Mary Anne Poutanen

Mary Anne Poutanen is a social historian whose research focuses on the subsistence strategies that popular-class women in 19th-century Montreal initiated to make ends meet. She examines these strategies through the lens of criminal justice. Mary Anne is the author of the book Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal, for which she received the Prix Lionel-Groulx by L’Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française in 2016. Her co-authored monograph with Roderick MacLeod, A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801-1998, was the recipient of the Canadian History of Education Association’s 2006 Founder’s Prize and of the Canadian Association of Foundations of Education (CAFE) 2006 Book Award. A Meeting of the People was also short-listed for the 2004 Sir John A Macdonald Prize. She teaches interdisciplinary studies at McGill University in the Programme d’études sur le Québec and at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and part-time in the Department of History at Concordia University where she is an affiliate professor. Mary Anne is also a member of the Centre de recherches interdisciplinaires en études montréalaises and of the Montreal History Group at McGill. Her current research focuses on the history of women’s multiple roles in Montreal taverns, inns, and groceries, a project titled, “At the Bar: Gender, Work, and Regulation in Montreal’s Hospitality Services, 1840-1870.”


“At the Bar: Gender, Work, and Regulation in Montreal’s Hospitality Services, 1840-1870”

This project focuses on the various forms of hospitality that required a tavern licence. It builds on my previous studies of the sex trade, of vagrancy, and of larceny in early nineteenth-century Montreal. That research uncovered women publicans who operated city taverns, inns, and groceries involved in the sale of alcohol and an even larger number who provided most of the domestic work as servants and family members of male keepers and grocers (Upton, 2013; Roberts, 2009; Wright, 2003; Kirkby, 1997). Many widows continued operating these family businesses following the death of their spouse. To even modest establishments the women brought capital consisting of movables, credit, cash, knowledge, and experience. This study seeks to understand the following: from whom they borrowed and to whom they lent money; whether they cross the boundaries of religious, linguistic or national affiliations; did the children who grew up in these families benefit from wider networks; and what occupations they pursued. Despite its importance as a subsistence strategy for women of various social classes and ethnicities (as recognized by Bradbury 1993 and 2011; Olson 1998 and 2000; Harvey 2012), the hospitality sector in Montreal has hardly been studied.

Public houses were sites where representatives from immigrant populations socialized, gossiped, celebrated, debated, negotiated and mobilized support. They served an institutional function in a dynamic reinforcement of ethno-cultural identity (Horner 2018; Olson & Thornton 2011; O’Mahony 2007; Wilson 2003). Information was a key resource that accompanied the hospitality trades in moments of agitation and diplomatic crisis (for example, Sheehy 2017) and in the bread-and-butter calamities of everyday life as well. Keepers and grocers assured face-to-face exchanges critical to relations of trust in which trade, social behaviour, and politics were grounded (Olson & Poutanen 2018; Szreter 1996). These women were undoubtedly community builders.

In the years 1840 to 1870, the urban population grew significantly, as did property values and the numbers of strangers navigating public spaces. Massive streams of migrants from Ireland (1847 and 1849), from Britain and from the villages that surrounded Montreal re-balanced the ethno-cultural elements. Public opinion was divided over regulation of the lucrative trade in alcohol, and in the early 1840s a temperance discourse, both Catholic and Protestant, targeted the popular class and the taverns they frequented (Poutanen 2017; Noel 1995; Arès 1990).

Historical sources – specifically municipal taxrolls (1848-1870), tavern licenses (1841-1851), business directories, and census returns - have allowed me to compile a comprehensive database identifying 272 women who ran licensed public houses and groceries. Notarial documents and genealogical records provide evidence of their life trajectories and networks of kinship and credit; these sources have also uncovered unrecognized management by women. Sources for the women’s business practices include notarized acts (marriage contracts, inventories, leases, property sales, promissory notes, protests, and bankruptcies) and newspaper advertisements. An analysis of (re)marriages and residential moves have already disclosed kinship and collaboration among the women licensees and net upward social mobility among their children (Bertaux and Thompson 1997; Gauvreau & Olson 2008; Poutanen 2017). Criminal court records will identify those women implicated in informal or makeshift economies and who sold drinks without a licence, or whose establishments attracted attention of the police owing to accusations of theft, riot, assault and battery, prostitution or possession of stolen goods.

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