Spreading the Light: Work and Labour Reform in Late-Nineteenth-Century Toronto


254 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7908-3
DDC 331.8'09713'54109034




Reviewed by Terry A. Crowley

Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the former editor of the journal Ontario History. He is the author
of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality and Canadian History to
1967, and the co-author of The College on


History is such a vast treasure trove that what people seek to mine is
often determined by their personal experiences. University of Windsor
historian Christina Burr begins her study of labour reform and work in
late–19th-century Toronto by speaking about her interest in a Canadian
working-class history in which women seldom appeared, and about her
engagement with a feminism that seemed too white and middle-class. As a
woman historian whose parents had been workers, she set out to write
women into labour history.

At first glance, the result might seem a curious amalgam. Its first
three chapters deal with the rhetoric of labour reform, the journalism
of Phillips Thompson, and the cartoons of J.W. Bengough. The author
moves on to detailed examinations of women in the printing and garment
trades, and as pieceworkers in domestic settings. These disparate
elements of the past are held together by Burr’s constant emphasis on
how gender, social class, and race were embedded in conceptions of waged
labour and in women’s actual experiences in working for money. In
assuming this approach, Burr’s work becomes the first to significantly
challenge the dominant working-man paradigm that governed male
interpretations of 19th-century Canada.

Race, class, and gender have become the holy trinity in the current
historical pantheon, but they are treated unevenly in this book. Fear of
Chinese labourers working for less pay was more likely to be expressed
by journalists or by male labour leaders than by those women workers who
already found themselves doubly disadvantaged. Would one not have
expected to have found that in a city such as Toronto, with its heavily
British, white population, that working men were more secure with what
they knew rather than those whom they only viewed from afar? As well,
cartoonist J.W. Bengough was really more interested in the vagaries of
national and provincial politics than in the social and economic
questions they influenced.

In the end, Spreading the Light is most revealing for what it says
about how gender conceptions underpinned male-working-class solidarity.
The book remains equivocal, however, about the degree to which women
workers themselves shared such views. Burr’s study also shows how
women workers actively participated in making history by organizing and
going on strike when necessary. Her concluding comparison between
conditions for women garment workers a century ago and those today gives
one pause.


Burr, Christina A., “Spreading the Light: Work and Labour Reform in Late-Nineteenth-Century Toronto,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 12, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30131.