Confectioneries

Banner photo is of the Loblaws Candy Department, October 19th, 1926.  From the City of Toronto Archives.

The story of Toronto’s sweet tooth stretches all the way back to the colonists who washed ashore in the first decades of the 19th century.  For those new immigrants who came for the lush, fertile land promised them – but arrived to find a muddy town with stump-strewn streets, an intemperate climate and a lot of hard labour in their future – there weren’t a lot of immediate comforts.

To be fair, some early emigres – like Charles Grece – did try to warn them, sorta:

Facts and observations respecting Canada and the United States of America Charles Grece 1819
From Facts and Observations Respecting Canada and the United States of America, Charles Grece, 1819.

Yet still the people came.

Some who made the trip, took a look around, weighed their options and got on the very next boat back home.  But for those who’d staked everything on this one roll of the dice, there was little choice but to stay and settle in for a long slog.  For most of these folks, comfort came from the little things – so it’s small wonder that amongst the most prized imports were those which were the most cheering, like tea, tobacco, liquor and sugar.

From the amount paid in duties on these items, you can see just how much cheer they were needing:

Cost of Imports at Port of Toronto from the 1856 TCD
Here we have the Happy Colonist Combo. From the 1856 Toronto City Directory.

As you can see from the numbers above, tea was king but sugar was pretty close on its heels.  But consider this: tea could not be grown in Canada, so those numbers are fairly absolute – but thanks to the mighty maple and its magical sap, that imported sugar was only a portion of what early Upper Canadians were actually consuming:

Facts and observations
So it’s possible you’ll only need 400 trees. That’s a relief. From Facts and Observations Respecting Canada and the United States of America, 1819.

Okay, so supposing you did have enough trees, how much sugar could you expect to make?

Maple Syrup continued in Facts and observations
My teeth hurt just reading this.  From Facts and Observations Respecting Canada and the United States of America, 1819.

So now that we know they were practically swimming in the stuff – and because I think we can all imagine the various things a household might do with sugar – I thought it’d be fun to look at one of the first commercial offshoots built upon the sweet grains: the confectionery.


When the very first city directory was put out in 1833, there were already three confectioneries listed in the town of York.  The best known of these belonged to an Italian named Franco Rossi whose shop sat on the south side of King, between Bay and Jordan, in the 1830s and ‘40s.

Henry Scadding, our great historian, remembered Rossi as our “earliest scientific confectioner.”   Though the phrase does little for my sweet tooth (it just makes me think of Heston Blumenthal) I imagine it meant his treats were a cut above the other guys’.  And it appears the Scottish writer Thomas Hamilton would’ve agreed.  Though he had little good to say about his 1832 visit here – he considered our lake shore “flat and devoid of beauty” while the town itself had “few objects to interest a traveler” – it seems he quite enjoyed Rossi’s confectionery:

Men and Manners Thomas Hamilton
From Men and Manners in America, 1833.

In addition to his “ice” and confections, Rossi also gave early Toronto its first taste of fine art – or at least reasonable facsimiles of it – having imported copies of the Laocoon,  Apollo Belvedere and Perseus all done up in Florentine alabaster.  And let me tell you, in a muddy, little town with a population of roughly 8,000 souls, this must’ve been pretty exotic stuff.  Alas, for his all his wondrous contributions to the city, all record of Rossi – not to mention the sculptures – disappears after 1847.

While Rossi may have had the finest reputation, as mentioned earlier, there were two other confectioners noted in 1833: Alexander Erskine and Alexander Rennie.  While I can’t speak to their skill I can tell you that Erskine’s neighbour was George Munro, Importer of British and India Goods, so I like to think he might’ve been able to finagle a discount on higher quality ingredients.  As for Rennie, he appears to have had a steady gig with the city, supplying bread to the jail.

Alexander Rennie from Appendix to Journal of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada 1840
From the Appendix to Journal of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada, 1840.

Now if, like me, ice cream and jail bread aren’t exactly your idea of confections, not to worry.  It appears there was at least one confectioner, unrecorded in the city directory, who was churning out the type of inexpensive candies little kids clamor after.

At King and Caroline, a man named John Lumsden worked as a tailor and sold provisions – which sounds fairly boring, I know –  but apparently, his wife’s confections made it a magical place for a wee Henry Scadding and his pals.  As he described it, it was:

“a depôt, insignificant enough, no doubt, to the indifferent passer-by, but invested with much importance in the eyes of many of the early infantiles of York. Its windows exhibited, in addition to a scattering of white clay pipes, and papers of pins suspended open against the panes for the public inspection, a display of circular discs of gingerbread, some with plain, some with scalloped edge; also hearts, fishes, little prancing ponies, parrots and dogs of the same tawny-hued material; also endwise in tumblers and other glass vessels, numerous lengths or stems of prepared saccharine matter, brittle in substance, white-looking, but streaked and slightly penetrated with some rich crimson pigment; likewise on plates and oval dishes, a collection of quadrangular viscous lumps, buff-coloured and clammy, each showing at its ends the bold gashing cut of a stout knife which must have been used in dividing a rope, as it were, of the tenacious substance into inch-sections or parts.

In the wrapping paper about all articles purchased here, there was always a soupçon of the homely odors of boiled sugar and peppermint. The tariff of the various comestibles just enumerated was well known; it was precisely for each severally, one half-penny.”

That’s Scadding at his most excited and so – what with his rapturous “soupcon of homely odors,” “comestibles” and “precisely for each severally” – he can be a little hard to understand, but you get the idea: he was a happy kid with his cheap candy.

As with all things in this city, as the population grew so too did the number of confectioneries.  From just those first three recorded confectioners in 1833, the number would grow to ten a decade later, and twenty a decade after that. And on and on and on …

Many that had begun as small mom and pop shops began to expand into larger enterprises, investing in equally large advertisements:

Here we have an early ad for Elizabeth Dunlop’s confections:

Mrs Dunlop Confectionary Warehouse British Colonist August 2 1843
“Confectionery” and “Warehouse” isn’t the most apetizing combination, but I have to assume at the time it sounded grand, and not nearly so industrial. From the British Colonist, August 2nd, 1843.

And another as her success grew:

Mrs Dunlop 1850-51 TCD
Please note: “Dinners for public and private parties” and “Suppers for balls, weddings, soirees, musical and other social entertainments” are two entirely separate matters.  From the 1850-1 Toronto City Directory.

Another confectioner who enjoyed great success was George Coleman, who first opened his doors for business in 1851:

George Coleman Pastry Cooking From the Descriptive Catalogue of the Provincial Exhibition at Toronto, September 1858
“Remember the address,” he says – and then tries to confuse you. “Above Bay” and “west of Bay” aren’t exactly the same thing. From the Descriptive Catalogue of the Provincial Exhibition at Toronto, September, 1858

Here’s a look at Coleman’s Confectionery located, conveniently, in the Coleman building:

George Coleman Confectioner 1878 King between Bay and York TPL
Sure, it was a beautiful building but let me tell you, for the time, that was one decent wood sidewalk. George Coleman’s Confectionery on King St W between York and Bay, as seen in 1878.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

And here’s Coleman’s delivery service hard at work:

Bay St., west side, looking north to King St. W showing Daily Telegraph Bldgs centre, cart of George Coleman, confectioner, and far right Robert Davis & Co. grocer. Toronto, Ont 1867
Not the guy looking right at you – the wagon behind him. Also note that some kid has put together an awesome ramp using a barrel. Bay St looking north to King, showing the Daily Telegraph building in 1867. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

While stand-alone sweet shops continued to do a good business, by the mid-19th century confections were being offered in drug stores:

Lyman Kneeshaw and Co 1850-1 TCD
This place really ran the gamut – confections amongst the chemical and surgical instruments. Also “genuine horse and cattle medicines.” From the Toronto City Directory, 1850-1.

Others, like Edward Lawson, supplemented their confectionery lines with teas and groceries.  Take a gander at Lawson’s beautiful, palatial storefront:

Victoria Row S side of King looking east to Church 1880s TPL
Once you notice her, the figure of the woman on the second floor can spook you. King St near Church, circa 1880s. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

As time marched on and mechanization began to change a number of industries, Toronto’s confectioners found themselves being wooed with slick, labour-saving equipment like that on offer from the Fletcher Manufacturing Co.:

Fletcher Manufacturing CO 1896
From the Candy Maker’s Guide, 1896.

Established in 1881 by a tinsmith named Benjamin Fletcher, the company offered a wide assortment of nifty machines for the professional, including:

Steam Jacket
This little guy was perfect for boiling sugar.  It also looks like he could run out and sit in the snow if he got too hot. From The Candy Maker’s Guide, 1896.
Buttercup or Mixed Drop
There’s something about the line “Very quick working machine” that makes me think more than one person caught their fingers in it. From The Candy Maker’s Guide, 1896.
Pop corn ball press
This one sure seems like a lot of equipment – not to mention money – for so simple a procedure. I kinda feel like I could do this by hand – I mean how tight did they have to be? From The Candy Maker’s Guide, 1896.
Cocoanut Slicer and Shredder
Now this really does seem a wonder, and frankly I don’t know why I don’t see these around now. I still have not improved on a hammer and chisel for my coconut needs. From The Candy Maker’s Guide, 1896.

With innovations like these constantly being enlarged and improved upon, the confectionery business soon entered the modern age.  As the industry grew to incredible proportions, a number of factories would blossom across the city.  One of the largest  of these was the Cowan Cocoa and Chocolate Company on Sterling Road:

Cowan's
The Cowan Company on Stirling Road (or Sterling as it’s now spelled), from Cowan’s Dainty recipes, 1916.

Here’s an ad for one of their most popular products:

Cowan's Maple Buds September 24 1908 The Ottawa Citizen
Ah, the beloved maple bud – inviting and toothsome indeed. From The Ottawa Citizen, September 24th, 1908.

Having grown up very near Sterling Road, I can say, proudly, that I know the old Cowan site well.  Though, of course, when I was a kid it was owned by Rowntree which had bought up Cowan’s in 1926  – and would eventually tear down the original buildings.  (Rowntree, in turn, would eventually be bought by Nestle.)

In any case, this chocolate factory was the stuff of my young dreams.  I can still remember suffering an agonizing fit of envy when I found out my sister’s class was taken on a tour of it and that they were given whole chocolate bars (whole chocolate bars!).  Alas, I was never so lucky.

Cowans 1916
Like a window into my dreams … From Cowan’s Dainty Recipes, 1916.

But still, in a small way, I was often able to enjoy the nearness of the place.  On warm summer days, when the wind was just right, the scent of rich chocolate would waft north across Bloor St to my back porch.  And I would stand there, gratefully, trying to breathe in as much of it as I could.  This was heaven.  It was also infinitely better than when the wind blew from the east, where it picked up the scent of the Maple Leaf meat packing plant.  … But that’s probably a topic best left for another day.

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9 thoughts on “Confectioneries

  1. If I spoke in emojis (aka hieroglyphics) I would fill this comment with hearts (covered in chocolate). Brilliant and wonderful, as always, and always making me yearn for a walking tour of all of this, even though I’ve never ever even been to Toronto.

    OK, now to the important three things. One, yes, what is it with that popcorn ball maker? Old Toronto seemed to be filled with hardy folks, but none that could squash a 3-1/2 inch popcorn ball?

    And, two, there seems to be something suspicious — borderline, unseemly? — with marriages in old Toronto. Mrs. Dunlop: “Wedding Cakes … always on hand” … what? in case a wedding just spontaneously breaks out one morning? Mr. Coleman says his wedding cake orders are “promptly attended to”. This leads me to think that weddings were, well, I don’t know what they were, but they certainly seemed rushed. I think I need to learn more about this from you, the best, and my favorite, go-to Toronto historian.

    And, three, I didn’t know that Canadian chocolate bars were as large as children. My great-grandparents were Canadian … now, I’m wondering why they ever left. (I wonder that a lot, actually, but now that I’ve seen the ginormous Cowan’s chocolate bar, I’m even more perplexed.)

    Did I mention that this post was grand?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I’ve got little red hearts swirling around my head – you’ve made my day:) If you ever do come to Toronto – which you definitely should, considering your Canadian roots (that was a total Toronto thing, assuming we’re the center of the country) – I’ll definitely take you on a tour of any and/or all of these spots.
    Ha! Good catch on the shotgun weddings – I hadn’t put that together. Pre-refrigeration, those would’ve had to be some really last minute orders.
    I actually once got a Dairy Milk bar that was almost that size. I was sooo happy about it – but, ultimately, it was not a good thing. Its presence haunts you after a while.

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  3. Loved your post, as usual. As humans, we must’ve always loved our sweet treats, and certainly the early industry leaders noticed they could make a profit from our cravings! I wonder if they could’ve predicted the diversity and scale of the candy business today (and the correlated health issues)?

    What always strikes me when I see old newspaper ads and articles is the difference in diction compared to those of modern North American English. I’m sure the linguists of the world could provide loads of evidence as to how and why our choices of words and phrases change over time. I can’t imagine a modern business “begging to announce their preparation to execute orders”… It makes me wonder whether the colloquial spoken tongue was as (seemingly) awkward at the time?

    Well, I’ve never been much of a hard candy type of person, I’m more of a Nestle Crunch or Snickers girl, so I can imagine your bliss at smelling Rowntree down the street. Much preferred to a side of beef, in my opinion. Thanks for another awesome history lesson 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
      I know, I was surprised at just how much sugar they consumed at the time. One study I read estimated that the average rural Ontarian was averaging 21.5lbs a year by 1860 – which was very close to what their European counterparts were using. So, at least sugar-wise, they weren’t really “roughing it in the bush.”
      All that “begging to announce” stuff always amuses me too – so wordy and, as you noted, awkward. From the articles and notices I’ve read in our papers, it was definitely a class thing. I don’t think average working-class folks spoke to each other that way – unless they felt they had to adhere to some form. But it does make for fun reading!
      I’m with you. I’ll eat the odd hard candy – but chocolate is my idea of a real treat. And now you’ve made me want a Snickers!
      Thanks again for stopping by – it’s always a treat (there’s that word again) to get your lovely notes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I liked your quip about Heston Blumenthal…I’ve yet to see that man make any food that I would actually want to eat! And your comment about the steam jacket running outside made me smile. He does sort of look like he could be a piece of talking furniture in the Beast’s castle.
    I’m an extremely enthusiastic consumer of candy, but I have to admit that I have no idea what a buttercup is. Judging by the description, I imagine it has the same sort of shape as a Reese’s Cup, but presumably was a hard candy? If they’re butterscotch flavoured, count me out!
    I can symphathise with your pain over missing the factory tour + candy bar. We went to the Hershey factory (which is really more of a Disney-style ride, since you can’t see the actual factory) when I was a kid, and all they gave us at the end of the tour was some crappy hard candy. I wasn’t a great fan of Hershey’s plain chocolate bars, even as a child, but an actual filled candy bar, like a delicious Whatchamacallit, certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss! Being able to smell chocolate from your house must have been pleasant, but also fairly tortuous. When I was at uni, sometimes on windy days we’d get a whiff of the Schwebel’s bread factory, which wasn’t the best since it was horrible overly processed white bread, instead of lovely crusty artisan bread, but I’d still take it any day over a meat packing plant! Blech!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you get that about Heston Blumenthal too! I’m sure he makes tasty things but watching him going about it is almost unappetizing. He somehow manages to suck all the joy out of food for me.
      And I’m with you on butterscotch – no thanks – and on filled chocolate bars – give me caramel or nougat or nuts or something, and I’m happy. I’m also quite fond of mint and chocolate together – which I know isn’t for everyone.
      Oh, baked bread on a warm summer breeze … I could do with some of that too. But yeah, meat rendering is the basest, most disgusting assault on your senses. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

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