Beer Store with 400 brands.
Murphy / March 20, 2016 at 06:42 am
I turned 18 in 1972 and went to one of the few LCBO stores in my area. I bought 5 star because that was what my grandfather drank. I remember it was a very sobering experience. The guy who got my purchase never smiled, heck, no one smiled. We have a new big drive thru beer store that is also self served. No wall of beers and a huge selection of Craft beer. The people who work there are nice and helpful. As a long time homebrewer, I wonder if people made their own beer back in the Prohibition days? I would of if possible.
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