The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“Is the Flapper a Menace?”: Miss Toronto, Delight, and the Making of the Modern Toronto Girl

Kathryn Franklin
University of Toronto

Drawing upon the fanfare surrounding the first Miss Toronto pageant in 1926, this essay demonstrates how the city used the popularity of the pageant format to prescribe ideas tied to modern Canadian femininity. The winner of the 1926 Miss Toronto pageant, Jean Ford Tolmie, became a focal point for competing ideas about modern and traditional Toronto womanhood. Published in the same year, Mazo de la Roche’s novel, Delight, which arguably contains an early example of the Modern Girl in Canadian literature, may be read as a reflection of these growing tensions through her examination of urban modernity coming up against rural traditionalism in a small Ontario town. Through the character Delight, de la Roche raises questions associated with the inherent public threat of the self-possessed Canadian Modern Girl and her place in the city. Ultimately, this comparative analysis of the Modern Girl in the 1926 Miss Toronto pageant and her fictional counterpart in Delight calls attention to her importance in shaping Toronto’s urban imaginary in the 1920s while simultaneously calling attention to the city’s ambivalence toward its modernity.

Keywords Modern Girl / flapper / Toronto / beauty pageants / Mazo de la Roche


“‘Miss Toronto’ does not wear bobbed hair. Wars have been started from smaller causes.”
                                                         --“Notes and Comments,” The Globe, August 17, 1926.

On June 15, 1922, Maclean’s, Canada’s leading nation-wide magazine of general interest in the 1920s, published an article by Gertrude S. Pringle with the eye-catching headline, “Is the Flapper a Menace?” In her profile on the rise of the flapper in Canada’s urban centers, Pringle recognizes the sudden, unfair demands put upon these young women:

Endless is the controversy as to the flapper and her ways. While one writer will vehemently denounce the modern girl with her bobbed head and short skirts, another will rise up and valiantly defend her. How can one arrive at the truth of the matter in the face of all these contradictory reports? There is only one who knows all about it—the flapper herself. Why not get information at first hand, then, instead of depending on hearsay and conflicting evidence? Having arrived at this conclusion I phoned my favorite flapper friend and said: “Come and have lunch with me, Diana, and bring two other flappers with you.”
            “De-lighted,” trailed Diana’s voice from the other end of the line, and I knew her eighteen-year-old dimples were in action. (19)

Through multiple interviews with young women who identify as flappers, Pringle concludes that “It is no crime to be a flapper, and we have every belief that—in the majority of cases—our Canadian young women are wholesome and sound” (19).

Pringle’s article was written two weeks after Maclean’s published “What Shall We Do with ‘Our’ Flapper?” (June 1, 1922) by A.N. Plumptre, the president of the Ontario Division of the Red Cross Society and a reverend’s wife. While Plumptre sees no harm in the flapper and even finds her style of dress “charming,” she is distressed that young Canadians are marrying later in life. She argues that these young people need “to understand that the country demands from them simplicity and hard work” to “show themselves worthy of their Canadian name and tradition” (Plumptre 64). For Plumptre, the emergence of the Modern Girl comes at the expense of traditional Canadian values.

By the middle of 1919, Maclean’s had begun to replace covers featuring soldiers and generals from Canada’s war effort with vibrant images of fashionable young women in bright make-up and short hair. While this seductive image of the Modern Girl was deployed as a sign of glamorous modernity, she was also regarded as a symbolic threat to the traditional family structure. In particular, her independence and wayward lifestyle implied a rejection of motherhood and a disavowal of the obligation to produce future generations of Canadians (Nicholas, Catching 191). Chronicles of her supposed unruly behavior, such as drinking, smoking, and flirtation, were often salacious fodder for Canadian newspaper and magazine articles.1

The suddenly increased visibility of young women in the city reflected the changing nature of Canadian cities and of Canadian values in the 1920s. By 1921, both Toronto and Montreal boasted over half a million people and of the many Canadians moving into urban centres were young women lured by the promise of independence, career opportunities, and the amusements unavailable at home, such as shopping and chaperone-free dating.  No longer were young women staying at home until marriage; they were making their way to cities far from the domestic spheres of their mothers’ generations, an unsettling prospect for many older Canadians (Nicholas, Modern Girl 29–30).

In recent years, many scholars have turned their attention to the role the Modern Girl played in modern commodity culture, as well as to her rise as a global, and often commercialized, challenge to prevailing notions of femininity. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group demonstrates that the Modern Girl as a heuristic category offers new insights into how nation-building efforts, often steeped in racial and class inequality, shaped women’s bodies and consumption habits (Weinbaum et al. 1-24). Nevertheless, as Christina Ann Burr astutely points out, despite attention paid to the Modern Girl as a global sensation, there is still little scholarship that explores the Modern Girl in a Canadian context. Burr cites Carolyn Strange’s Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 (1995) as an important text, but she laments there is too much focus on the “peril” and too little on the “pleasures” for the modern woman in the city (Burr 117).

In The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s (2015), Jane Nicholas argues that the ubiquitous image of the Modern Girl was integral to Canadian modernity, consumer culture, and visual culture, yet this figure is dismissed as insignificant in nationalist discourses. Many of the essays in Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism Before the Baby Boom (2017) attempt to tie modern Canadian feminine identity to the rise in consumption practices among women across the nation, yet again there is little focus on the Modern Girl’s position as part of the urban fabric of modernity. Literary historian Victoria Kuttainen has endeavoured to trace the figure of the Canadian Modern Girl through various magazines across the country, only to conclude that “her place and image in relation to the project of national literature remains blurry at best.” The challenge, therefore, in writing about the Modern Girl in Canada is that she has been unfairly and routinely regarded as a mere “blip” in history (Burr 117). Moreover, all too often modernist studies have tended to ignore settler colonies like Canada in broader discussions of modernity and nationalist discourse (Kuttainen). Without appropriate examination into these larger debates, we risk maintaining a partial grasp of Canada’s cultural history and thus upholding a field of study that frequently overlooks the role young women played in shaping Canadian modernity.

In this vein, my work examines how Toronto, Canada’s largest city, navigated its burgeoning modernity through the figure of the Modern Girl. I suggest that the 1926 Miss Toronto pageant served as a platform to determine an acceptable version of the modern Toronto woman and laid bare the inherent anxieties and excitement surrounding modernity and, concomitantly, the rise of the Modern Girl in the city. At the same time, the popular Canadian writer, Mazo de la Roche, captures the concerns of urban modernity encroaching upon rural tradition in her novel, Delight, published in the same year as the first Miss Toronto pageant. A comparative examination of the Modern Girl in the 1926 Miss Toronto pageant and her fictional counterpart in Delight calls attention to her function in Toronto’s urban imaginary as a corollary to the city’s ambivalence toward its modernity. As this paper demonstrates, the Modern Girl in Toronto was a conundrum; she was simultaneously a figure of celebration and consternation.

Locating Toronto’s Modern Girl: Who Will Be Miss Toronto?

On July 31, 1926, an advertisement appeared in the Toronto Daily Star with bold lettering asking “Who will be Miss Toronto?” This advertisement heralded the first modern Miss Toronto contest.2 The pageant, authorized by the Atlantic City Pageant Committee, was an opportunity to attract more people to the Sunnyside pavilion, a landmark by the city’s lakefront dubbed “the poor man’s Riviera” (Filey 96). The pageant was open to young unmarried women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who were interested in “the honor of representing this city in the great National Beauty Pageant at Atlantic City” (“Who Will Be Miss Toronto?” 18). In addition to representing Canada’s largest city in the American pageant, the women were promised “the admiration of millions, continental fame and tremendous opportunities of material success” (“Who Will Be Miss Toronto?” 18), which included about one thousand dollars’ worth of clothing and access to a chauffeured motor car for both Miss Toronto and her chaperone.

The contest opened on August 9 and by the end of August 13 over four hundred young women across the city had signed up for the chance to be crowned Miss Toronto. Over the course of that week, Toronto newspapers such as The Toronto Daily Star (The Star) and national newspapers such as The Globe monitored the results of daily preliminary contests and posted the addresses of the chosen girls so that potential suitors would know how to find these young unmarried women. In addition to listing the name, age, and address of the contestants, The Star, in particular, doggedly noted the fashions and hairstyle of every woman who had entered the contest. In one article, the attention-grabbing sub-headings declared that the contestants were “all of brown or dark type and approaching [a] stream line figure” and there were “few blondes in number and bobbed heads [were] in large majority” (“Ten Beauties” 21). The visual synecdoche of potential “blondes” and “bobbed head[ed]” contestants not only emphasized the spectacle of the pageant but the intense focus on hairstyle and body shape also underscored how the figure of the Modern Girl preoccupied the urban imaginary of 1920s Toronto.

Despite the titillating thrill of young women parading on a stage in their bathing suits, conservatism prevailed in the pageant regulations. For example, to enter the Toronto contest, the young women could not have “stood before the altar and said ‘I will’” (“Over 100 Girls”). In maintaining their single status, these young women were effectively assuring the public, first, that they were “unblemished” and, second, that they were not taking time away from their duties as wives and mothers (Nicholas, Catching 171). “Gender,” as Nicholas explains with regard to the delicate balance many Canadians felt as they negotiated the matrix of modernity, “played an important role in delineating these differences as past, present, and future were represented by gendered forms. […] [A]nd many of these ideas were linked through an essential aspect of modernity: visuality” (“Gendering the Jubilee” 249). The excitement among Torontonians was palpable as many young women vied for the opportunity to represent, as it were, modernity on Sunnyside’s stage, and the intense media coverage of this event spoke to the wider public interest. Nevertheless, the spectacle of modernity performed on the stage also allowed the pageant judges, the public, and the media to assert their vision of the acceptable modern Toronto woman.          

The Modern Girl with her impossibly long, lean limbs, her “stream line figure,” and neatly cut bobbed hair suggested her affiliation with the linearity of modernity. As Nicholas observes, the “[s]lender, elongated skyscraper-like bodies could easily fit with the new crowded urban landscape where the sky seemed to be the limit” (Modern Girl 91). By 1915, Toronto’s skyline had significantly changed to showcase a “vertical expression of Toronto’s New World prosperity” (Winterton 95). However, while Toronto embraced the spectacle of modernity with its construction of department stores and skyscrapers, Alla Myzelev argues that “Toronto was [also] afraid to lose the feeling of a smaller Ontario town” (5). To be sure, the reputation of “Toronto the Good,” a phrase coined by William Howland, Toronto’s twenty-fifth mayor (1886-87), left a lingering impression on the city. As Carolyn Strange explains, “the extraordinary efforts to create Toronto the Good sprang from a concerted civic effort to ward off the evils of urban life” (14) — specifically gambling, drugs and prostitution. Strange further argues that the idealized image of Toronto the Good was often at the expense of the working girl in the city (19). Young women’s bodies became a site on which to focus middle-class anxieties about immigration, urbanization, and morality as more young working women arrived in the city (Nicholas, Modern Girl 29).

Yet these anxieties were set aside as the crowds flocked to the Sunnyside Pavilion, clamoring for the opportunity to see Toronto’s young women on stage in revealing bathing costumes. According to Might’s Greater Toronto City Directory of 1926, there were 650,005 people living in Toronto, and on the final day of the competition The Star reported that over 35,000 Torontonians were in attendance—nearly twenty percent of the population (“Miss Toronto’s Father” 1). Notably, the swimsuits on the pavilion’s stage were much more revealing than the suits commonly worn for pageants at the turn of the century. These new swimsuits fit tightly and revealed the contours of the chest, arms, and legs. By the 1920s, these types of swimsuits were so central to the American beauty pageants that the pageants were colloquially referred to as “Bathing Beauty Contests.”3 Indeed, the 1926 competition at Sunnyside capitalized upon its lake front pavilion to show that women competing in bathing suits was considered commonplace. However, not everyone appreciated the visual splendour of these young women in their form-fitting outfits. As an editorial from August 5, 1926 in The Catholic Register (subsequently reprinted in The Globe) revealed, some Canadian critics saw this “parade of female flesh” as vulgar and akin to Miss America’s “carnival of shamelessness” (qtd. in Nicholas, Modern Girl 132). Perhaps in response to these concerns, the contestants, as reported by The Star on August 12, 1926, had to wear a “coat, cloak or cape or other similar covering over her bathing suit” so that they “may be relieved of any embarrassment caused by parading in bathing suits” (“Name Beauty Winner” 2). The dichotomy between the traditional and the modern may be read in the photograph of the finalists for The Miss Toronto pageant of 1926 (Fig. 1). The camera fixes on the mostly serious faces of the five women standing in a row wearing wool flannel bathing suits that revealed as much of a woman’s body as was considered acceptable at the time (Cotter 84), although most of the finalists have chosen to wear stockings that cover their entire legs. Of the five finalists only one of them sports a bobbed haircut while the four other women, including the winner Jean Tolmie, have long hair either tied back or hanging loosely around their shoulders. In the background are the young women who did not make it to the finalists’ stage. Many of these women sport bobbed hairstyles and wear swimsuits with rolled down stockings. They laugh with each other seemingly unbothered by reports that their modern style may be regarded as a threat to traditional femininity.

On August 14, 1926, twenty-one-year-old Jean Ford Tolmie was crowned the first winner of the Miss Toronto beauty contest (Fig. 2). The five judges who selected the winner and runners-up were four local artists including Arthur Goss, the city’s first official photographer, and Henry Button, manager of the Canadian branch of the British publishers J. M. Dent and Sons. Of these five, only one judge was a woman, the noted American-Canadian sculptor Frances Loring, whose work often captured the complexity of working women’s lives. The judges chose Tolmie in less than a minute. Based on reporting from The Star, the crowd may have swayed the judges: Tolmie received the loudest applause when she appeared on stage and the crowd “never for an instant wavered in its loyalty to its chosen Queen of Beauty” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30). Tolmie was singled out among the finalists for her long dark hair and ethnically ambiguous features, which caused The Star reporter to opine that “[h]ers is the beauty of Chile or the Argentine rather than of the less exotic Toronto” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30).

In choosing Jean Ford Tolmie as Miss Toronto, the judges cautiously negotiated a vision of the modern Toronto woman. In her study on the public display of Canadian women in the 1920s, Nicholas observes of the 1926 Toronto contest:

Despite the fact that almost everything about the Miss Toronto contest in 1926 pointed towards an embrace of modernity with its direct links to popular commercial culture, when Tolmie was chosen as Miss Toronto, surprisingly, the judges picked a winner who did not embody the image of a flapper. She had dark, long hair, wore stockings that covered her entire legs, and was dressed all in white. She was chosen over the other finalists who looked much more like flappers with bobbed hair and rolled stockings. […] Clearly despite the prevalence of the ‘flapper look’ judges preferred a winner who had a more traditional look. (Catching 172–73)

On one hand, praising Tolmie’s exceptional appearance as “exotic,” as The Star reporter had put it, gently recasts the Canadian imaginary as urban and cosmopolitan rather than conventionally preoccupied with the wilderness and the land. Certainly, the goal of challenging tradition and national identity would be top of mind for artists such as Goss, whose photographs documented the modernization of the city through the eyes of immigrants and the working class.4 Likewise, Loring took an uncompromising attitude against Toronto’s conservative establishment and lived openly and unconventionally with her long-time partner, Florence Wyle.5 On the other hand, Tolmie’s win repudiated  modern popular youth culture represented by the flapper.  As one judge remarked to The Star, “Miss Ford is not only beautiful, she is intelligent […]. [a]nyone is intelligent who has enough sense to wear her hair like that!” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30). As aforementioned, out of the five finalists, only one contestant, Dorothy Asling, had bobbed hair. The judge’s connection between Tolmie’s hairstyle and her good sense underscored the larger attention that was being paid to these young women as they became more widely visible in the city.6 A week before the event, in fact, The Star giddily anticipated the hair styles expected to feature at Sunnyside’s Pavilion: “Only five have long hair, while six have short boyish tresses” (“Over 100 Girls” 21). The dizzying mix of excitement and mockery exhibited in the media about the young women who had cut their “crowning glory” in favor of a “boyish cut” reflected a similar combination of emotions expressed by staid Torontonians about flapper style; however, given the  media attention paid to the Miss Toronto contest, the Toronto Modern Girl was also imbued with the “adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation” (Berman 15) of the city’s burgeoning modernity.

The Delightful Modern Girl

The discourse surrounding the spectacle of Miss Toronto has a fictional counterpoint in Mazo de la Roche’s Delight, published at the beginning of 1926, just months before the fanfare of the Miss Toronto contest. De la Roche offers a nuanced perspective on the Canadian Modern Girl that offsets the ambivalent discourse surrounding her appearance in The Miss Toronto contest. The eponymous protagonist, Delight Mainprize, is a charming British beauty who is described as tall and “nobly built” (37) with a head of short curly blonde hair. She makes her way to the small fictional town of Brancepeth, Ontario to find work as a waitress in the local hotel. She immediately inflames the townswomen by attracting the attention of the townsmen:

She couldn’t help it if men liked her, wanted to stare at her and get close to her. She couldn’t help it any more than her mother could. Her mother could not have been very much ashamed of having her or she would not have called her Delight. It sounded as though she’d been glad to have her. (23)

Delight, fashionable and attractive with a bobbed flapper haircut, is also independent. She has no interest in marriage and tells her beau, Jimmy, that she wants “to be free for a while. I love you but […] I want to be just my own” (91). Her stance against marriage contrasts with Tolmie’s plans. The Star described her as not having “hysterical ambitions”: “She intends, she says, to be married, ‘some time before the end of the year’” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30). Nevertheless, Delight’s desire for freedom from social convention subjects her to innuendo about her morals. As one of the characters admonishes her: “Ay, that’s the trouble […] you’re just yourself. And so was Jezebel, and so was Jael. And so was Delilah and Deborah,” to which Delight coolly responds, “My goodness, you do know your Bible, don’t you?” (53).

Delight’s breezy and carefree attitude often unsettles her more conservative colleagues. Even her close friend, May, tries to warn her that Brancepeth “ain’t no place for you” (25) as Delight casually lingers half-dressed in front of their shared bedroom window. According to The Modern Girl Around the World researchers the mere presence of the Modern Girl “allowed women to disrupt class boundaries and to challenge established gender relations,” moreover she “threatened male authority, the elite’s privileged claim to ‘being modern,’ and she polluted the elite marriage market” (Weinbaum et al. 12). Indeed, the moment Delight steps off the horse-drawn bus into the town she causes disruption:

She was now in the clear light. Kirke all but let the basket drop in the fulness of his astonishment. He was used to pretty girls. There had been many a pretty face and form among the maids in The Duke of York. The girls in the glove factory and the jam factory were often much more than passable. His bright, questing eyes had not roved unappeased. But now he realized that he had never before seen real beauty. (30)

In this scene the dairyman, Kirke, a typically stoic man, nearly breaks Delight’s treasured tea set because he is so distracted by her beauty. Delight, therefore, is both a paragon of youthful beauty and a seductive menace in the town of Brancepeth. As a Modern Girl protagonist, Delight represents the nexus between rural traditionalism and urban modernity—an unsettling prospect for many of the town’s inhabitants.

Through the character of Delight, de la Roche paints a canny portrait of the Modern Girl. Her first name indicates joie de vivre and speaks to the Modern Girl’s seductive allure. The first name Delight also evokes the response of “De-lighted” that Gertrude S. Pringle receives after she invites Diana, the flapper, to come have lunch with her in “Is the Flapper a Menace?” (see above). The similarity may be more than a coincidence. Pringle, the niece of Ernest Thompson Seton, the well-known Canadian writer and a founder of the Boy Scouts of America, was particularly invested in narratives that centred on the role of working women in society. Pringle’s interest in this relationship was captured in her influential 1932 text, Etiquette in Canada: The Blue Book of Canadian Social Usage (Wright). In late 1926, after the publication of Delight, Pringle rented the upstairs flat in her Toronto house at 86 Yorkville Avenue and became the landlady of Mazo de la Roche and her cousin, Caroline Clement. During the late 1920s, Pringle also served as a secretary for de la Roche and helped to maintain her privacy. As writers who were interested in the way social patterns and shifting values affect society, particularly working women in society, de la Roche, like Pringle before her, places the focus on the Modern Girl as a delightful presence and thus portrays her as an unthreatening figure while simultaneously emphasizing her emerging cultural relevance.

De la Roche herself was no stranger to challenging convention. Born Mazo Roche in 1879, although unconfirmed rumors have suggested that she was born with the name Masie or May (Kirk 15), she was at one time Canada’s most prolific and popular author. Her widely read sixteen-book Jalna series — which began with Jalna in 1927 — had sold over eleven million copies internationally at the time of her death in 1961. She added the “de la” to her last name when she became a writer and claimed she descended from an aristocratic French family despite being born in Newmarket, Ontario, a small municipality in the Greater Toronto Area. Standing almost six feet tall with her short hair and blunt bangs, de la Roche was an intimidating figure. According to H. Lovat Dickson of Macmillan’s publishing house, she had a “rather medieval face and she spoke from a distance as from a great height and she frightened the hell out of me” (qtd. in Jones G9). De la Roche never married and instead chose to share her house and adopt two children with her cousin and long-time companion, Caroline Clement.

Delight, de la Roche’s third novel, received a varied critical response, with positive reviews in Britain and America and mixed reaction in Canada (Pacey 18). Damning with faint praise, the reviewer for The Globe wrote of Delight: “[I]t bespeaks the fine craftsmanship of this Toronto writer, that so slender a plot with minor characters of the town playing their roles in the trivial daily life of hotel and farm, should hold the interest of the reader” (“Books of All Sorts” 6). In the introduction to the 1970 New Canadian Library edition, literary critic Desmond Pacey addresses the novel’s main theme: “the infringement of instinctive freedom and sensuousness upon a conventional society” (Pacey ix). Pacey sees these themes as proof of de la Roche’s true romantic nature and argues that “[i]t is her romanticism, I believe, that has made her such an embarrassment to Canadian critics” (Pacey 23), summarizing later criticism that characterizes her books as overly sentimental and formulaic.7 These are familiar criticisms to those who study middlebrow writers like de la Roche — criticisms that are often rooted in gendered assumptions about women’s literary tastes. Victoria Kuttainen and Jilly Lippmann shrewdly repurpose Virginia Woolf’s widely quoted rebuke of the middlebrow as “betwixt and between” (115) to demonstrate how the Modern Girl may be understood as a similarly interstitial figure: “Like the middlebrow, the transgressive Modern Girl appeared in these ambiguous spaces, crossing between and intermingling commercial and serious culture in ways that appeared superficially attractive, but which also provoked judgement” (Kuttainen and Lippmann). The tepid and judgmental responses from some Canadian critics to Delight may reflect what Pierre Bourdieu has argued is what lies beneath critiques of the middlebrow: a tension between aspiration to and anxieties about class mobility (323).

That Delight is a young British woman is not inconsequential. In the 1920s and 1930s Canada’s identity was intimately tied to Britain. Delight’s relocation to the fictional town of Brancepeth, therefore, was likely a result of the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 which facilitated the resettlement of British immigrants across several commonwealth countries. As a novel which focuses on the working class or, as the Montreal Gazette put it in 1926, as “Working Woman’s Adventures” (11), de la Roche’s depiction of the Modern Girl takes on a particularly Canadian aspect when inscribed with the dyads, or the “betwixt and between,” of “British-Canadian” and “Working-Woman.” As a liminal figure who often feels pulled between her desire for freedom from convention and her sense of duty towards her work and the people she cares for, especially her beau, Jimmy, in Brancepeth, Delight stands at the threshold between modern beliefs and traditional values. Faye Hammill observes that modernity, for de la Roche, in particular in her Jalna series, is “invariably associated with America, and the novels’ resistance to American values, initially subtly expressed, becomes more blatant as the series progresses” (78). In Delight, modernity is subtly associated with cities and urban sensibilities. In one scene in the novel, Delight is desperate to go to the city, presumably Toronto, but is told by the local fishmonger: “Cities is no good. They’re bad for your ‘ealth and bad for your moralities. You’re too good-looking, that’s the trouble. Now the country’s the place for ‘andsome girls all over the world, and I’ve seen ‘em all over the world” (114). At the end of the novel, Delight remains in Brancepeth; however, she also still remains resolute in her decision to not marry her sweetheart, Jimmy, leaving her trajectory ambiguous.

De la Roche portrays Delight as independent and headstrong but a bit careless and naive.8 If she is not Jezebel or Jael, she risks being seen as such by traditionalists. This portrayal is in line with representations of the Canadian Modern Girl in other short fiction such as “Pokey and Her Flapper-Masher Bob,” published in Maclean’s in 1925, by Norma Phillips Muir. In this story, Pokey decides to get a bob, much to the consternation of her husband, Peter. While Pokey is initially unimpressed by her new do, and her husband more so, she finally manages to style her bob in a fashionable way; regrettably, the hairstyle attracts the wrong sort of attention and a group of men attempt to assault her. When the men are apprehended by the police, the men claim Pokey solicited drugs from them, the implication being that women who sport this type of hairstyle have a similarly questionable lifestyle. Fortunately, Pokey, a respectable married woman, frees herself from these insinuations once her husband arrives to take her home. When the flapper figure appears in one of de la Roche’s later short stories, “Baby Girl,” published in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1932, she is similarly prone to miscalculation about the effects of appearance. In one scene, a housekeeper is shocked to discover that her impulsive mistress has put red lipstick on her two-year-old daughter. When the housekeeper shows her disapproval, the mistress tells her, “I only did it in fun. Just to see what sort of flapper she will be. She’s going to be a very pretty one. But, of course, you must take it off” (7). The mistress’s wayward temper reflects her psychological state as she finds herself on the precipice of divorce—not her choice of dress and make-up—but the ease of judgment against her reveals not only anxieties about modern women but also, circling back to Plumptre’s concern, anxieties about future generations of Canadian women. De la Roche’s title “Baby Girl” may nod toward the grown-up Modern Girl. No longer is she simply a delight who leads a happy-go-lucky existence, but rather, as de la Roche shows, she is a fully realized person navigating the complexities of modern life.

The “Mainprize” of 1926

“The Modern Girl was made of texts,” argues Nicholas but she is quick to point out, “this does not mean there were no flesh and blood people who embodied, embraced, and contested her” (Modern Girl 17). To be sure, in these narratives, both fictional and real, that centralize the young female experience, themes surrounding freedom, class and respectability abound. Conversely, many of these young women must overcome the judgements of others in order to meet their happy endings. For example, two days after Tolmie’s historic win as the first “Miss Toronto,” The Star ran a full-length interview with her father, who admitted that he was surprised to discover not only that his daughter had entered the pageant but also that she was registered under the name “Jean Ford.” Tolmie’s brother had used their mother’s maiden name, “Ford,” to enter his sister in the contest since he was confident she would win, and so was willing to brave their father’s disapproval of this type of pageantry. In retelling the story to its readers, The Star framed this narrative as a compelling family melodrama:

The father, A. N. Tolmie, knew nothing of the girl’s entry into the competition of the beauties until he saw her name and her picture in the papers. When on Saturday night he got the news that his daughter was the winner, the tidings had a curious effect on him. Tears welled up into his eyes. He had not approved of the contest or of his daughter’s entering it, but realizing that out of 454 Toronto maidens she had been acclaimed by five judges and by the great majority of 35,000 spectators as the most beautiful, it was but natural that the heart of the father should be full to overflowing. (“Miss Toronto’s Father” 1)

Tolmie’s win was no doubt read as a feel-good story about a young woman who changes her father’s mind and wins his approval. Similarly, in Delight, the protagonist must consistently defend herself against the jealousy of women in the town. Delight is nearly beaten to death by these women until the townsmen rescue her and she is reunited with her beau, Jimmy. While de la Roche’s Delight was published several months before the Miss Toronto pageant, both narratives crucially rely on a young woman coming up against the judgement and prejudices of the men and women close to them only to find redemption and comfort from supportive men.

In this regard, Delight’s last name “Mainprize,” presumably a patronymic, gains relevance in assessing the meaning of the Modern Girl. While “Mainprize” is a not so-subtle reference to the obstacles that many of the men in the novel endure for the chance to win the heart of Delight, the phrase is also symbolic of the premium placed on the youthful beauty of the Modern Girl. Nicholas further observes that “it seemed that women were bound to be beautiful and simultaneously judged (on a number of grounds including morality, sexual availability, class status, and desirability) for either meeting the standards of beauty or not. Judgment was the constant” (Modern Girl 23). Indeed, the beauty pageant format was a prescribed space for determining, or rather judging, how the modern woman would represent the city and therefore tailoring her to meet certain expectations. This chauvinist perspective spans national borders while retaining nationalist characteristics: In an interview with The Star on August 16, 1926, Frederick G. Dietrich, a member of the Atlantic City pageant committee, exclaimed, “There are more pretty girls and prettier girls in Toronto […] than in most American cities.” The reporter concluded the interview by acknowledging that “Beauty […] is one of our great unexplored natural resources” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30). Historically, Canadian visual culture has privileged the natural landscape and mythologized the idea of the “unexplored” north. The juxtaposition of these “unexplored natural resources” with pretty young women in the city therefore suggests a type of cosmopolitan attraction for potential visitors. However, when the reporter continues to muse that “we have whole Niagaras, whole Gowgandas of beauty that have never been exploited” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30), there is a return to the traditional masculine imperative to conquer and colonize nature.9 Therefore, while the winner of the pageant was “the prize winner” she was also regarded as the city’s main prize.

Tolmie’s image played a significant role in shaping a fashionable and modern impression of the city. To this end she was used as an ambassador to promote fashions for various companies across Ontario that all made sure to let their customers know that Miss Toronto proudly wore their garments. In addition to her modeling and in-store appearances, her presence was included in a well-advertised staged performance only two months after receiving her “Miss Toronto” title. In large advertisements in The Globe and The Star, Tolmie’s name was granted top billing for a stage production on October 4, 1926 at Toronto’s Uptown Theatre:

Jack Arthur Presents
“Miss Toronto”
(Jean Ford Tolmie) in
“The Mannequin”
With Other Artists, and
The Aeolian Male Quartette

“The Mannequin” was a musical interlude conceived by Jack Arthur, the musical director for the Uptown Theatre, which was meant to be a prologue for the feature film, The Midnight Sun. In further promotion for the event, Tolmie was praised as “the greatest feminine personality of Canada” and moreover, as “Queen of the Beauties” (“What Press Agents Say” 4). This widespread circulation of Tolmie’s image indicates her role in the commodity culture of Toronto’s modernity; her every movement was reported for her adoring public – for better and for worse – and many stores had to cancel scheduled appearances because of overcrowding.10 Her image in the media was upheld as “graceful” and “gracious” (“Music and the Drama” 12), a sharp contrast to the depiction of the flapper. In what might have been a cunning sleight of hand, The Star’s editorial department juxtaposed a photo spread of Tolmie wearing her beauty pageant costumes with a small article headlined “Flapper, scantily clad startles Chicago cops by swearing she’s 60” (17). The short article explained that the woman was arrested because “her costume was too abbreviated.” The woman protested, claiming to be sixty years old; however, the police determined she was in her thirties. This portrayal of a duplicitous flapper figure from Chicago distinguishes the elegant Tolmie as a woman and a Canadian. With her long dark hair pulled back in a chignon to showcase her modest white dress, Tolmie was Toronto’s preferred Modern Girl.

Comparing Mazo de la Roche’s Delight to the 1926 Miss Toronto Pageant illustrates the numerous ways in which the Toronto Modern Girl was understood as an ambivalent figure. She was simultaneously hailed as a paragon of beauty and a harbinger of moral destruction. Read this way, tradition and modernity were arguably the main competitors at the first Miss Toronto pageant in 1926. In choosing Jean Ford Tolmie, with her long hair and modest appearance, the Toronto judges made their case for the acceptable vision of the Toronto Modern Girl at the expense of the more fashionable flapper. Meanwhile, de la Roche’s Modern Girl protagonist complicates the narrative of the so-called menacing flapper. Through Delight, de la Roche gives the Modern Girl interiority and complexity. Significantly, Delight is constantly threatened with violence from townspeople who do not support her modern expression of femininity. Through Delight’s trials and tribulations, she must prove that she is not a menace to the people of Brancepeth, but rather that the townspeople, especially the townswomen who cling to their traditional values, are a menace to Delight. Ultimately, these visual and textual expressions of modernity provided a platform for Torontonians to see, debate and question the broader cultural changes of the city through the lens of the Modern Girl. 

The Miss Toronto pageant continued for many years, and by 1937 the competition was taken over by the Toronto Police Department Amateur Athletic Association and incorporated into the Association’s annual Police Games. The pageants began to fall into disfavor with the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, and by the early 90s there were no longer advertisers willing to sponsor the $25,000-a-year contest, which resulted in the cancellation of the Miss Toronto pageant in 1992 (Karstens-Smith). While the city no longer hosts these pageants, a trace of this spectacle remains. On the side of The Rhino, a bar located on Queen Street in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood, an increasingly gentrified area in the city’s west end known for its Tibetan and Caribbean foods and vintage fashion stores, is a graffiti portrait of the 1926 Miss Toronto pageant (Fig. 3) which was based on the photo that appeared in the newspaper (Fig. 1).11

The finalists, including Jean Ford Tolmie draped in her Miss Toronto sash, stand side by side on the wall awash in vibrant colors. One may argue that these painted women on the wall still remain vulnerable to public scrutiny; however, their presence symbolically underscores that in the hundred years since the pageant spectacle, the visibility of the Modern Girl in Toronto remains an integral component of the city’s urban imaginary.

1. Pringle tries to quell the controversy surrounding the uproar of “petting” and “fussing” parties. A fussing party, according to one of the flappers Pringle interviewed for her article, “is where each girl sits on a boy’s knee and lets him kiss her all he wants to” (qtd. in Pringle 19). While the girls do not object to these parties, they tell Pringle that they do not participate in them.

2. While the 1926 Miss Toronto contest was the first official city pageant, Keith Walden describes a beauty pageant that took place at the Toronto exhibition grounds in 1884. The contest was judged from portrait photographs and “contestants were promised the utmost secrecy: pictures would be identified by number, with only the names of the two winners released” (154–55).

3. Nicholas, Modern Girl 132. The concept of the bathing beauty was popularized by Mark Sennett from Keystone Studios in 1914, seven years before the swimsuit competition at the first Miss America Pageant in 1921. Sennett wanted to see his actresses in fetching swimwear that “showed off their knees” as opposed to the traditional suits which hid their figures (Petersen). The popularity of the bathing beauty on screen inspired many studios, such as the Christie Film Company (incidentally, founded by two Canadian brothers) to follow Sennett’s formula.

4. Goss appears as a fictionalized character in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987) photographing workers who are building a tunnel underneath Lake Ontario.

5. In And Beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle (2007), Elspeth Cameron provides a biography of the two artists who were known collectively as “the girls.” She details the way they challenged convention by frequently dressing in men’s clothing. They also enjoyed shocking their Toronto neighbors with their nude sculptures.

6. In the 1920s, the bob was well recognized as a global symbol of female emancipation from traditional gender norms (Leonhardt 50). The cut was popularized by the twentieth-century actress and dancer, Irene Castle, in 1914 through the mass circulation of her photograph. Marlis Schweitzer explains that much of the pearl clutching over this hairdo arose because “Bobbed hair was an acceptable style for young girls and even boys, but it was hardly appropriate for a grown woman, for whom long hair was supposed to represent maturity and physical attractiveness” (Schweitzer 216). In pageant coverage, the reporter for the Toronto Daily Star did not make the connection between the doyen of the bobbed cut and the contestants, even when noting that “Their hands trailed their hips gracefully, [in] Irene Castle fashion” (“Miss Toronto Plans to Wed” 30).

7. Joan Doig argues that Pacey may have missed the point entirely and notes that these romantic overtones were meant to be read “ironically and entertainingly” (Doig).

8. In her discussion on the Modern Girl in Canadian urban centres, Jane Nicholas points out that “Farm Flappers,” that is, young women who embraced the flapper lifestyle, were the source of much consternation in their rural environments (Catching the Public Eye 4).

9. Jaleen Grove analyzes how “pretty girl” illustrations of the early 20th-century from the United States came up against Canadian nationalist values. She argues, “Despite the polarized assignation of wilderness versus pretty-girl, in fact both countries produced and used wilderness and pretty-girl tropes in nationalistic and continentalist contexts (789).

10. The Toronto clothing store John Northway and Son, Limited placed a special announcement in The Globe on August 18, 1926 to announce that “Owing to the fact that the size of the store does not permit us to suitably accommodate the tremendous crowds wishing to meet Miss Toronto, her appearances have been postponed indefinitely” (“Special Announcement” 12).

11. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any information about the artist or date of this mural. The mural inspired a series of performances by the DitchWitch Brigade, a collective of Toronto-based artists under the direction of Antje Budde, that re-imagined the history of the Miss Toronto pageants through a feminist and queer lens. The first performance, Miss Toronto Gets a Life in Parkdale, was initially performed at the Rhino Pub in 2009, followed by the 2011 production of Miss Toronto Acts Back in a different space in the Parkdale neighborhood (Fitzsimmons Frey 67).

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