Category Archives: Technology

Water, Water Everywhere: North America’s First Bottled Water Company

Pic above: Bottled water on an assembly line of large glass water bottles at the Laurentian Spring Water Company, circa 1986.

The image above was captured from a 1986 television news report aired on the centenary of the founding of the landmark Montreal company, Laurentian Spring Water. Laurentian was the first bottled water company in North America!

Laurentian was a family business and my father-in-law was a shareholder. His father, Thomas Wells, or Fuddy, had been President of the Company in the first part of the 20th century.

Thomas Fuddy Wells 1868-1951

This homage didn’t make for the most exciting news item: an assembly line and a talking head, the current General Manager discussing the history of Laurentian.

The GM said that the company was founded a century earlier when a certain Mr. Robert C. White, a shoe manufacturer, accidentally discovered a wonderful gusher of fresh water 250 feet down while digging under his business on Craig Street. Lots of water was needed in shoe manufacturing.


But, as it happens, this water was especially fresh, from a 5000 year old aquifer the man on the TV said, originating far away in the Laurentian Mountains, hence the company name.

He explained that horses were used to power the drill down into the earth. By the 1980’s, there were two wells, one 250 feet down and one 500 feet down.

While researching my story MILK AND WATER (where I have Thomas Wells and my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, discuss water and Montreal politics in 1927 while waiting for the Prince of Wales outside a speak-easy) I learned that Montreal island has many such aquifers. Whether or not they originate in the Laurentians is debatable.

Around 1900, during a time of typhoid, Robert White exploited this wholesome mountain imagery to break into the home-water market, by advertising that he had the PUREST water in town. The scientists out at Macdonald College in Ste Anne de Bellevue had tested it, apparently.

Up until then, White had used his glorious geyser to create a ritzy public bath where City aldermen from around the corner at City Hall conducted private meetings while sweating it off – and an elite swimming pool for water polo competitions and such. Women were allowed in on Wednesdays.

“PURITY” was a loaded concept back in the early 1900’s in North America. It had to do with tainted food, a genuine issue, tainted alcohol, typhoid and cholera epidemics, and also fears and racist beliefs about immigrants from Southern Europe and elsewhere. Ivory Soap and its 99.9999 percent pure slogan was born in that era, one of many, many new products advertised as pure in places like the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Robert White, who died in 1904, was Fuddy’s Uncle, it appears. According to family lore, he had a disinterested son so he brought Fuddy in from Ingersoll, Ontario. Fuddy was the son of a top Ingersoll lawyer who was from Cambridgeshire, England.

My husband’s grandfather had a gift of the gab, but the 1911 census has him down as an accountant for the company earning 7,000 a year, a lot of money in those days.

It is said that 1,500.00 a year was the minimal salary to keep a family of four in dignity. Few families in the City made that amount of money, even with both the Mom and Dad working. And even fewer had such small families. Still, my father-in-law maintained that it was Fuddy’s wife’s dowry that allowed them to live the high life in tony Westmount in the Roarin’ Twenties.

By that decade, Fuddy was a member of many prestigious clubs, including the St. George’s. Back in 1903, the St George’s Club had sued the city of Westmount, a dry city, claiming that as a private club they had every right to serve alcohol.

Fuddy participated in lawn-bowling and curling (and boozing) all in the name of the big schmooze.

My father-in-law claimed Fuddy regularly visited the restaurants around the Mount Royal Hotel and greased the palms of the waiters so that they would serve Laurentian brand soft drinks. Soft drinks were originally created to cut the bad taste of bootlegged liquor.

Fresh water was not considered a human right or even a necessity in the big city in the Victorian era. Water pipes were brought in to keep fires at bay and preserve businesses. Water fountains were placed on Mount Royal only to keep fathers from heading off to the tavern to quench their thirst.

Private homes had to find their own water, either digging a well or getting it from the St. Lawrence River. The poor people of Montreal, many of whom lived ‘below the hill’ in Griffintown, often had no source at all of drinking water, and many still used privies, holes in the ground, as toilets. But filthy water they had a’plenty, every Spring, when their homes flooded. Montreal had the highest infant mortality rate in the Western World due to intestinal diarrhea from contaminated water and milk and the working class suffered the most.

Wealthier people could pay private water sellers to lug barrels up from the river for them. If you did have a tap at your disposal, the water was suspect as the City disposed of its waste very near where it accessed its tap water.

No surprise then that in the early 1900’s Montreal had a series of game-changing typhoid epidemics that took a toll on both rich and poor communities. This made it easy for Laurentian to start selling water to homes. They played it up in the newspaper.

My father-in-law also claimed that during one of the epidemics Laurentian gave water away to anyone who wanted it. I found no newspaper ads suggesting this.

The man on the TV in 1986 said something very interesting. He said that by the 1980’s, thanks to enormous efforts over the decades by the City to provide all households with potable water, Laurentian was selling only to offices, but they were hoping to once again sell to households.

Hmmm. Something was happening here! There were no typhoid epidemics in the 1970s’. Walkerton would only happen a decade later.

It was all about finding new markets. And, as we all know, new markets were found, with the help of a widely-circulated myth (with iffy origins) that everyone needs to drink eight glasses of pure water daily to clear out their kidneys. Meanwhile plastic water bottles fill the oceans and the relatively new idea that fresh water is a universal human right and not a commodity to be hoarded and exploited, is being challenged.

The family-owned business was soon sold to the Labrador company, now Labrador Source. My father-in-law inherited a small fortune and helped us buy our first house.

Family heirloom: A Laurentian Crate in our living room. Glass bottle of course.

Michele Dagenais of the University of Montreal is the expert in Montreal’s Water history. I used many of his papers to write my own book. You can buy Montreal:City of Water here. As it happens, Professor Dagenais also wrote a book about early Montreal CIty Hall, where he discussed my Grandfather, Jules Crepeau and his job as Director of City Services.

Keeping Up with the Montgomerys

autoshow

Montreal Auto Show. 1914. McCord Museum photograph

Roads trips. They have been a staple of life in North America for over one hundred years and it all began around 1910 in American and Canadian towns.

In big cities like New York or Montreal there was little need for an automobile, what with the streetcars and subways. As silent film footage from the era shows, the city roads were preposterously chaotic.

But, in the  towns during the warmer months, anyway, an auto was both useful to get around and quite the status symbol for the well-off professional man.

Case in point: Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec, a leafy stretch lined with red-brick homes in the Queen Anne Revival style.(1)

In 1910, the Skinners, the Nicholsons and the Montgomerys are neighbours on the north side of Dufferin.

Floyd  Skinner, a dentist, buys his first auto in 1909. So does Nathan Montgomery, a man in his forties who is already retired. (2)

Margaret Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother, living in the pretty house called “Tighsolas” between them, doesn’t think much of these extravagant testosterone-fueled impulse purchases. She writes this in a letter to her husband, Norman, who is away in Northern Ontario working on the railroad:

“Mr. Montgomery is going to buy an automobile. He is getting rid of his horse. Don’t you think he’s foolish?  I would not want one. They are too dangerous.” (3)

TheNicholsos

Norman and Margaret Nicholson, daughters Edith and Marion and Aunt Christine Watters.

 The Nicholsons, you see, never, ever, get to own an automobile. In 1910, they are house-rich but cash poor. They cannot begin to afford a ‘motor’ because in 1910  autos can cost as much as a fine house, in the 2,000 to 4,000 dollar range. (4)

If Margaret Nicholson is very wary of the newfangled horseless carriage, her daughter, Marion, my husband’s grandmother, is not. In fact, she accompanies the Montgomerys on their 1909  auto-buying excursion in Montreal.  Marion, a teacher in the city, tells her mother about it in a letter but wrapped in a little white  lie. “I bumped into the Montgomerys on the street. He is buying an auto and she is in for a shirtwaist suit.”

I suspect this is a lie because in the Nicholson family album there is a photograph of Marion and Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery posing in front of the Motor Import Company of Canada on Atwater and St. Catherine. Marion likely had planned to meet the Montgomerys all along.

MarionMON.PNG

Marion, left, caught in the act of accompanying her neighbours on an auto-buying excursion.

If Margaret felt autos were dangerous, her eldest daughter, Edith, also a teacher, clearly did not.  In the summer of 1911, Edith traveled all the way to Montreal by motor with the Skinners.  Here’s how Edith described her trip in a letter to her dad:

“As you will see by the address, I am in Montreal. I came in with Dr. and Mrs. Skinner in the motor Friday. Left home at 10 am and got to Waterloo at 12.30 had dinner. Saw all we could of the town and left at 2 for Montreal, got here at quarter past six. Without one break down. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I will name the places we passed through so you will know the country we passed through. Melbourne, Flodden, Racine, Sawyerville, Warden, Waterloo, Granby, Abbotsford, St Caesar, Rougemont, Marieville, Chambly, Longueil, St. Lambert, Pointe St Charles.

Don’t you think I was a very fortunate girl to have such a trip?

 

Itineray

1911 itinerary.  6 ½ hours for 93 miles.  The speed limit in the city was 8 miles an hour and 15 miles an hour in the country.

 The Eastern Townships is a very hilly place so this pleasure trip must have been quite the  roller-coaster ride for Edith and possibly a bit hard on the, ahem, lower body, especially if Edith was wearing a tight corset under her ‘duster coat.’ (5)

In 1910, autos were considered toys. Motoring was considered a fad, a pastime. The preface to the special insert promoting the 1910 Westmount Horse Show in the Montreal Gazette claims, “The automobile will never replace the horse in Man’s affection.” (6)

So wrong.

Although it was wealthy males who kick-started the automobile revolution, it was women and teenagers who had the most to gain from it.  They were free at last to travel far and wide on their own.

freeatlast.PNG

Free at Last! Margaret’s youngest daughter Flora and friends on an automobile ride in the country circa 1920.

So, here we have three houses on Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec – and already two automobiles.

Still, if you pay attention to her actions and not her words, it  is clear that Margaret Nicholson doesn’t really hate autos. Margaret often allows Mr. Skinner or Mr. Montgomery to take her to the mail to post letters to her husband.

 What she says to Norman in her letters is to soothe his prickly pride, that’s all.

To make things worse, just around the corner on posh College Street live Isabella and Clayton Hill, Margaret’s sister and brother-in-law. Clayton is a prosperous stone-mason and, much to Margaret’s chagrin, he owns an especially fine automobile.

Clayton'sauto

Magical Mystery Tour Car. Clayton’s Auto. A Pierce Arrow, perhaps. Very expensive at about 5,000 dollars.

Margaret is always feuding with Clayton and her sister mostly over the care of her elderly mother.

She remains bitter about her relations’ good fortune. In another letter to her husband she writes: “Clayton’s auto has broken down again. Isabel says the repairs are costing a fortune. Aren’t we lucky not to have one.”

Then, again, she accepts rides from her brother-in-law on occasion.

In 1910, there was no resisting the lure of the motorcar. The swanky male ‘toy’  was already proving to be indispensable even to its most vocal female critics.

Nichsolsonhomeafewdaysago

Tighsolas as it looks today.

  1. Richmond was a railway town, on the decline, between Portland, Maine and Montreal, Quebec. Queen Anne Revival style homes had irregular roofs, turrets, and lots of gingerbread moulding.
  2. On the 1911 Canada Census
  3. Nicholson Family Letters. Author’s collection.
  4. This was all changing with the Model-T Ford, and mass assembly. In 1910 Ford claimed his factory was putting out 1,000 autos a day. And he paid his people good salaries so they too could buy an auto. Soon, average middle class families could own a motorcar at around 400 to 600 dollars.
  5. Duster coats were long affairs meant to keep women’s clothes clean. Cars with an internal combustion engine were notoriously dirty.  Steam driven cars were dangerous and noisy. Electric cars, clean but slower-moving, were aimed at women in advertising, and, maybe, just for that reason, they did not catch on, at least until 100 years later.
  6. Magazine articles of the era were already pointing out that ‘the Billion Dollar Toy’ was creating significant waves in the economy, a sign that the auto wasn’t merely a toy but here to stay. By mid-century automobiles and automobile parts were the driver of the US economy.

 

French-Canadian-genealogy-how-to podcast

Maple stars and stripes podcast is a new podcast for anglophoneswho want to do genealogical research in Quebec.  Go to maplestarsandstripes.com so you can subscribe for free and also get the notes for each.  I found out while listening to Lisa Louise Cook’s Genealogy Gems podcast, another great one to listen to.  I even heard her talk about our Janice Hamilton’s (QFHS) blog Writing up the Ancestors Driving from Montreal to Quebec city to a fencing competition listening to podcats for 3 hours (and another 3 coming back)…my god time flies when you are listening to great ideas.  Only problem is not being able to note down what comes to mind.  But I definitely made sure I did not forget the Maple one. Of  course, before my tournament, I just had to go to the Quebec National Archives (BAnQ) and their next dorr neighbour, La société de généalogie de Québec: great resources.  Next time I’ll plan a trip all the way to Natashquan, so i can listen to so much more podcasts!

Maple Stars and Stripes

En route de Montréal à Québec vers le championnat d’escrime du Québec, j’écoutais les baladodiffusions de Lisa Louise Cook, Genealogy Gems.  Une peu de rattrapage pour les derniers mois. J’ai même entendu l’animatrice citer notre Janice Hamilton, à la QFHS, à propos de son blog Writing up the Ancestors.  Merveilleux toutes les bonnes idées ou pistes que nous fournissent ces podcasts.  Une de celles-ci: Maplestarsandstripes.com.  Cette dernière est un mini mode d’emploi pour les anglophones, pour débuter des recherches généalogique au Québec.  On y présente Drouin, les filles du Roy, les noms-dit, de la prononciation française…  Sur le site, on peut s’abonner à la baladodiffusion de même que trouver des notes sur chacune.  Quand on a les mains et les yeux occupés, rien de tel que d’écouter.  Le temps passe si vite, que j’aurai pu continuer jusqu’à Natashquan!  Bien sûr, j’ai fais un petit tour à la bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) avant mon tournois, ainsi qu’à la société de généalogie de Québec, la porte juste à côté.