These days it is common to refer to Hamilton as 'The Hammer', but the term has not been in use for very long.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 07, 2015
A recent RTH comment argued against using the nickname "The Hammer" to refer to Hamilton, and it got me thinking about where the term originated and how it has evolved.
Curious to learn more, I searched through the Hamilton Spectator archives, which are accesible online via Newsbank (just enter your Hamilton Public Library card number) back to 1991.
Remembering that the great Paul Wilson had written about The Hammer at one time, I quickly found his December 6, 2006 column in which he explored the term's origins, concluding that it seemed to be a recent arrival on the scene.
I arrived in Hamilton in the early '80s and do not remember hearing this city called The Hammer back then. Mostly, it was Steeltown, the Steel City or sometimes that odd and awkward one, The Ambitious City.
I like The Hammer just fine. It's not concocted. A natural fit. I just didn't realize it was catching on so.
Wilson asked then mayor-elect Eisenberger about the term:
The Hammer is fairly recent in my view," he says. "But it's got strength and power. It has some elegance, some nuance that I like."
And he likes the fact that it seems to have happened all on its own.
"We went through that exercise on logo management with I Love Hamilton. But you can't force these things to happen. The Hammer just kind of popped up."
(Humblebrag sidenote: the column also included an interview with the starry-eyed 33-year-old editor of a two-year old website dedicated to urban revitalization.)
A year later, on June 9, 2007, then editor-in-chief David Estok also tackled The Hammer, writing that he didn't remember it growing up but noticed he was hearing it on his return to Hamilton to work at the Spec:
As a native Hamiltonian, I have heard this city called many things over the years. "Steeltown", the "Ambitious City", a lunch-bucket town and, upon my recent return, more and more often, "The Hammer."
Estok reported that Hamilton musician Sonny Del Rio claims to have coined the term in 1984:
Sonny Del Rio ... wrote in his blog claiming to have invented the term "The Hammer" while on a road trip with King Biscuit Boy, Kelly Jay and Paul Panchezak sometime in the spring of 1984. He even recalls saying, during that tour, "if you're more than 50 miles outside of The Hammer, your camping out, Jack!"
Apparently there was an independent newspaper called The Hammer, which was founded in 1990 by Hamilton music writer Brenda Whitehall.
A January 4, 1992 article by Paul Benedetti mentions the recent opening of a grassroots art gallery called The Hammer on James Street North.
Over the next few years, most of the references to The Hammer are to shows at the gallery, which held its last opening in October 1995 before morphing into a community group called The Hammer Collective.
The first instance I can find of Hamilton itself referred to as "The Hammer" is a September 29, 1992 article by Nick Krewen about musician Patrick Fitzgerald:
A little known fact about Kitchens Of Distinction's leader Patrick Fitzgerald is that he, like The Cult's Ian Astbury, lived here in Hamilton for part of his formative years.
"I lived in Hamilton for three years, about '73 to '76, when I was 10," said Fitzgerald from London recently. "It was incredible. I actually went to school and didn't have to learn anything. It was a laugh."
Fitzgerald's father was a professor of medicine at McMaster University, and although the 30-year-old doesn't admit to remembering much of his tenure in The Hammer, he does remember the efforts of getting back into the U.K.
This reinforces the idea that The Hammer came out of Hamilton's music and arts scenes. A March 4, 1993 article on upcoming events reported a musical act called "The Hammer All-Star Female Band", which featured Laura Arbuckle, Alex Bell, Rita Chiarelli, Constance, Susan George, Leslee Grant, Zena Haggerty, Jude Johnson, Raphel Keelan, Monica Knott, Cindy LeMaitre, Laura Mattsson, Donna Panchezak, Linda Somerville, Tiffany T and Naomi Taylor.
An October 7, 1993 piece by Jamie Tennant calls Hamilton "The Hammer":
An evening in one of Hamilton's rounder bars (round: "a little excessive" according to Tom Wilson) can change your life. Suddenly, Roseanne Arnold will be your definition of upper crust.
Yes, any way you slice it, life in the Hammer is one fun-filled ride through the House Of Horrors. If you're a fan of funhouses, you're a fan of Hamilton.
A March 31, 1994 article by Nick Krewen reviews the album Criminal Zero by The Forgotten Rebels. The second track is "The Hammer" (yes, it's on YouTube), which Krewen calls "the band's Hamilton tribute".
A December 1, 1994 article by Bruce Mowat notes the proliferation of Hamilton bands with "Hammer" in their names:
This year, there has been a proliferation of "Hammer" bands. Not surprisingly, many of them hail from the "Hammer" (a hep term for Hamilton).
Goo Hammer, Thrill Hammer, Armed And Hammered . . . the list goes on. One wonders if all these bands are looking for a dream bill with the Nails.
A December 15, 1994 article by Nick Krewen has the headline, "Local albums do The Hammer proud". It includes a review of the compilation album Salient Still by Great Slave Records, which I loved when it came out and which I almost certainly still have in a box somewhere, next to the follow-up compilation Ruby Karma.
A November 16, 1995 article by Bruce Mowat on Teenage head's new album Head Disorder refers to them as "The Head from the Hammer".
And here's something interesting: apparently Max Webster played a show at "The Hammer Cafe, Hamilton Convention Centre" on January 26, 1996.
David Wilcox performed an acoustic show at The Hammer Cafe on July 19, 1996. Moist (remember them?) played The Hammer Cafe on February 8, 1997. And The Commitments played there in November 1997.
A An October 21, 1999 article adds The Hammer to the pantheon of Canadian place nicknames in an article about Great Big Sea playing at the Hammer Cafe: "The boys from The Rock are returning to the Hammer."
Apparently there was also a music club called The Hammer Lounge in the Plantation Hotel on Rymal Road East.
A December 5, 1996 article by Nick Krewen quotes Tragically Hip guitarist Bobby Baker calling Hamilton The Hammer: "We were all grumbling that Hamilton wasn't on this tour. We really like the Hammer. It's a real joy playing Copps - it's state-of-the-art. It's the best in design for accommodating the crew, loading in and loading out. Plus, the acoustics are amazing."
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, most of the references to "The Hammer" as Hamilton in Spec articles are about musical acts.
The first reference to Hamilton as "The Hammer" outside a musical context is a September 4, 1993 article by Jeff Dickins about the upcoming Labour Day Classic football game between the Ticats and the Argos:
A win for Hamilton would mean:
Virtually clinching a playoff berth.
Restoring confidence to a battered black and gold.
The end of trade rumors about the impending arrival from Hogtown of quarterback Tracy Ham.
(And if Ham is destined for the Hammer, a Cat victory would lower the price.)
The term's use in sports continues with an October 15, 1999 article by John Mentek on the effort to bring an NHL hockey team to Hamilton:
That was in 1986 when Bill Ballard, son of former Leaf's owner Harold Ballard, and partner Michael Cohl came within an ace of moving the ailing NHL Pittsburgh Penguins franchise to the Hammer.
A January 19, 1996 article by Mike Davison proposes amalgamating Hamilton-Wentworth and Burlington. He writes:
In H-W, Hamilton dominates the six-municipality region with about 70 per cent of the population. When push comes to shove, Hamilton holds the hammer.
Not exactly calling Hamilton The Hammer, but the connection is there.
A February 1, 1996 exploration of Hamilton by UWO journalism student Chris Carter is titled, "Heart of the Hammer: Hamilton is a paradox."
An April 2, 1998 article by James Elliott reviews a number of anecdotes and concludes, " Ah, spring in the Hammer."
But even into the 2000s, most uses of "The Hammer" to mean Hamilton relate to musical topics. A July 6, 2001 article by Glen Nott on local band The Trouble Boys notes:
Between 1987 and 1992, just after the cresting Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels and the Shakers , and just before the cresting of the Killjoys and Junkhouse, the Trouble Boys carried the hammer in the Hammer.
A March 21, 2002 column by Paul Wilson about oldies radio station CKOC is titled, "When rock hit The Hammer: CKOC brought 'the devil's music' to town, and plays it still".
These days, The Hammer is everywhere: in music, of course, but also articles about Hamilton in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and Huffington Post, the Hammer City Roller Girls roller derby team, the Horror in the Hammer horror fans' network, The Hammer Active Alternative Transportation Cooperative delivery service, foodie blogs like Hungry in the Hammer and Hungry Hammer Girl, faith groups like Hammer House of Prayer, and even business promotion.
And of course, a certain plucky ten-year-old website dedicated to urban revitalization.
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