A Recent History of 'The Hammer' in Print

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 12:41:28

I can confirm that when I was a child I never heard Hamilton called "Hammer."

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By Peter Graefe (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 13:07:56

It is quite possible that the term was coined by touring rock musicians.

I think you are stretching with the "holding the hammer" bit, though. That is a very common expression for people who curl.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 13:56:56

Interesting article and bit of cultural history. As a relative newcomer i just assumed "the Hammer" was a longstanding term.

I do remember on the Westcoast hearing Hamilton referred to as "steeltown" ... generally in an affectionate way.

Incidentally, animosity and sniping nicknames were usually reserved for Calgary/Edmonton/Alberta and the City down the road to our east, which was generically referred to along with Ottawa and Montreal as "back east".

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 15:39:18

When I was a kid I heard Steeltown and 'The Armpit of Ontario' but those were only used to describe Hamilton. No one would say 'I'm going to Steeltown'. I heard the term The Hammer from a friend who doesn't even live in Hamilton a few years after I moved here! Still think it's a bit of a brutish moniker ( the hammer is what a crackhead uses to break into your house, it's also what he uses to mug you down on King William ). The Big Apple, Sin City, Motor City sound so cool but then Toronto has Hogtown... Apparently the most humane way to kill a pig is with a hammer. I am way too bored at work today ...

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By Ralph (anonymous) | Posted May 09, 2015 at 23:29:33 in reply to Comment 111460

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted May 10, 2015 at 08:48:02 in reply to Comment 111485

That problem is widespread far beyond "The Hammer" and is experienced by anyone who isn't driving through with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. Just as bad and in direct proximity to people is the noxious chemical attacks from tailpipes of old and poorly maintained vehicles, with no recourse for people whose lungs are filling with the stuff. Of special urgency, we need to get the old smelly diesel vehicles updated to modern engine technologies, especially city and school buses.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 15:47:07

Never heard of the Hammer until I heard it on the radio - John Oakley I believe - sometime in the last decade. Been here nearly 60 years. Certainly used a lot in the last few years.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted May 07, 2015 at 17:47:24

My generation has become enamoured with giving towns lame and uninspired nicknames. T-Dot = Toronto, K-Town = Kingston, I don't even want to mention what they call Guelph. I hate it.

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By Ralph (anonymous) | Posted May 09, 2015 at 23:28:14 in reply to Comment 111464

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted May 08, 2015 at 17:11:27

The first time I ever heard Hamilton referred to as "The Hammer" was in a story told by musician Jack Dekeyzer in 1985 or 1986. I was backstage at a show in Toronto and Jack was describing how a few really enthusiastic fans lost it when Jack said he was originally from Hamilton. The response was something like F'kin Aaaay your from "The Hammer" too!!! My retelling does not do Jacks story the justice it deserves. As told by Jack it really exemplified the difference between Hamilton and Toronto audiences. Toronto audiences tended to be a little cold. A Hamilton audience was far more likely to let you know what they thought good or bad. At worst they might get a little nuts. I don't doubt the Sonny Del Rio story at all. Any fans of Jacks from Hamilton would have been familiar with King Biscuit Boy, Kelly Jay and of course Sonny and likely picked up "The Hammer" from the '84 tour.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted May 09, 2015 at 21:08:51

Great name, great work!

I do recall a university friend, from a different part of town, referring to Hamilton as the Hammer back in the mid-90s.

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By Ralph (anonymous) | Posted May 09, 2015 at 23:25:06

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By spam? (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2015 at 13:55:56

Tried to post a good comment yesterday but rth called it spam! yeah, register, but spam?

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