Victorian baking, Upper Canada style

Ontarian bakers used everything from hearth fires to factories in the 1800s
By Sarah B. Hood - Published on December 26, 2016
Bread making was a staple activity for Victorian bakers.



When the young Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the United Kingdom was already a “developed” country, and its bakers had the advantages of a ready supply of grain and established mills. Much of Canada, by contrast, was not yet settled by Europeans, and Ontario’s Victorian bakers had to start — almost literally — from the ground up.

Corn (which the English called maize or “Indian corn,” to distinguish it from wheat) was the starch of choice for Ontario’s First Nations. Although they taught the newcomers how to make cornmeal and flour for johnny cakes, puddings, and breads, the waves of French, English, Scottish, German, and Irish newcomers started to clear the forests as soon as they could to make way for field crops, including grains.

By about 1780, the soldiers of Butler’s Rangers who settled the Niagara region were already growing wheat and oats alongside corn. Peter and James Secord (relatives of the famous Laura) built the area’s first grist mill around 1782. (It is still standing.) By the 1790s, other mills were already springing up across Upper Canada, including Toronto’s York Mills, Don Mills, and Todmorden Mills. The 1810-vintage stone mill at Delta, Ontario, has been preserved as a National Historic Site.

But few were lucky enough to live near a mill. A Pioneer History: Elgin County, compiled by James S. Brierley in 1896, recalls that most early inhabitants of that area “had to carry [their wheat] to the mill 50 or 60 miles, or grind it in hollowed stumps, using rounded stones for stamping it flat.”

The early Victorian bake oven was a thick-walled brick or stone structure with a small opening. When enough wood had been burned inside it to heat the walls, the coals would be swept out and the bread or cakes inserted, to be baked using the residual heat. Inns and professional bakers had ovens, but many private homes did not, so some people would bring their own flour — or even roasts of meat — to a professional baker. In the Town of York (now Toronto), commercial bakers were also baking and delivering orders of bread, cakes, and buns by the very early 1800s.

By the 1850s, cast-iron stoves were becoming common, but pioneer families in remote areas — like those of Susanna Moodie and her sister Catherine Parr Trail, living in log cabins near Peterborough — still relied on an open hearth for all their baking. Bread and cakes could also be produced in bake kettles: sturdy Dutch ovens that were heated over a bed of coals.

However, getting a good result in a bake kettle takes practice. In Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie describes the disappointment of her first attempt at bran bread in a bake kettle: “The first intimation I had of the result of my experiment was the disagreeable odour of burning bread filling the house ... Alas! For my maiden loaf!”

Commercial baking expanded along with growing urban populations. In 1858, Scottish-born William Mellis Christie won a prize for his biscuits at the Agricultural Association of Upper Canada exhibition in Toronto. With Alexander Brown, he formed Christie Brown & Co., which occupied a shop on Yonge Street. By 1874, the company’s factory filled the huge building at 200 King Street East that now houses George Brown College. (Apparently, Mr. Christie did make good cookies.)

In 1880, Sarah Mallory of Lyn, Ontario, married John Canniff of Belleville; as a young, middle-class housekeeper, she referred to Cassell’s Household Guide for advice. The four-volume compendium includes pointers identifying whether flour has been adulterated with “Plaster of Paris, the dust of burnt bones, pea or bean meal, and potato-flour,” because “the great extent to which flour is adulterated is well known.”

A section on “baking” includes succinct instructions for building brick or iron ovens at home: “It may be urged that much of this article applies only to professional bakers, but as many of our readers live away in the country, and must depend upon themselves for a supply of good and wholesome bread, we do not think we err in devoting space to so important a subject.”

But by this time, while some Ontarians were still baking for themselves, many were turning to the professionals, like George Weston, who got his start operating bread wagons through the streets of Toronto. In the last decade of Victoria’s reign, he operated small bakeries, but by 1910, he had merged with other bakers to form Canada Bread Company, the precursor to George Weston Limited, which today runs Loblaws and Shopper’s Drug Mart.

William Christie had died in 1900, six months before the Queen did, but his company, then valued at $500,000, is still an internationally recognized brand today. Like Weston, he was one of Ontario’s Victorian baking entrepreneurs, whose business long outlived the era in which it was created.

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