Grocery Store from Mud Roads & Plank Sidewalks Part 11


In 1889, my father and mother died within the year, and the executor of the small estate invited me to live with him.

Recreation of an advertisement based on similar ads in Toronto directories of the same decade.

He kept a grocery store at the north-east corner of Queen and Pape, and had a thriving business.

Looking west on Queen Street from east of Pape Avenue. On the left is the fence around George Leslie’s arboretum and nursery. The Dulmage store was at 1048 Queen Street East – the north east corner of Queen and Pape. Fonds 1231, Item 1206 Queen Street east of Pape Avenue November 12, 1913 City of Toronto Archives

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.

4I 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.

Woodgreen Methodist (United) Church, Queen St. E., s.w. corner Strange St. Photographer unknown Picture, 188-, Toronto Public Library

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.

City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 984 Man in horse drawn buggy Date unknown

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.

In the winter deliveries were often done by sleigh. This is the proverbial “one horse open sleigh”. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 989 Man on horse drawn sleigh Date unknown

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.

William Dulmage and his wife and son would have worked in a store like this along with Sam Herbert. This was not self serve but counter service. The Interior of grocery store Archives of Ontario Cobourg, Ontario 1910

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.

As time passed women became less and less satisfied with having their minds “made up for them”. Canadian Grocer, Vol. XXXII, No. 14, April 5, 1918

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.

The interior of another Ontario grocery store. Guillet and Son, Archives of Ontario 2 King Street East, Cobourg 1910

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.

Library and Archives Canada 1880 First Butter from Australia. 1926-1934 London, Dunstable and Watford, England
Blocks of butter ready for wrapping on a table on a Canadian farm, early 20th century.
Candling eggs, from The Lady’s Friend, 1865

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.

The Canadian Grocer and General Storekeeper, Vol. IV, No. 1, January 3, 1890

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.

Canadian Grocer, Vol. XXXII, No. 14, April 5, 1918

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.

The Canadian Grocer and General Storekeeper, Vol. IV, No. 1, January 3, 1890

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.

The Canadian Grocer and General Storekeeper, Vol. IV, No. 1, January 3, 1890

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.

It looked like the cheddar cheese industry of Ontario would go the way of the passenger pigeon as large multinationals flooded the market in the 1970s with bland, flavourless cheeses and “processed cheese products” that many of us used to dump in the high school cafeteria garbage pail. The revolting products may have helped engender a taste for true cheddar and other true craft cheeses. The old cheese maker of Plum Hollow; Claude Flood; 73; warns the end of small cheese factories will mean the end to first-quality Canadian cheddar. Ontario’s small cheese factories are being strangled into extinction by new regulations and dwindling milk supplies. Barkley, Harold Picture, 1971 Toronto Star License Toronto Public Library

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.

Canadian Grocer, Vol. XXXII, No. 14, April 5, 1918 In the First World War the Allies needed lead for bullets and so other metals were substituted for lead for bottle caps and jar lids. Canadian Grocer, Vol. XXXII, No. 14, April 5, 1918

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.

Even a decade or more after Loblaw’s introduced the “Groceteria” or self-service grocery store, most of its competitors still onlyoffered counter service. City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1266, Item 16198 Dominion store, 213 Wellesley St, grocery section April 15, 1929

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.

Shows cart of James Matthews, Toronto Steam Power Soda Water Factory. Soda pop was extremely popular and offered a “soft” drink as opposed to “hard liquor”. In background: Wesley Methodist (United) Church, Dundas St. W., n.w. corner Ossington Ave. Unknown Picture, 1875, English Notes Library has (image not reversed) ½ plate glass copy negative (E 9-86) and copy photo (E 4-42f). Shows cart of James Matthews, Toronto Steam Power Soda Water Factory. TEC 125 Toronto Public Library

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].

Jalap was a powerful plant-based purgative (Ipomoea purga) and could be slipped into a bottle like these without the prospective buyer knowing … until a bit later. Toronto Public Library Touch of antiquity: The Bottles And Crowns exhibit; devoted to the history of the soft drink industry will feature some of the 1;000 different bottle stoppers patented in the last century and older-style soft drinks bottles. Innell, Reg Picture, 1981, English Rights and Licenses Toronto Star License

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

A store decorated with hanging coloured paper, Christmas 1902 Toronto Public Library
Special trains hauled Christmas trees into the city where grocers sold them to the neighbourhood. Train with Christmas trees, date unknown, Library and Archives Canada
Eating was a huge part of the Victorian Christmas. The Canadian Illustrated Mews [Vol. 24, no. 27 (Dec. 31, 1881)] Good Housekeeping, Vol. 6, No. 3, December, 10, 1887
The home cook book compiled from recipes contributed by ladies of Toronto and other cities and towns. Toronto : Belford Brothers, 1877. At head of title: Tried, tested, proved. “Published for the benefit of the Hospital for Sick Children”. 1910 Making Christmas Pudding, City of Toronto Archives

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Eaton’s and Simpson’s Department Stores were the first real competition to the local grocery store. Illustrated Toronto, the Queen city of Canada: its past, present and future, its growth, its resources, its commerce, its manufactures, its financial interests, its public institutions, and its prospects, 1890. Toronto : Acme Pub. and Engraving Co.
One of the first Loblaw’s stores was at the corner of Logan and Queen. It offered the liberated woman of the 1920’s the option of choosing her own purchases, paying for them in cash and taking them home herself rather than having a grocer pick out products, pack them and deliver them later that day.
Detail from City of Toronto Archives, Series 71, s0071-lt10221 Queen St. at Logan Ave. looking east April. 5/1934 A Dominion Store Branch on the north side of Queen East of Logan Avenue facing a Loblaw’s Groceteria on the south side of the same street.

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.

Grocery shopping is increasingly done on line as is Christmas shopping, spelling a big challenge for grocery chains.
1881-1886 Snowshoeing Christmas Card, Library and Archives Canada



Published by Leslieville Historical Society

Welcome to the Leslieville Historical Society's website. Please feel free to join us, to ask questions, to attend walking tours and other events, and to celebrate Leslieville's past while creating our future. Guy Anderson, President, Leslieville Historical Society and Joanne Doucette, local historian and webmaster.

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