Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bathhouses, Cleanliness and Montreal Politics


A colourized mural from Pompeii. As soon as I buy more ink for my printer, I'm going to turn this into a motif in my bathroom, the one that is in so much need of renovation, it looks as if it is from the Roman era.

I have three bathrooms, 3 full ones  and we are two people living here. In and around 1900 in Montreal many homes had no bathrooms, just outdoor privies.

Hence the public baths that I write about in Milk and Water, my story about 1927 Montreal, that is about City Hall Corruption and My Grandfather, Jules Crepeau, the Director of City Services.

Montreal had 16 public baths by 1927. I actually have Jules state that fact in the story.  The newest one to open is an Art Nouveau marvel on Amherst, Les Bains Généreux, a building that is now the Musée de Fiers Mondes, a museum that honors the working class of Montreal.

Mayor Mederic Martin presided over the opening of the new Amherst bathhouse in 1927,  named after the district's alderman.

Martin presided over a lot of openings and parades and costume balls that year: The Mayor's role was mostly ceremonial back then. The Executive Committee had all the power in Civic Politics in Montreal in 1927 and the most powerful man of all was J.A.A.A. Brodeur, Montreal's Napoleon, the President of the Committee. My grandfather, Jules Crépeau was his personal minion, I suspect.

In my play I also have Jules Crepeau take a swipe at the Presbyterian Ladies, who sit on all the City Clean Up Committees. "You know how those ferocious Presbyterian ladies never let you go home."

When I wrote that bit, I had no idea how much -in real life - my grandfather must have hated these activist women.

It is only lately that I learned that the Montreal Council of Women, an umbrella group of advocacy organizations,  openly and pro-actively worked against his faction in the 1910 municipal elections.


They amassed over 100 volunteers who worked hard for the Reform Candidates. According to the Montreal Council's Annual Report, "the canvassers of the Montreal Council visited practically all the women voters in the English wards and many voters in the French wards..."

"Immediately before the election," it is written,"a copy of a ballot paper correctly marked and accompanied by the address of the polling booth was sent to each elector, about 80,000 in all."

Etc.Etc.

And their efforts proved fruitful.

"Almost all the reform candidates were elected and the hope of a purer, stronger civic life seemed near fulfillment," they wrote.

(A Dr. Guerin was made Mayor. He appears to be an Anglo/Francophone mix. He has English first names. He only lasted two years.)

Ah, the P word as in Pure. In Milk and Water I have my grandfather wax philosophical about that loaded and ubiquitous word. "If something is pure, something has to be impure," he says.

He is referring to himself. In Montreal City Politics in 1910, the French Canadian element was considered corrupt, rotten.

And maybe it was, by Presbyterian standards.

In 1913, my grandfather, Assistant City Clerk at the time, was caught in a bribery sting, perpetrated by a crusading journalist, one Edward Beck. Beck wrote up about it in his new tabloid Beck's weekly.

"The City Hall is a sweet-scented sink hole of pollution if men like Crepeau speak the truth. Their greedy official hands take toll of contracts, levy tribute on ordinances, and prey upon the poor city labourers. Graft, graft, graft is written over the doorways, the lintels and on the doorposts." 

My grandfather sued for slander and won (just 100 dollars) and Beck, once the Managing Editor of the Montreal Herald, closed up shop.

Then, in late 1913 the Montreal Council brought in a speaker from Pittsburg to talk about how to Clean up City Politics.



Now, it could be said my grandfather didn't have a faction, being a mere civil servant, who started in 1883 as the message boy in the Health Department and who was awarded the new and powerful post of Director of City Services in 1921.

 But of course he did. He was related to the Montreal Tramway People, the Forgets, Montreal's most powerful French Canadian industrialists who were aligned with the great McConnell.

In 1914, with the non-reform faction back in power in the City, the Montreal Council of Women denounced in a letter to the new Mayor, Mederic Martin, the lengthy new contract awarded to Montreal tramway, a virtual monopoly. Martin first criticized the Council in the press and then made peace with them with a letter promising to keep the people informed of transportation issues.


Me at the Getty Villa in Malibu last year this time. Why can't I be there now!!!

Another odd bit I got from the Montreal Council of Women 1921 Anniversary Edition. Carrie Derick is writing a history of the Council's achievements and claims that it is Julia Parker Drummond, President of the Montreal Council of Women, who lobbied, in 1896, for the first public bath in Montreal.

Not true, according to what I have read in later papers. The first two public baths were created in 1890 in Hochelaga an Pointe St. Charles, summer baths where the water quality is controlled. (Paul Labonne: Soins du corps: santé publique et moralité, les bain publiques de Montreal.)


Here's a bit from a previous post on the subject of public baths:

Then I found this quote, from a New Yorker who advocated public baths in 1900.

.."bodily cleanliness is the first essential. By comparison, religion, education and morals could be dispensed with and even crime tolerated for the present. If this reform could be retained, with it crime would soon disappear and the reign of religion morals would be supreme."

Another similar quote: The foundation of general cleanliness is bodily cleanliness. Until a human being appreciates the latter he will not insist on the latter. Thus it is filthy streets and houses are tolerated. It is idle to expect that people will observe habits of personal cleanliness until the facilities are provided.."

And then there's Dr. Boucher, of City Hall speaking at a meeting of the City Improvement League: Measures of personal cleanliness should not be neglected. They are a daily necessity, especially the washing of hands."

Hmm. French Canadians officials didn't equate the cleanliness with the  godliness thing. (Despite the fact my grandmother used to chase her kids around and sprinkle holy water on them, when they did bad - which I will put in my story.)