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Making Cigars In Guelph

Cigar manufacturing was never a large industrial concern in Guelph in its early years. Imperial Tobacco with its extensive plant and large workforce did not arrive until 1959. The small shops that operated in the city until the end of World War II, rarely employed more 50. In general, they hired between 20 and 50 workers, some part time.  The staff usually consisted of women and youths. They were hired them 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 to 1860 when an Albert Smith opened a factory. He remained her 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 opens 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 from 1884-1886 when he buys it from Holling. It had 4 hands in 1882 and 6 hands in 1885
  • Solomon Myers Cigars (1867-1887): He was first located on Lower Wyndham St. Here, he employed 4 males under 16 and 1 above 16 in 1971. This number increased several additional hands in 1872 when he provided work for 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). He moved to Toronto where he retired in 1887.
  • Henry Pfeiffer (1889): He lived in Guelph where he operated a cigar factory. It appears 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. He left Guelph for Brantford by 1865 where he set up his cigar shop until 1872. He then removed it to London.
  • Joseph F. Smith Cigar Manufactory (1878 -1882): He had 5 employees in 1882 in his factory at 56 Quebec Street East.
  • 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.

However, 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. Laughton took over the business in 1904. 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 restricted its employees to a small number. The 2nd floor was the factory while the 3rd floor was the drying room for tobacco leaves and product. It produced 350,000 cigars a year including such brands as:

·        Referee

·        El Sueno

·        Keno

·        Blue Belle

·        Oriental

The Guelph Cigar Company remained in business during the early part of World War I. It had closed, the premises becoming vacant in 1918. 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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