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Making Cigars In Guelph

Cigar manufacturing was never a large industrial concern in Guelph’s early years. Imperial Tobacco’s extensive plant and large workforce did not arrive until 1959. The small shops that operated in the city until the end of World War I rarely employed more than 50. In general, they hired between 20 and 50 workers, some part-time.  The staff usually consisted of women and youths. They were hired because of their so-called “nimble fingers,” and, of course, the lower wages employers could pay them. This was common among many industries.

The cigar business in Guelph dates back to 1860 when Albert Smith opened a factory. He remained here only five years before moving to Brantford. His operation was followed by several others between 1867 and 1918. During this time, the following individuals operated a cigar manufacturing business: 

    • Jacob Bernhardt (1886-?): After purchasing the factory operated by JW Holling, for whom he had worked for two years, Bernhardt opened new premises on Market Square. He hired between 4 (1882/3) and 6 (1865) employees to produce his cigars. In 1887, his company was boasting shipments of some 22,000 cigars to Berlin (Kitchener) and Toronto.
    • J.W. Holling Cigar Manufacturer (1880-1886): Jacob Bernhardt worked for Holling from 1884 until 1888. when he bought the company. It had 4 hands in 1882 and 6 hands in 1885
    • Solomon Myers Cigars (1867-1886/7): He was first located on Lower Wyndham St. Here, he employed 4 males under 16 and 1 above 16 in 1871. This number increased by several additional hands in 1872 when he provided work for the strikers (“men and boys”) at G.P. Reid’s of Toronto. This increased his workforce to 15. The number of employees working at Myer’s rose as high as 20 hands in 1882. Myers moved his shop to 9 Gordon, by 1878, where he continued to supply cigars for “Massie, Patterson & Co.” until they dissolved. His product was called MPC (Myers Prime Cigars). The paper lining essential for his cigar boxes he actually ordered from the Guelph Book Bindery. Myers moved to Toronto where he retired in 1887.
    • Henry Pfeiffer (1889): It is suggested he worked as a cigarmaker before opening his own factory. Henry (Harry) was given license number 10 by the government. He lost it in 1889 because of tax irregularities.
    • Albert Smith (1860-1865): Albert Smith operated a small shop in Guelph in 1860. By 1865, he had left Guelph for Brantford where he set up his cigar shop remaining there until 1872. He then removed to London.
    • Joseph F. Smith Cigar Manufactory (1878 -1882): He had 5 employees in 1882 in his factory at 56 Quebec Street East.
    • J. Tilk (1901): An article in the Guelph Mercury indicated the raising of money for “82,000 stock to establish a cigar factory…which will employ quite a large staff.”  Nothing seems to have come of it. Instead, Tilk seems to have remained a tobacconist with a shop on Wyndham.
    • John Vogt (1889 -1990): Little is currently known about John Vogt’s shop except for its location at 90 MacDonnell in 1890.

The Guelph Cigar Company

The cigar manufactory in Guelph that lasted the longest was the Guelph Cigar Company. It was originally started in 1894 by a Mr. Taylor and Fred W. Laughton. Under this ownership, the company was incorporated in 1901. The men also formed connections locally, selling cigars to the Great Western Hotel and other establishments. The  Labour Gazette for 1902 notes that the cigarmakers in Guelph were busy for August, but not September. They did, however, “take on men” in October.

Laughton took over the business in 1904. A 1908 Guelph Industrial Edition describes him as being a “keen judge of the best leaf and does all his own buying from grower and importer.” “By this time, the directory lists it as the Guelph Cigar Company. 

Over the years, it grew to occupy 2 floors of the Corbett Block but it never substantially increased its number of employees.  The 2nd floor was the factory while the 3rd floor was the drying room for tobacco leaves and products. It produced 350,000 cigars a year including such brands as:

      • Referee     
      • El Sueno
      •  Keno
      • Blue Belle
      • Oriental

That year, Laughton employed “[T]en expert cigarmakers.”

The Guelph Cigar Company remained in business during the early part of World War I.  The premises were listed as vacant in 1918. Government duty records indicate it had closed in 1916. It was the last of the original cigar companies to produce a product in Guelph.

Working Conditions

The conditions in Guelph Cigar Factories is not known. They did follow the practice of hiring children and adult men. In Montreal or Nova Scotia, employees in tobacco shops were treated good, bad or indifferently – according to the whims and morals of the foremen and owners.

Stanislas Goyette, a cigar maker from Montreal told the Commissioners, as part of his testimony to the “Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital (1889)” the following:  


Mr. Goyette, you are a cigar maker?

Yes, sir.

How old are you?

Twenty years old.

At what age did you begin your apprenticeship?

At the age of fourteen…

Did you pay any fines during your apprenticeship?

Yes, sir; that is never wanting…

Were you ever beaten during your apprenticeship?

Yes, sir.

 How old were you?

I might have been fourteen or fifteen.

Who beat you?

The foreman.

Why did he beat you?

For all sorts of reasons.

You do not remember why?

… it was oftenest because I would not work after regular hours.

Did he strike you with his hand, his fist or some tool?

With whatever he had in his hand. He balked at nothing.

This was not uncommon in several cigar factories, but the most notorious of all was that owned and operated by J. M. Fortier. He told the commission that it was his duty and right and obligation to chastise, discipline and control the children under his care. If necessary, he would arrange for them to be placed in “The Hole” – a confined space in the basement where chastised employees could be confined for several hours at a time.

The unions, according to sources cited in The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity (McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2005) by Rudy Jarrett, referred to this factory as the “largest scab manufacturer in Canada.” In 1899, Fortier arranged for the arresting of 2 labour journalists and 5 cigar makers on a charge of libel. Local 58 called for a general boycott of all his products.

Guelph Tobacco Companies

Abuse was always a possibility when child labour was used in a factory setting. However, the size of the Guelph operations may have reduced the potential for issues arising. To its credit, no instances of strikes or accidents are indicated in the available sources on Guelph’s cigar manufacturing companies. This can not be said for its later relatives -cigarette makers. Imperial Tobacco workers first went out in 1976. In fact, they went out that year twice – in September and October, for different issues.


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