In 1889, my father and mother died within the year, and the executor of the small estate invited me to live with him.
He kept a grocery store at the north-east corner of Queen and Pape, and had a thriving business.
The store was up to date in every way for that period. I would say that about sixty per cent of the business was on a credit basis, not the kind of iron clad credit as carried on to-day, but more of a “we trust you” idea and what dire results sometimes followed for the grocer. A customer would run up a bill of fifteen or twenty dollars, and then pay a few dollars on account, and then order groceries for the family for another week or so. When payment was requested the customer might be quite insulted, and pay a few dollars on account for a week or so and then quit altogether.
I think the grocer could have papered a room with the unpaid bills on his books. The hours were long, in the summer from about six thirty in the morning until 9 or 9.30 at night.
The grocer was a good living man, attended the Methodist Church, and Sunday was really Sunday. He held family worship once a day, and while I did not realize it at the time, this had an effect on my life in later years.
We lived at the back and above the store. The horse stable was in the yard almost adjoining the house. The grocer always had a good horse for delivery, and gave it the best of care. Taking it all in all, it was a good wholesome home to live in.
He had a good country trade, and once a week would go over the rounds with a horse and buggy, soliciting orders, and once when the roads were very bad he travelled on horseback. He had about thirty customers on this route. That evening was a busy time for everyone in the store filling the orders, re-checking them and packing the boxes. They would be delivered the following day.
On certain clays of the week, farmers and small country store keepers came to the city selling butter, eggs, and other farm products. One person, a storekeeper, came from Frenchman’s Bay. He kept a general store and Post Office, and generally brought one or two Sugar barrels containing different churnings of butter, some almost white, others richly coloured, and some almost normal. These rolls would weigh from about seven pounds to nineteen or twenty pounds each, and wrapped separately in cheese cloth. Some had the regular 1 oz. of salt to the pound, and others less. This was inserted in the butter, turned around and drawn out. Then passed under the nose at a respectful distance, and the quality and texture of the butter could be determined. The borer with the butter was then replaced, and the butter smoothed over. The same method was employed for testing tub butter.
A general valuation would be placed on the contents of the barrel, perhaps fifteen or sixteen cents a pound, then the bargaining commenced. Finally, an agreement was reached, and the deal closed. The butter would then be weighed. Later on it would be graded, some as cooking butter at about sixteen cents a pound, and the better quality perhaps at twenty-two cents a pound. Sometimes a roll would be cut to oblige a customer, and again with the larger rolls of good quality one would be cut up and packed in small wooden moulds containing about a pound. When the butter was pushed out of the mould it was of the same size and shape as the pound block sold to-day. This was then wrapped in fancy paper and sold for perhaps twenty-five cents a pound.
Tubs of butter came in about fifty-pound wooden containers, and cheesecloth placed on top, and about a half inch of coarse salt spread over it. When the tub was to be used, the salt was taken off the top and the tub upended, small end at the top, and tapped all round until the butter loosened from the tub, and the tub lifted off. A three-foot length of steel wire with the ends secured around two pieces of broom handle about four inches long gave the means for cutting the butter evenly. This was place d in a “U” position on the outside of the butter and pulled through. The butter could then be cut in any desired quantity. Often in the cold weather, one end of the ”butter counter” would have two or three tubs of butter which had been cut in half and quarter rounds, and looked very attractive.
Eggs brought from the country were always “candled.” An opening the size of a large egg was cut in a piece of tin, and the tin boxed round, the top covered, and the back of the box had hinges. A lighted candle was placed inside. The only light in the room would be that coming through the hole in the box. The egg candler would then seat himself facing the light and have a full crate of eggs on one side and an empty crate on the other. He was trained so that he could tell at a glance by holding the egg against the light whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. It was a kind of x-ray operation.
Farmers had been known in those days, when gathering eggs for the market to include a setting of eggs if one were found, even though partly hatched, hence the necessity of candling.
White and brown sugar was purchased by the barrel, and when needed was rolled into place behind the counter, and opened. Flour was handled much the same way, but later it came already packed in stone and half stone bags.
Black and green tea were purchased in large square lead-lined chests. Orange Pekoe came in a much smaller package, also Gun Powder tea, the leaves rolled quite small. Blending tea was the grocer’s harvest. The retail price might start at twenty-five cents a pound, and go in progressive steps up as high as sixty-five or seventy cents a pound, sometimes, according to the customer. I think P.C. Larkin was the first firm to introduce package tea in Toronto – their still famous “Salada” Tea. Gradually, packaged tea took the place of the old tea chests, and the grocer’s special blend of tea.
During the winter months dried salt codfish and an oblong box of Finnan Haddie were usually placed outside the store entrance, and there was often a covered bucket of oysters there as well. The oysters were sold by the pint or quart. A bundle of a dozen brooms, tied securely, and placed handle ends down, outside the door, was also quite common, and there might also be a sign outside announcing, “Granulated Sugar, 22 pounds for a dollar.” Of course this was a cost price “come along” item.
After school one afternoon, I was in the store parcelling up sugar, when the little girl who used to visit us when Mother was alive, walked into the store. Of course, we were both older, and she was prettier than ever. She said they were living near the store, and we had quite a long chat. I met her quite often after that.
Now, coming back to the store, let me describe the interior. Broken sweet biscuits came in large wooden boxes, and were a staple article, they sold at, I think, twelve cents a pound. They were the better kind of Christies biscuits, Jams Jams, Sultanas, and others that I can’t just recall. The three-pound blue carton of Christies Soda Biscuits sold for twenty-five cents a carton. Sunlight Soap came in large wire-bound wooden boxes direct from Port Sunlight in England, there were three twin bars to a carton.
Tilted on the floor were boxes of soap, such brands as “Morse’s Mottled” “Surprise”, Morton’s N.P. in large bars, a photo of Sir John Macdonald was on the wrapper, and the N.P. stood for National Policy. It was a reputed three-pound bar, and the thrifty housewife would cut it in thick slices and let it dry out. It lasted longer that way. Also, tilted on the floor would be a box of “Pyles Pearline” in packages, the forerunner of the many detergents we have to-day. There would also be a keg of washing soda, sold by the pound.
Hanging on the wall at the rear of the store were wooden wash tubs of various sizes, and a half dozen zinc-faced wooden wash boards.
Behind the counter were two rows of square drawers, containing Allspice, Cloves, Ground Cloves, W. Pepper, B. Pepper, Nutmegs, Mustard, Cinnamon, etc.
On the counter was a two-wheel coffee mill. As a rule, coffee was ground fresh for the customers. Along the counter was the Cheese container– a large square screened box with a door. The cheese was also cut with a wire.
The large barrels of Molasses and Syrup were on a small platform about ten inches above the floor in order for the measures to be placed under the taps, and. the saying “as slow as Molasses in January” carried out a meaning not known to-day.
Near the window was a large curved glass, walnut show case, which was the “Notion” section of the store.
Inside the case at the back were mirrors in the sliding doors which reflected the goods at the back. The case contained celluloid collars, paper collars, in round boxes, papers of pins, small packages of needles, cough candies in packages, small rolls of lace, spools of thread, hair oil in fancy bottles, round boxes of caps for toy pistols, knitting needles, combs, bottles of ink, collar buttons, etc.
On the wooden ledge on top of the show case would be displayed glass jars containing candy barley sticks, “Bulls eyes” candy balls, Rock candy, conversation lozenges, and a cardboard box of “grab bags” each filled with assorted candy, and containing a “prize” – price, one cent. There was a smaller box of chocolate cigars, with some sparkling red material at the end, to imitate a lighted cigar.
Then some round popcorn balls with an elastic cord attached, and I must not forget the box of licorice imitation plugs of chewing tobacco, complete with a tin stamp in the centre.
A local character used to saunter into the store about four thirty every afternoon, just about the time I would be returning from school. He would pass the time of day to us all, and then go over to the broken biscuit box, take out a handful of biscuits and stand eating them. When the biscuits were eaten he would go to the Refrigerator, take a bottle of sarsaparilla, open it and when finished return the empty bottle, bid us good-day and walk out–never offering [to pay].
The storekeeper did not comment on it very much, but one or two the others thought it had gone far enough, so ways and means were discussed. As all pop bottles at that time were of the spring cap variety, a bottle could be opened and sealed up again and no one would know. Someone came up with the idea of “doctoring” the sarsaparilla. This was carried unanimously. Some jalap was secured, and parts of the contents of the bottle taken out, and the jalap put in to take its place. The contents well shaken in order to mix it up. The next day it was placed in the ice box right at the front, each one notified not to sell that particular bottle. Everything ”went according to plan”, at the usual time our friend appeared, helped himself to the biscuits and sarsaparilla. He did not co me into the store for several days, but he came back and had some biscuits. He was asked if he had been away, his answer was “No” but he had an upset stomach, and a touch of “the summer complaint.” His visits were not quite so frequent and finally they stopped altogether.
During the Christmas season the store windows were really a picture. The centre piece was usually a barrel of dried currants with the side staves and top removed. This would be decorated with holly, mistletoe, coloured paper and flanked with raisins in boxes of various sizes. Candied orange, citron, and lemon peel in halves would add to the decoration. Striped candy walking sticks were hung wherever possible, and a “Merry Christmas” sign would be stretched across the window. It was not until years after with a growing population that the “Xmas” signs began to appear.
Background: More about Christmas back in the day
The Great War brought death but also accelerated change, bringing new technology & new ways of doing things. Chain stores began to replace small stores. Self-serve began to replace counter services for groceries, dry goods & even hardware. It was no longer men behind the counters serving women, but women serving themselves. In 1919 Dominion Stores incorporated. That year a new Loblaw’s Store opened at Queen & Logan. Loblaw’s with its experimental “We Sell For Less” cash-and-carry format, quickly became popular. After the War to End All Wars. Canada saw itself differently. The men who returned were not the same and the women they returned to had also changed in unexpected ways.