Chain stores first appeared in Wellington 100 years ago

An interesting part of business history is the evolu­tion that has taken place in retailing and product selection over the past century and a quarter or so.

Much has been written about the national trends, such as the emergence of name brands and the development of chains, but there has been little investigation of the way those changes impacted on specific local areas such as Wellington County.

Nationally advertised name brands began to appear in the 1870s, and particularly after 1890. The first national brands were, in large part, patent medi­cines. Though there were great advances in medical care in the 19th century, doctors were useless or even worse in deal­ing with some ailments. As well, many people distrusted doctors, or were embarrassed to go to them with some ailments.

Some of the medicines first sold before 1900 persisted for many decades. Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Gin Pills, and Dodd’s Kidney Pills are among them, and those remedies have firm advocates to this day. Oth­ers have long vanished, such as Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills.   

A large category of the pat­ent medicines dealt with diges­tive troubles. Most common were remedies for dyspepsia, which in those days encom­passed both real medical prob­lems and discomfort from eat­ing meals heavy in animal fat and low in nutrition. Food fried in lard and dripping with fat was a frequent main course. Vege­tables were invariably over­cooked, with turnip, car­rots and cabbage the most popu­lar. Fresh fruit was a rare novelty at the dinner table.

Old time remedies for dys­peptics included Psychine “for indigestion” and Burdock Blood Bitters. Later, there were various antacids to deal with the effects of fat-heavy meals.

Even larger was the class of medicines for what was mod­estly called “female problems.” Lydia Pinkham’s medicines were by far the most popular, but there were many others, such as “Pe-Ru-Na for wo­men’s problems.”

All those patent medicines advertised extensively in the weekly newspapers of Well­ington County. Local pharma­cies and some grocery stores found it a wise policy to stock them. As well, many were available by mail order, parti­cu­larly those aimed at women, and those produced for men suffering from venereal dis­eases.

By the 1890s, other national brands had joined patent medi­cines on the shelves of stores. Redpath Sugar was among the first, followed in short order by the flour companies, such as Ogilvie and Western Canada Milling, trading under the Pur­ity Flour label. The big millers achieved economies of scale with huge mills and storage capacity that permitted them to buy wheat at the most favour­able point of market cycles.

Local flour production, though declining, remained a major factor on the local mar­ket until the 1920s. The major local producer was the Goldie Mill in Guelph, but several of the old-time small mills re­mained in production, such as the Hortop Mills in Everton, producers of Lily White Flour that was stocked by many stores in the county and re­tained fiercely loyal customers.

The importing and distri­bu­tion of tea fell early to national companies. The Almera brand enjoyed wide popularity before 1900, but was soon eclipsed by Salada, which undertook an im­mense marketing effort. After 1900, Salada advertisements appeared in virtually every news­paper and magazine in Canada. Stores stocking the brand had metal signs ad­vertising the fact, and often the Salada name stencilled on the front widow and on the edge of the awning over the front of the store.

Ready-made breakfast cer­e­als could be found at the smallest country stores by the first decade of the 20th century. Shredded Wheat appeared on the market in 1895, and soon enjoyed immense popularity. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes foll­owed. Interestingly, corn flakes were initially promoted as a health food. The product had been developed at the Kellogg health resort at Battle Creek, in Michigan. The firm placed ad­vertisements for the product in many of the weekly newspap­ers across the country, and that placed pressure on storekeepers to stock Kellogg products in re­sponse to customer demand.

Brand names at first domi­nated only some segments of the grocery market. As late as 1910, grocery stores advertised specials for canned peas and can­ned corn, with no mention of a brand.

Most retailers had associ­a­tions with one principal sup­plier. That had been the case since the earliest stores in Wellington. In the earliest dec­ades of settlement, store keep­ers in this county had close ties with one of the big wholesale houses in Hamilton, such as those headed by Isaac Bucha­nan and Adam Brown. Such ties were as important for credit as for a supply of goods.

Prior to 1870, almost all transactions were done on credit, and store­keepers had to wait for months to be paid by their customers. Only then could they pay their supplier.

After 1870, Toronto whole­sale firms eclipsed those in Hamilton, and bank credit be­came a factor in retailing. That, coupled with the direct distri­bu­tion by many nationally ad­vertised brands, gave retailers slightly more independence from their ties to their principal suppliers. The national brands augmented, and in some cases, circumvented the regular dis­tri­bution channels for gro­cer­ies.

Small chains of stores in Wellington date to the late 1850s. For example, several of the larger Elora merchants set up branch stores in Drayton and Harriston. Fergus retailer Adam Argo had a branch store in Eden Mills. None of those networks lasted long, and they bore little resemblance to the chains that appeared after 1900.

First of the major chains to appear locally was Rexall Drugs. That concern began as a co-operative buying network in New England in 1902. Success was immediate and spectacular. Two years later, Rexall began op­erating in Canada. By then the co-operative management con­cept was becoming awk­ward. It was replaced with a franchise system, with partici­pating stores agreeing to sell Rexall brand products which were supported by national advertising.

F.J. Capell’s drug store in Elora seems to have been the first in Wellington County to join the Rexall chain. There were brief newspaper stories in October 1910 that Capell was negotiating to join the chain, but he did not advertise the fact. As well as being a pharmacist, Capell offered a sideline as an optician, and ad­vertised that activity more than his drug store offerings.

In any case, his advertise­ments make no mention of Rexall until March 1912, when he added the phrase “Rexall Remedies” to his notices. Later that year he publicized the affi­liation to read: “The Rexall Store – If It’s Rexall It’s Good.”

During that period Rexall was rapidly increasing its own lines of drugs, cosmetics, and other items, all supported by its own advertising in major na­tion­al magazines and daily newspapers. That made the as­so­ciation with Rexall in­creas­ingly valuable to affiliates such as Capell.

By 1913, Rexall had signed up an affiliate in Guelph. Oth­ers followed in other centres across Canada, Wellington County included. Expansion of the chain and its ever-growing line of products would increase dramatically after World War I, and other drug chains would vie for a piece of the pie.

The shoe industry was not far behind drugs in setting up exclusive dealers and support­ing them with advertising. The first were the “Penitentiary Shoe Stores” in the 1870s. Canadian prison officials de­cid­ed that they should train in­mates in useful occupations. A major part of that program was a shoe manufacturing business in Kingston. Its products were sold in a network of stores across southern Ontario. The experiment was not a long-term success.

Several shoe manufacturers tried to set up networks of retailers prior to the outbreak of World War I. Among those signing up was Harrison’s Shoe Store in Fergus, as the local ex­clusive seller of Relindo Shoes beginning in March 1914. That same year, Charles McGowan of Elora began a similar ar­rangement with the Slater Shoe Company.

Chain retailing hit Well­ing­ton County with a vengeance in the 1920s, and particularly in the grocery sector. Those de­vel­opments will be outlined next week.


Stephen Thorning