A Social Revolution in Canada

From Black Bottle to Babbitt

The centre of modern-day Cambridge, ON was formerly called Galt. Indeed the old term is still heard today. It is only 14 miles from Paris, ON and broadly in the same region, the old Dumfries township. Galt was in the north part, Paris the south.

Both towns are watered by the Grand River, a source of power for many early industries. Galt perhaps had a stronger Scottish admixture, in part due to an influential Scot who owned lands on the Grand and solicited countrymen to work the fields.

However, Galt too had its share of American incomers. One was the builder and industrialist Absalom Shade who came in the 1820s from Pennsylvania and established distilling. Galt counted two distilleries by the 1840s.

In 1880, an Ontario politician and newspaper publisher, James Young, wrote a history of Galt. His comments on liquor there set out in miniature a number of themes discussed here recently. In a few neat phrases he charts a quickstep transition from frontier whisky culture to ordered, prosperous burg.

As he notes, it was a change the Province underwent as a whole within a single generation. In fact something similar had occurred in the United States.

Young notes that until “white-eye” whisky made its appearance, the workmen wanted rum. Once again, the same historical shift occurred over the border, just earlier.

But why did “white-eye” take over in Canada as well? Presumably rum could still have been imported albeit at higher cost. Whisky suited the developing farm economies, as surplus grain, not easily transportable or storable, was turned to spirit. The farmers got needed cash, or cash and spirits, from distiller-millers in exchange for rye, wheat, corn, oats, barley.

But also, it may be noted Slade came from Pennsylvania, home of straight rye whiskey. This can’t be unconnected to his distillery in Galt, in my view. It’s the same thing for the presumed taste inclinations of the many Americans in the township who came from the northeast where whiskey was the drink of preference from about 1800 on.

The many whisky distilleries around Lake Ontario’s north shore, settled in large numbers by Loyalists and later American arrivals, support this inference for Upper Canada as a whole, IMO. It is useful here to examine Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s spatial diagrams of the industrial geography, I’ve referred to her book a number of times here.

Now, the Scots know a few things about whisky, that’s the “drouthy” tendency drolly noted by Young.

Against this background, rum’s salad days were over. In contrast, it held on much more so east of Quebec. To this day rum is a strong seller in the Maritime provinces. Certainly, many Loyalists went to Nova Scotia and some other parts of the Maritimes. The question why whisky did not “take” as well there is an interesting one. Many American arrivals came from New England coastal states where rum held some market, albeit declining, through the 1800s. I wrote earlier here about New England rum’s attenuated career.

Cereal agriculture too probably was nowhere near as fecund in the Maritimes as in southern Ontario. And many parts were settled long before any Loyalists came, notably Newfoundland with its direct links to Caribbean trade, and these stayed to their old practices.

It would make an interesting academic study to know why rum prospered in the east but foundered in Ontario and Quebec after the American Revolution. I suspect the factors I outlined above may be decisive.

You will see that Shade did not actually want to supply liquor to his work gangs. This strategy was no doubt linked to the alteration occurring in “the public mind”, a term in another Canadian book from the same era as Young’s. Also, perhaps Shade wanted simply to advance productivity and avoid the kind of industrial accident Young mentioned. This boss mentality was a rising part of the new temperance zeitgeist (apologies in etymology proferred).

Let Young tell it in his own words:

Note re images: the second image above, of Galt, ON in the 1890s, was sourced from this Canadian Virtual Reference Library. The last two images were sourced from James Young’s Galt history linked in the text, via HathiTrustAll intellectual property in and to these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.