Include images of partners

Transformations in the Production and Distribution of Food (1850-1930)

By Annie Chouinard, under the supervision of Joanne Burgess, PhD, UQÀM

Industrialization transformed our world. Canada underwent what is known as the Industrial Revolution around the middle of the 19th century. Two notable changes in the decades that followed, or from 1850 to 1930, were the discovery of new methods for preserving food and the development of a modern transportation network capable of distributing food products over great distances.

Towards a modern society

The transition to an industrial economy came about because of the new structure, specialization and mechanization of factory work. Economic growth was at its height between 1896 and 1929. One sector transformed by industrialization was food processing, which in the late 19th century was dominated by three major industries: flour, sugar and dairy products. There were also advances in sectors such as brewing, bakeries, distilling and confections. Underlying this growth were technological and scientific developments that led to improvements in the preservation and refrigeration of foods.

The processing and preservation of foods

Also transformed by the discovery of new ways to refrigerate and preserve foods were the daily lives of the general public. During the pre-industrial period (before 1850), meat was normally eaten fresh. Live animals were transported to the city for slaughter, and the cuts of fresh meat were then sold by butchers. In the country, animals were slaughtered in the fall and the meat was either salted or smoked so it could be eaten later.

In winter storing meat wasn't a problem because of the cold temperatures; however, in summer meat quickly spoiled. It could be preserved on ice, in iceboxes, but these were beyond the means of all but the wealthiest families. In addition, ice taken from polluted sources was a danger to people's health. To preserve food longer, some industries adopted mechanized refrigeration. Breweries led the way in the 1870s by adopting compressed ammonia as a means to preserve beer for distribution by horse-drawn wagon. The pre-packaged meats industry was to follow suit.

The advent of refrigerated, pre-packaged meats, notably in the United States around 1860, was a big step forward. More easily transported than live animals and fresh carcasses, pre-packaged meats meant lower expenses for producers. Pre-packaging meats quickly caught on in Quebec and Ontario where producers had previously relied on imported live animals.

The arrival of canned foods in Canadian kitchens marked another great change. The earliest methods of food preserving date back to the Roman Empire. In the 18th century some of these techniques were improved to help stretch food supplies in periods of famine and in order to feed soldiers during long foreign campaigns. For instance, French inventor Nicolas Appert (1750-1841) improved canning methods. He provided French sailors with canned foods, claiming that they would help prevent scurvy (an illness caused by lack of dietary Vitamin C) among ships' crews.

Early on, foods were preserved in glass jars. Later, British advances in metallurgy led to improvements in metal containers. In Canada, Tristram Halliday of St. John New Brunswick was the first to preserve salmon in cans, though it was not until the 1880s that the industry of food canning took off here. George Dunning and Wellington Boulter opened one of the first fruit and vegetable canning factories in 1882 in southern Ontario. Right up until the 1950s, this region was still the largest producer of canned foods in Canada.


The modernization of transportation transformed the distribution of food products. Most foods were transported by ship - the only means to import and export food products in the early years. However, shipping was dependent on the weather, so food distribution all but stopped from December to April.

The road network was inadequate as a means for distributing certain food products. The roads were often impassable, especially on rainy days. Long trips were normally undertaken in winter when roads hardened and froze. In cities like Montreal and Quebec City, the roads were better because they were maintained by the municipal government, but getting around remained a problem, especially on the outskirts of the city.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, a system of railways was under construction. With the financing and building of the Grand Trunk Railway (1854), the Intercolonial Railway (1876) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (1885), all the far-flung regions of Canada were finally linked by rail, and trains became the fastest way to ship foodstuffs. Foods that had once been considered rare or unusual were now available to more and more people, and in greater quantities.

Supplying and distributing food products

In the 19th century there wasn't a lot of variety in the diets of Canadians. Their eating habits gradually changed however with the development of transportation and the industrialization of food processing. By the early 20th century more and more fruits and vegetables were being imported. You could now buy bananas, pineapples, plums and pears, though only the bourgeoisie could afford to eat such exotic foods. They remained beyond the reach of the working class, who had much smaller family budgets.

Some of the new foods were the result of transformations in technology. "Industrial" foods such as canned soups were introduced in the United States. They didn't require as much cooking as traditional foods, but consumers still had to be convinced to buy them. So the food-processing industry began promoting and advertising its products. Food advertisements would become a major impetus in the distribution of food products.

Around the end of the 19th century, consumers began demanding better quality and more visually appealing foods. Not only were they very demanding, consumers also tended to trust certain well-known brands, and the big food companies went all out to convince them of the quality of their products. Brand names that are still widely recognized such as Coca-Cola (1886), Campbell's soups (1897), Jell-O (1897), Kellogg's cereals (1906) and Betty Crocker (1921) all turned to the new marketing methods to lure consumers. These companies even tried forming partnerships with their main distributors, grocery stores.

In the 1860s Alex McGibbon, a grocer with a store on Saint-Jacques (formerly St. James) Street in Montreal, was one of the first to use windows to display choice foods to his wealthy clientele. Up until this time, food displays in grocery stores had not been particularly attractive. After the 1860s, grocers offered a variety of colourfully and neatly packaged products. Displayed on store shelves and in windows, they caught the interest of the many well-informed consumers.

The advent of grocery stores

The numerous changes in the Canadian economy of the 19th century led to the growth of a new type of business, the grocery store. Before the large grocery stores like the ones we see today, people got their supplies from all kinds of general stores and from public markets. In the 17th century French colonists had founded public markets to serve towns such as Trois-Rivières, Montreal and Quebec. In the early 19th century these markets were important catalysts in these growing cities. However, the popularity of public markets declined in the early 20th century as municipal governments became less and less involved in food distribution.

In parallel to the decline in public markets, in the late 19th century many wholesale businesses were formed to help feed the expanding population. Grocery stores became the favourite place to buy non-perishable foods such as tea, coffee, alcoholic beverages, dried fruits, nuts, salt and flour. The location of the store was an important consideration in such purchases. In Montreal, the upper class shopped mainly downtown, while the working-class, who had less free time, shopped at small grocery stores near their homes.

In subsequent decades retail food businesses multiplied, and more and more grocery stores and butchers opened. Because of the high cost of operating them, many butcher stores later opened non-perishable food sections. But in the 1920s large food stores such as Dominion (1919) and Steinberg (1927) competed fiercely with the small family stores. Although the large food stores could carry everything under one roof - groceries, meats, fruits - the smaller merchants weren't forced out of business because of them. In 1930 half of Quebec's 34,286 companies were in the food business!

The reality of Canadian food has changed a great deal over the last two centuries. Industrialization and advances in transportation, as well as the discovery of new methods of refrigeration and preserving foods, have helped broaden the eating habits of Canadians, who now have access to food products from all over the world.



BERGERON, Yves. Les places et halles de marché au Québec. Quebec City: Publications du Québec, 1993.

COPP, Terry. The Anatomy of Poverty: The Condition of the Working Class in Montreal 1897-1929. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

CRONON, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

HAMELIN, Jean and Yves Roby. Histoire économique du Québec (1851-1896). Montreal: Fides, 1971.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. "The Impact of Refrigeration." History Magazine [online] [] (page consulted 16 January 2007).

LINTEAU, Paul-André, René Durocher and Jean-Claude Robert. Histoire du Québec contemporain de la Confédération à la crise (1867-1929). Montreal: Boréal, 1989.

PASCALI, Lara. The Role of the Grocery Store in Late Nineteenth-Century Domestic Foodways, Unpublished report, McCord Museum, July 2005.

SHEPHARD, Sue. Pickled, Potted and Canned. The Story of Food Preserving. New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

STRASSER, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

TASCHEREAU, Sylvie. Les petits commerçants de l'alimentation et les milieux populaires Montrealais, 1920-1940. PhD dissertation (History), Université du Québec à Montreal, 1992.



See all related artifacts (111)