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:
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:
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:
Okay, so supposing you did have enough trees, how much sugar could you expect to make?
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:
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.
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:
And another as her success grew:
Another confectioner who enjoyed great success was George Coleman, who first opened his doors for business in 1851:
Here’s a look at Coleman’s Confectionery located, conveniently, in the Coleman building:
And here’s Coleman’s delivery service hard at work:
While stand-alone sweet shops continued to do a good business, by the mid-19th century confections were being offered in drug stores:
Others, like Edward Lawson, supplemented their confectionery lines with teas and groceries. Take a gander at Lawson’s beautiful, palatial storefront:
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.:
Established in 1881 by a tinsmith named Benjamin Fletcher, the company offered a wide assortment of nifty machines for the professional, including:
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:
Here’s an ad for one of their most popular products:
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.
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.