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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 26

Grubstake to Grocery Store: Supplying the Klondike, 1897-1907

by Margaret Archibald

Satisfying the Sourdough Appetite

To the family:

Laura may tell Frank Gross that we disposed of that pail of ham the same as we do of all grub, eat it up very quick. The dried fruit that his mother gave me went the same way, and all that Mother sent except the cherries. We have a lot of dried apples, peaches, apricots and such stuff we bought in Seattle. I do not miss the grub we have at home as much as you would think, but I will probably have a good appetite for it by the time I get home next June.1

And so he probably would, for this miner, writing from Sulphur Creek in June of 1898, still had a long way to go on the crest of his optimism. His cache of dried fruits and vegetables, bacon and flour was still good; he would probably depend on these staples for his winter survival. While there were, of course, more interesting foods on the market in Dawson, the creek worker could afford neither the time nor the money to procure them.

Winter thawing was a long, tedious, back-breaking task — one which is too rarely brought to mind by the romantic concept of digging for gold. Only one man was released from this work at a time to take charge of cooking, a chore which in some cases involved no more than cooking up quantities of sourdough bread and beans. Cooked beans could be left to freeze solid; the cook could then hack off a chunk of them with an axe and heat them in skillet grease when necessary.2 These solid victuals were consumed along with bacon and coffee, tinned or dried fruits and vegetables when they were available. For that first winter, at least, it was sourdough bread and brown beans — not the excitement of scooping nuggets from creekbeds — which kept the Klondiker's body and soul together. The first of these staples, sourdough, was such a thoroughly rooted Yukon tradition that it lent its name as a sobriquet to the Yukon old-timer. "Sourdough" described the pungent taste and smell of the fermented paste, or starter, which was used to start the leavening of dough. Why the name was earned by anyone who had spent one winter inside has never been successfully explained.

There were innumberable possible variations for the baking of sourdough bread. Two follow. The first recipe was used by Martha Louise Black in her earliest days in the Yukon. This recipe employs the traditional starter, a rising agent made ahead of time without the benefit of store-bought yeast. A small amount of starter was saved each time for subsequent bread-making:

Mix a thin batter of flour and water. Add a little rice or macaroni water and a pinch of sugar. Put mixture in a pail, cover it and hang over the stove, keeping it warm for four hours. Sourdough may be used to raise bread, pancakes and doughnuts. For pancakes use a pinch of soda.3

The second recipe was included in his diary by a Sulphur Creek miner.

6 cups flour
5 tea spoons baking powder
2 tea spoons salt
mix well
4 cups water

The final traditional Klondike touch came with the baking, for the bread pan was the prospector's gold pan. With more modern methods of working dumps, the miner's pan was relegated to what, up to that point, had been its secondary functions as a vessel for baking bread and washing up.

The only food which could rival bread as a dietary staple was brown beans,

which exactly ressemble [sic] the ordinary beans supplied to horses, and require boiling for about 3 hours before they become sufficiently soft. They possess strong nutritive and heating properties and in those days, when meat could only be obtained at fabulous prices, were consumed in enormous quantities. They were not unpleasant to eat when there was nothing else, and went by the name "Yukon Strawberry."5

Such a dispassionate observation must have come from a man who wintered on something of a deluxe outfit.

Even a full stomach of bread and beans was not enough. The constant exposure to cold, the unrelieved monotony of mining, the dark, airless, unhygienic cabins and the endlessly repeated menu all contributed, if not to scurvy, to a most depressing physical condition. As late as 1900 a boy wrote from the creeks,

Happily the cold air and the work do sharpen our appetites and we could relish sawdust and garlic.

The succulent (and flatulent) bean is the mainstay of the miner during the winter. In Dawson, one can feast on oysters, frogs' legs, fresh eggs and beef, but on the creeks, while we may sigh for such delicacies we are content to feed on the meat of moose or caribou, bacon, canned mutton or canned roast beef.6

Moose, caribou and smaller game as well as fish in season were some of the few concessions made by the Yukon to provide for these newcomers. Even then, such concessions were not direct ones. If cheechakos were not suited to the arduous miner's life, they were even less competent as self-sufficient men of the bush. The inclusion of bacon and tinned meats in an outfit was presumably intended to free the goldseeker from the necessity of hunting. When the tinned meat ran out and the bacon became unbearable, the cheechako could obtain game from the natives who had, until recently, depended on it themselves. With their moose pastures overrun by foreigners and alien gold-extracting equipment, many of these bands had turned to exchanging their game for the gold they had previously ignored. One band camped at Moosehide each summer to be nearer the lucrative market at the Klondike's mouth.7 Winters were particularly productive, for during that season native life was "enlivened by quick trips to Dawson and the mining camps to sell meat at inflationary prices."8

Throughout the year, weekly newspaper reports of fish and game prices were regular features of the Dawson commodities market.9 One sourdough recalled that caribou meat was tender and palatable, but less energy-giving than moose, beef or pork.

It doesn't stay with one as long. Moose has all the consistency of beef and is the same. The bulk of the meat is ... stringy but the steaks are equal [to] beef steaks. It may be kept [frozen] in summer for as long as required by placing in glacial streams.10

Some of the more fastidious urbanites who had rushed to the goldfields ignorant and unquestioning were somewhat squeamish about eating fresh game.11 Too late they realized that fresh meat of any sort was all too rare an occurrence in the early Dawson market.

One assistant surgeon for the North-West Mounted Police was very much aware of the positive relationship between varied diet and high morale among his men. As late as 1900, isolation and the lack of diversion were considered by Dr. Paré to be a serious danger to the mental health of the force. To counteract these conditions, he ordered that rations be made as appetizing as possible, even though most food still came from tins. "It is a daily and amusing sight," he remarked, "to see them going to their mess with cans of peas, corn, fruit, cream, milk, bottles of pickles, sardines, etc."12

The territorial health officer in 1899, Dr. J.W. Good, was similarly concerned about the well-being of Dawson's predominantly male population (80 per cent of the population in 1899).13 If more women came north, he reasoned, their talents could be turned to raising vegetables, chickens and cows. The positive influence of family life in Dawson would put an end to scurvy once and for all.14

One northern woman who agreed with Dr. Good's philosophy was Mrs. Clarence Berry, the wife of one of Dawson's original Bonanza kings. She had accompanied her husband over the pass in 1895 because she thought that women had an essential role to play in the goldfields, cooking for their men to prevent sickness and stomach-aches. She strained her imagination to produce a wholesome diet out of tins, yet despite her efforts, she still pined for anything fresh, raw or green.15

Martha Louise Black found her culinary talents similarly challenged by the limitations of an outfit and a general food shortage in trying to cook decent meals for lonely and hungry miners.

This is Thanksgiving month, and I am going to celebrate with a dinner. It is difficult to cook here, with granulated potatoes, crystallized eggs, evaporated fruits and vegetables, canned meat and condensed milk, but I have made mincemeat and it is prime. 16

She came up with the following menu:

Canned tomato soup — Bread Sticks
Oyster patties — Olives
Baked Stuffed Ptarmigan
Canned Corn — Dessicated Potato Puff
Bread — Butter — Pickles
Mince Pie — Cheese — Coffee
Popcorn Balls — and a taste of your Home Fruit Cake (the larger part to be saved for Christmas).

In the isolated winter life of a miner, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year were bright moments indeed, moments when the cabin walls seemed less confining, the surrounding wilderness less oppressive. Such occasions called for cabin-to-cabin socializing — something of a luxury in itself, when there was thawing and digging to be done. Friends from the same hometown might get together in one cabin to sing and dance and eat as fine a meal as could be assembled from the best of the combined outfits.17

Roast moose often took the place of turkey, accompanied by the traditional cranberry sauce, if someone had managed to hoard a little.18 Mince pie or plum pudding was another special treat, pulled from a corner of the cabin where it had been stored for the occasion. For one group of miners, the celebrational dinner consisted (by necessity) of dried potatoes, bacon, rice, evaporated fruit and their last can of tomatoes as a treat.19

In recording this dinner in a letter to his sister in England, a young miner reflected unhappily that whatever Dawson had for sale lay far beyond the reach of an ordinary miner working a claim deep in the Klondike valley. By the fall of 1898 the city boasted both specialized and general retail establishments which were known for their choice merchandise. In fact, one resident of Dawson and the creeks from 1898 to 1901 declared that "there was little you couldn't get there provided you had the money."20

Most Dawson residents, however, were as limited by economic considerations in their choice as were the workers on the creek-beds. They too grew tired of tinned goods, the inescapable social leveller. Long after the outfits purchased in Vancouver had run out and Dawson warehouses had been fully stocked in all lines of new goods, tin cans continued to dominate Dawson's shelves — as well as its hillsides.

As we approach the confines of the town the chief object that attracts the eye is the immense number of empty tin cans of every size and description, which lie in thousands upon all sides of the innumerable log cabins dotted about on the rocky hill slopes. The poorer inhabitants appear to live exclusively on canned food and there is surely here a great field open for an enterprising inventor who can put the masses of empty tins, which are thrown away in such quantities, to any practical use. The motto "One people one tongue" much quoted in Dawson, evidently refers to the canned commodity which forms the staple food of the Anglo-Saxons of the city. 21

Fruits, vegetables, milk and cream, butter, crystallized eggs, meats, fish (especially salmon), soups, baking powder, yeast, baking soda, cocoa and coffee had all been sealed, at one time or another, in those metal containers which lay strewn outside Dawson cabins. Baking powder tins, because of their size (a 2-1/2 lb. "Imperial" tin was 8 inches high and 4-1/2 inches in diameter)22 were used as storage tins in the kitchen. Laura Berton recalls that miners often stored their gold dust in these large cans.23

Yukon sourdoughs seem to have developed one common characteristic as a result of their first qualifying winter inside. Each one acquired a lifelong and unshakable loathing for one particular dish on the Dawson menu. For many it must have been one of the types of evaporated vegetables. The humble turnip may indeed have had the power to prevent scurvy, but it seems unlikely that it won many admirers in the Klondike in its evaporated form.

The granulated or dried potato was another item which, like the brown bean, won less than enthusiastic acceptance on Yukon dinner tables. "Lubeck's" German sliced potatoes led the field. The white substance, which rather resembled rice, was soaked in cold water and then doused with boiling water; so softened, it could be fried in bacon fat or butter.24 Perhaps the widespread use of the granulated potato in Dawson is best illustrated by the fact that the whole fresh potato was set apart by a special name, "cheechako potato," as being new to the territory. It was an expensive novelty at that. In 1899 one man who struck a rich claim celebrated his sudden wealth by splurging on fresh potatoes. He bought 100 pounds which, at the prevailing price, would have cost him $25. Ella Hall, who recorded the event, felt especially elated because, as a friend, she had received some of the treasured tubers.25 By 1902 whole potatoes (as well as onions) were available year-round and "Lubeck's" registered a distinct decline in sales.26 The price of fresh potatoes had dropped from the 25 cents per pound which the rich miner had paid three years before to a steady 9 cents per pound in 1902.27

The advent of cold storage in Dawson had had a decisive effect in enlarging the range of the city's diet. Cheese, butter, eggs, apples, citrus fruits, bananas, fish, poultry, meats, root vegetables and grains could all be kept in this say anywhere from 6 to 12 months.28 Dawson, like the rest of Canada, was experimenting in a new process in dealing with perishables.29 Across the country cold storage was greeted with general public discredit; most consumers insisted on "strictly fresh" goods.30 But the northern customer was, unlike his far-off countrymen, in no position to make such demands. Cold storage had reintroduced whole meat into his diet and had rescued him from a life time of "Lamont's" crystallized eggs, "Lubeck's" evaporated potatoes and J.B. Agen's canned preserved butter.

On the other hand, creek workers who continued to do their shopping in Dawson on a twice-yearly basis kept the canned meat and vegetable trade flourishing.31 A good week of frozen trails in the fall meant heavy purchasing traffic from the creeks, and a noticeable strain on the supplies of "Reindeer" milk or canned peas and beans.

Still, many comparatively privileged Dawson residents found that, after a few years, even cold storage food acquired a sameness in flavour which made one crave the "strictly fresh." Martha Louise Black yearned for dietary escape from the ten-month-old-egg. Mrs. Black (who was by this time the wife of Commissioner George Black), was adventurous enough to decide that she would have to raise her own chickens if she was to have fresh eggs on a regular basis. Accordingly she sent to Vancouver for six dozen hens. Each and every fresh egg she relished, until she found out that the chickens had not prospered in the northern climate; all along her husband had been buying crates of the same cold-storage eggs which she believed that the gardener was delivering "fresh from the hen-house."32

The type of food which cold storage really freed from the confines of tin cans was meat. Without the benefit of refrigeration, Dawson had no access to the products of southern slaughter houses. The only alternative was to ship in livestock, butcher it in Dawson and freeze the meat on the spot. This was no simple matter, given the obstacle course between Dawson and the coast which had defeated beasts far more agile than beef cattle. Jack Dalton spent his gold-rush days laying a trail to skirt the passes on a wide sweep from the Lynn Canal to Fort Selkirk. For over 300 miles the footpath was long and rugged, but it avoided the treacheries both of the mountain pass trails and the upper river rapids. During the summer of 1898, some 2,000 beef cattle were herded over this route to the river.33 When the overland trail from Whitehorse to Dawson was completed in 1902, herding was made even easier. During the winter, the stock was slaughtered at Whitehorse to save on additional feeding, and the frozen beef, pork and mutton were shipped over the ice from there.34

The greatest material improvement in Dawson meat provision was made by the Arctic Meat Company in 1899. A 250-horsepower steamer, the Lotta Talbot, was fitted out with liquid ammonia refrigeration compartments. She was constructed to make both the Pacific voyage from Seattle to Saint Michael and the shallow river journey up to Dawson. After a little more than two months of travel she arrived at the Dawson wharves, offering wholesale or over-the-counter meats to the city. The meat sold by this Puget Sound company was reputedly killed in its prime rather than after being driven to exhaustion over icy trails.35

By 1901 a similar firm, the Pacific Cold Storage Company, had entered the country from Tacoma, Washington, with both sea-going and river refrigeration steamers. It offered public storage and wholesale meat supplies at all points along the Yukon River as far upriver as Dawson. Meat was also brought in by the WPYR, which, by the same year, had installed special cars for transporting perishables. At Whitehorse, the Canadian, the Columbianor the Yukoner lay in berth to carry the refrigerated cargo down to Dawson.36 With this modernization of cargo carriers, Swift and Armour, both large American meat distributers, could look to Dawson as an extension of their commercial empires.

The prospect of local ranching had been discouraged from the start by the scarcity of nearby grazing land and a short and uncertain growing season. A red-topped hay grew wild in some Yukon valleys and meadows, but such fertile patches tempted only the hardiest ranchers.

Much more successful experimentation in both agricultural and monetary terms was done with vegetables. Such experimentation was not a recent phenomenon in those latitudes. One trader, Arthur Harper, had persisted in growing vegetables at every yukon post at which he served.37 Small sandy plots were ideal, and while the growing season was, of course, short, the long hours of daylight could be relied on to produce unusually large vegetables.38 Nonetheless, the factor which most encouraged the success of Yukon market gardening was the ready-made market of eager Dawsonites.

C.M. Bartholam and James A. Acklin were two entrepreneurs of 1898 who foresaw the effect of fresh produce on a population hitherto dependent on tinned goods. Cultivating land just above Dawson on the Klondike River, Acklin tried out various types of lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, peas, spinach, mustard, "sweet peas," carrots, turnips, pea and string beans, onions, beets, rhubarb and rutabagas.39 Like Acklin, Bartholam discovered that there was more than one way to extract gold from the Yukon's banks. One of the first water pails of greens from his Klondike River plot sold for more than $100 to a northerner starved for fresh vegetables.40

By the next harvest season there were 12 local gardeners concentrated in the valley around Dawson, the Klondike River, the flats at the river's mouth (near the Ogilvie Bridge) and the area across the Yukon known as West Dawson.41 From that time on, the city's summer residents were treated to fresh vegetables of all kinds. In addition to those successfully cultivated by Acklin, local strawberries were particularly good as a cash crop: a small box always sold for more than a dollar.42 Potatoes, although prolific, were never considered mealy enough to contend seriously with the cold storage variety. Early frost and old seeds from the outside were additional problems which hampered the immediate success of market gardening.43 Nevertheless, Dawson consumed everything that was grown in both market and private gardens. Even in competition with fresh goods rushed in over the ice, early local lettuces and radishes sold out as soon as they appeared on the market each June.44

But fresh vegetables retailed at an average price of 12 cents per pound, and not everyone could afford them. Restaurants found themselves tied in the same way to tinned goods because of the prohibitive prices of local fresh merchandise.45 In four years, however, the status of homegrown products had changed; Commissioner Lithgow claimed in 1906 that importation of turnips, carrots, beets and celery had almost ceased.46 The evaporated vegetables seem mercifully to have passed by 1907, but tinned fruits and vegetables were still regarded as staples. Dried fruit remained a popular item as well.

In the realm of grains and cereals, Dawson's tastes changed little during and after the gold-rush. Flour and rolled oats were still staples. While there was an increasing number of bakeries in town (the 1902 directory lists 13), breadmaking held its place as a normal kitchen activity, especially in the growing number of homes where wives had come north to supervise miners' eating habits.

There was one major change in cereal products which registered as something of a fad across the continent during this period. The idea of prepared breakfast foods, which began with the boxing of "Quaker Oats" as early as the 1870s, had taken hold.47 By 1903 a substantial corner of the Dawson grocery store was needed for boxed cereals, if the storekeeper intended to keep up with the almost 20 brands which were available to the market (see Appendix B). Steamed cereal was considered an especially sensible way to start a Yukon winter morning.

A major advance in the Dawson grocery trade after the gold-rush, and one of which merchants were visibly proud, was the increased range of specialty items or luxury goods which brightened the rows of shelves. Many of those who reported spartan Christmas meals in 1898 would not have to repeat the menu the next year. Once his first outfit had been consumed, the customer could take advantage of the many delicacies which were advertised at the Christmas season. Besides the turkeys and plum puddings which were expected at most tables, the Dawson merchant made the most of his fancy stocks of wines and wafers, special apples and raisins, nuts and biscuits, candied fruit and other such treats in boxes, tins and bottles. "Crosse and Blackwell" figured prominently in these seasonal advertisements for luxuries which would have seemed too expensive at any other time of year.48 Foreign names abounded as candy and prunes from France, oranges, grapes and raisins from Spain or Turkey and nuts from South America made their special appearances in the showcases.

Also in step with the times were the menus in those Dawson restaurants which maintained any pretence to elegance. The menu of the Holborn Cafe in the spring of 1900 offered such delicacies as oyster cocktails and lobster salad on mayonnaise, queen olives, eastern shad au gratin, fricandeau of veal à la macedoine and English plum pudding with brandy sauce.49 All one can hope is that the elaborate names were accurate descriptions of better and more appetizing food than the beanery meals of 1898 had been.

For those who preferred and could afford to prepare their own gourmandises, speciality items were available all year round. One advertisement from the Ames Mercantile Company in 1900 offered the consumer everything from shrimp in tomato sauce, devilled ham and vienna sausage to French prunes, pitted plums, New Orleans molasses and fancy table syrups. In fact it seems, from scanning grocery lists in Canadian Grocer and Eaton's catalogue, that the average Canadian at the turn of the century had a greater craving for fancy fruits, jellies and condiments in pots, tins and bottles than do his descendants today. Stanley Scearce, a Dawson commission merchant and importer, appeared to dominate the field of fancy goods in 1907. His store stocked items which ranged from "Cresca" stuffed dates to "Averbach" German truffled liver. He also advertised peanut butter, which made its first appearance in Dawson around 1907. For a large jar of the substance Dawson consumers paid one dollar.50

To speak of "imports" to the Dawson market can be somewhat confusing for the word has a variety of connotations. Foremost in the mind of the average resident was the fact that nearly all goods had to be imported from far beyond the Yukon's borders. As the awareness of Dawson's vulnerability to American goods increased, "import" came to refer to goods from American rather than Canadian producers. In the field of fancy groceries, the word "import" maintained the idea that the item came from distant ports.

By 1902 several influential articles had pointed out to Canadian manufacturers the extent to which the Yukon diet was dependent on American goods.51 Tinned goods, packaged dairy products, ham, bacon, lard, flour and evaporated vegetables were areas which were primarily supplied by American sources. Most dairy products and flour came from Washington and Oregon and most fruits and vegetables from California, although Australia and New Zealand provided some of these goods. The competitive Canadian products in these fields (especially dairy products) usually came from Ontario, as did many overseas shipments of such things as teas, coffees and dried fruits, and were distributed by centrally located jobbers there.52

The quality of the edibles on the cabin shelf had vastly improved since the concentrated and dessicated days of 1898. But beans and canned goods might continue to dominate many a table over the next decade, for not every miner could afford paté de toie gras from Stanley Scearce. Still, those merchants who advertised regularly in the local newspapers in 1902 appeared to have had an extraordinarily wide variety of stock, even in staple items.

These advertisements were interesting for their lack of convincing rhetoric and descriptive journalism. Mere lists of goods and prices sufficed in most cases. By 1902 some brand names were mentioned, but no consistent and focused effort was made to sell one brand of goods in any line. The popularity of one brand was often inferred only through repetitious references by more than one store; by this means one can presume the success of such brands as "Rex" meats, "Heinz" and "Crosse & Blackwell" products, "Ogilvie's" flour, and J.B. Agen's butter. Over the years only a handful of manufacturers and distributors advertised their goods directly in Dawson newspapers. "Lamont's Crystallized Eggs," "Hand--Y Brand" evaporated fruits and vegetables, "Blue Ribbon" and "Salada" teas, "Durkee's" spices, "Libby, McNeill and Libby," "Clark's" meats, "Ogilvie's Blue Label" flour and J.B. Agen's butter were among the few products which were advertised in this way (Figs. 37 and 38). After 1902 this practice occupied increased space in the pages of the Dawson Daily News.

37 "Some advertisements should be taken with a grain of salt — Blue Ribbon Ceylon Tea needs only cream and sugar." A common advsertisement in the Dawson Daily News in 1902.
(Dawson Daily News, 10 June 1902, p. 3.)

38 "Hand--Y" brand evaporated fruit, advertised in the Klondike Nugget in 1898.
(Klondike Nugget, 16 June 1898, p. 4.)

The more popular method of advertising was done directly through the retailers of the product.53 In his own store the merchant felt the greatest responsibility for the sales of certain brands of goods. As technology in the last half of the 19th century brought both the packaged product and the widespread marketing of a recognized brand name, the manufacturer and distributor encouraged the individual merchant to vouch for his product. The storekeeper, it was reasoned, would appreciate the increased efficiency in handling (e.g., packaged cereals as opposed to bins of rolled oats) as well as a reliable clientele if he stocked only one company's goods.

The transition made a tremendous difference to the store's interior. Shelving became the primary method of display, since the majority of products were in tins, bottles and packages and could be displayed that way. In addition, colourful placards, posters, cut-outs, bunting and plaster models were obtainable from the manufacturer for the purpose of advertising the brand name of that company's products.54 The NC Company store displayed this kind of interior advertising (Fig. 39) as various company-sponsored advertisements competed for the customer's eye. Merchants with imaginative or artistic capabilities could build a rather elaborate display around the product, placards and models.

39 The grocery department of the Northern Commercial Company, 1909.
(Public Archives Canada, C 3014.)

Ornate window dressings in grocery stores were particularly popular among the subscribers to the Canadian Grocer. Photographs, hints, criticism and praise directed at particular window displays of this or that grocer became a regular feature between 1903 and 1905. The accompanying articles stressed time and again the importance of imaginative visual appeal in these displays. It appeared that great pyramids of packaged products surrounded by large placards bearing the company's name, along with sundry related decorations, formed a most popular genre of window dressing (see Fig. 40). While Dawson photographs offer glimpses of small piles of goods in the window (Fig. 41) there seem to have been no grand expositions on the British model suggestive of those in the Canadian Grocer. This may, however, be the result of a gap in the pictorial record of the city rather than a lack of sophistication on the part of the merchants. The fact that many of the smaller stores opened out onto the sidewalk for the light summer months may also have limited window display (Fig. 42).

40 An exemplary grocery window display
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 17, No. 50 [Dec. 1903], p. 50.)

41 The Dawson grocert did not always pay as much attention to his window displays as did his southern counterparts.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13279.)

42 Mac's Grocery, 1903-05. Dawson stores extended to the sidewalks in summer.
(Public Archives Canada, C 7068.)

The interior appearance of any well-appointed store was thought to be an essential factor of good salesmanship. In this matter the Canadian Grocer weekly espoused the cause of neat and tidy displays. Now that packaging was coming into its own as a refined commercial art, the pleasing array of goods in a store began to take over from the chaotic floor-boards-to-rafters approach of the previous century. "Within recent years it has become a generally recognized fact that appearance is to a grocery store almost of the same importance that clothes are to a woman. They are not everything but they account for a great deal."55

As with window displays, the Grocer made a regular feature of discussing the artistic and mercantile merits of the interiors of various Canadian establishments (Fig. 44). The pyramid or the three-dimensional stack of tinned and boxed products was universally popular, relying on floor-to-ceiling wall space along one whole wall of the store. Central display tables were used for some items, often in conjunction with brand advertising cards. Goods to be displayed in cartons, such as fruit, biscuits or candy, could be leaned against these central islands, leaving the counters free for conducting business. Showcases were also used for these sorts of goods, and in some stores for the grain products which had previously been hidden away in bins.

43 Grocery department, North American Transportation and Trading Company store, Dawson, ca. 1901.
(The Library of the University of Alberta.)

44 A store selected by the Canadian Grocer exhibits a popular display style.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 18 [July 1904], p. 53.)

Flat, bevelled and sloping front glass cases were popular along the counters. In some establishments the display cases were built right into the shelves (Fig. 45). The Canadian Grocer had the following advice on the judicious and aesthetic use of store space:

Barrels in sight, whatever the position may be, are not features of a neat interior. Counters should be free from almost all stock save what must be kept in show cases, and the office must be well built wherever it is placed. Neatness must exist in every successful store, and to obtain this the stock should be confined as much as possible to the shelves, show cases and fixtures specially made for the purpose.56

45 Glass showcases intended for confectioner's displays, 1897.
(Crandall and Godley Company, Bakers', Confectioners', Ice Cream Makers', and Caterers' Supplies, Tools, Fixtures, and Machinery [New York: n. p., 1897], p. 21.)

Photographs of Dawson's commercial interiors show a marked similarity to those selected by the Canadian Grocer for favourable comment. Dawson merchants were obviously determined to keep pace with the latest display techniques (Figs. 39 and 43). In the NC Company's grocery department of 1909 only one barrel is in evidence; it contained ginger snaps. The cracker barrel had disappeared, and along with it a whole style of country store-keeping. Christie's appeared to have dominated the packaged biscuit business, but the open carton of cookies at the end of the counter never entirely disappeared.

Like biscuits and prepared cereals, much of what had once been bulk goods in barrels and bins appeared on Dawson shelves in neatly and uniformly packaged units. Bulk tea appeared in 40- and 50-pound packages. Coffee beans were also available in one-pound tins or in 25-pound sacks; the beans were ground into paper bags printed with the retailer's name, as a common method of distribution, and the coffee grinder never disappeared from the counter. In the photograph of the NC Company's store, a grinder is barely visible at the far end of the left-hand counter. While the Canadian Grocer carried advertisements for "Coles" coffee mills from Philadelphia and "National" mills (Eby, Blain and Company, Toronto, agents; see Figs. 46 and 47), smaller countertop models are displayed in the Dawson Hardware Company Museum; these are examples of the popular "Enterprise" (Enterprise Manufacturing Company, Philadelphia) and "Swift" (Land Brothers, Poughkeepsie, New York) coffee mills.57

46 Coffee mill, advertised in the Canadian Grocer in 1903.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 17 No. 45 [Nov. 1903], p. 28.)

47 Coffee mill, advertised in the Canadian Grocer in 1904.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 18 [July 1904], p. 23.)

Other goods were still available in bulk form, in addition to more modern packages. Apples still arrived tightly packed in barrels, but they were also sold in small tins and gallon units. While tinned butter was the only kind which arrived in Dawson at first, cold storage reintroduced the ordinary kind in 14-, 28- and 70-pound tubs, cases and barrels.58 Tubs from the east were most often made of spruce. The tubs manufactured by United Factories in Toronto had lids firmly pressed on and four encircling hoops to hold them together. For protection from prolonged contact with the wood, the butter was wrapped in clean cloth and then in a salt and water paste. Cheese, like preserved butter, was most popular in the north in its prepared and packaged form.59 MacLaren's cheeses were especialIy in evidence, in case lots of 24 small jars or 12 medium-sized ones (Fig. 48). Stilton, "Oregon Cream," "Genuine Swiss," "Young America" and "Ontario Twin" cheeses are recorded in 1905 market reports at various prices per pound;60 the forms they came in, however, are not known. They were probably sold in boxed form, for at the same time the Canadian Grocer urged its subscribers in the cheese trade to avoid the false economy of cheap boxes.61

48 Three of McLaren's cheeses.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 19 [Feb. 1905], p. 14.)

Rice and flour of all kinds were traditionally put up in 50-pound sacks, an especially convenient size for outfitting. This size continued to be standard. In the NC Company's photograph, however, the sacks on the left-hand back wall appear to be considerably smaller than 50 pounds (Fig. 39), but they may have contained dried peas or tapioca, which came in 10-pound sacks. Sugar was available in a wide variety of forms, each with its corresponding pack. Granulated sugar came in units of 20, 50 and 100 pounds; lump sugar came in barrels and half-barrels; bar or loaf sugar came in 25- and 40-pound packs, and pulverized sugar came in 25- and 100-pound barrels. Barrels and hogs-heads of brown and white granulated sugar presented a common problem to the merchant. The contents became so hard over a period of time that a sugar augur had to be used to loosen the cemented mass.62

Syrup and molasses rarely arrived in the Yukon in large kegs. "Imperial" and "Log Cabin" were both popular brands of maple syrup (Fig. 49) and came in both 1- and 1-1/2 pound and in 5-gallon tins. Vinegar was still available in large quantities. Most preserving companies retailed their own vinegar in units from 1 gallon to 24 or 36 quarts. Pickled goods of all kinds were packed in wooden barrels or smaller kegs (Fig. 50). Pickled mackerel, herring, pigs' feet, hocks and beef, as well as the common pickled fruits and vegetables, were to be found in this form. "Heinz" advertised a number of packing units. Their pickles were put up in 1-, 2- and 3-pound kits, 16- and 30-gallon barrels, 5- and 10-gallon kegs and (of course) in bottles of less than a quart. Their motto, "57 Varieties," could be adequately vouched for in any large grocery department (Fig. 51). Salt came in barrels, as well as gunnies of 3, 5, and 10 pounds. Olive oil was marketed in quantities ranging from a pint to 12 gallons; French mushrooms came in sacks of as much as 100 pounds, and lard came in tubs of any size from 3 to 50 pounds.

49 "Log Cabin" registered label, 1900.
(Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Trade Marks Registry.)

50 "Ozo" pickles, 1904.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 18 [July 1904], p. 56.)

51 Five of the 57 varieties, 1904.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 18 [Oct. 1904], p. 146.)

While the shipping and retailing of products in bulk was maintained in various lines, these too were being gradually converted to packaged and name-brand items. Jams, jellies, sauces, olives, mustard and other condiments were packed into jars and tins (and, in the case of jams, pails) which varied from half a pint to 5 gallons in volume (Fig. 52). Baking powder came in standard-sized tins of 4, 8, 12 and 16 ounces and 2-1/2 pounds. Fruit and vegetable tins were usually of the 1-, 2-, 2-1/2- or 3-pound size. Breakfast cereal boxes contained either 1 or 2 pounds, while tins of cocoa were usually only a quarter or a half pound (Fig. 53). Tinned meats were generally sold in 1- and 2-pound quantities, as was condensed milk and cream.

52 E.D. Smith cherry preserves (probably one pint), 1905.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 19 [March 1905], p. 55.)

53 A half-pound tin of cocoa.
(Canadian Grocer, Vol. 18 No. 1 [January 1904], p. 7.)

With the packaging of staple goods in standard units, the standard case lot followed as a natural consequence. This provided a measure of efficiency in shipping, storage and wholesaling. In fact the photograph of the NC Company grocery department (Fig. 39) shows that packing cases were brought into the store and incorporated right into the displays. The transaction of moving goods from warehouse to shop was much easier than it had been in the days of bins and scoops. The case lot could be opened for display and small purchases or it could be sold as a unit, as often happened in sales to miners from the creeks.

The standard case lot of cereals consisted of 36 boxes of either one or two pounds each; biscuits were packed in lots of four dozen 2-pound boxes. A case of cocoa had 24 half-pound tins; a case of baking powder was 36 8-ounce tins or 12 16-ounce tins or 6 2-1/2-pound tins. A case lot of butter usually contained two dozen 2-pound tins, while one of condensed milk comprised four dozen one-pound tins. Case lots of tinned fruit and vegetables were usually made up of two dozen of either the 2- or 3-pound size. T. Eaton and Company had a case lot of half a dozen gallon tins as well (Fig. 54). Dried fruits, both in Dawson and Eaton's catalogue, came packed in crates weighing either 25 or 50 pounds (Fig. 55). Tinned meats were sold in a variety of case lots, usually of one or two dozen of either the 1- or 2-pound size. Whole tins were packed directly into the cases, bottles were wrapped first in a paper wrapper, often printed with the company's name; "Lea & Perrins" wrappers had the company's name in blue ink diagonally across the outside.63

54 Case lots of tinned fruits and vegetables put up by the T. Eaton Company, autumn, 1909.
(The Archives, Eaton's of Canada Limited.)

55 Case lots of fresh and evaporated fruits from the T. Eaton Company, 1907.
(The Archives, Eaton's of Canada Limited.)

As F.C. Wade pointed out, one reason for the extensive American trade with the Canadian Yukon was the progressiveness of its packing industry. Lighter tin containers, more attractive label lithography, more reliable packing of hams, cheeses and butter, all had their effect on the competitive Dawson market.64 As late as 1905 the Canadian Grocer took up the same issue with Canadian manufacturers who were hoping to increase their shipments north.65

While increased convenience and tidiness were generally associated with the transition to packaged foods, the quality of the food could be affected too. A brief look at food standards has been taken above, but many years after the outfitting rush, both retailer and consumer were still plagued with adulterations and substitutions. While substitution tended more to cheapen the product and add to its weight rather than to introduce harmful substances, the common malpractice was gradually being brought to public attention. Packaging had certainly cleaned up many products, such as rolled oats, by sealing them off from the dirt which naturally accumulated in any general store, but the practice of additions and substitutions in the canning and packing industry was still far from being eradicated.

A Canadian Grocer report in 1904 showed that of 74 tested samples of jams and jellies, only four were found to contain nothing more than fruit, cane sugar and water. The rest contained varying amounts of turnip, glucose, coal tar, dyes and salicylic acid (the last two of which are noxious).66 The same report showed that 100 out of 188 samples of various spices contained stone husks, shells, sweepings, charcoal, hair or dirt. The following common adulterants were singled out:


olive oilcotton seed oil

maple syrupbrown sugar

maple syrupglucose, sugar, water

pepperstones, pulverized nut shells

jellies, jamsapple jelly, artificial colouring

baking powderterra alba

An early issue of the Grocer told of chicory in coffee (a practice which was widely accepted at the turn of the century), acid in vinegar, starch in mustard, old sugar covered by new and boric acid in butter.67

Of course not all food complaints could be passed over as the responsibility of the manufacturer. Laura Berton tells of a well-known Dawson fruit dealer who "for a fabulous price . . . could sell you a deep box of fruit, the top layer perfect specimens, and all underneath rotten, with a smile of angelic sweetness and a gracious phrase of broken English."68 The trials of shipping and storing perishables were apt to have adverse effects on those foods. One lady complained of finding five or six bad eggs after paying $2.50 for a dozen.69 The taste of the eggs could be completely ruined by poor packing procedures. For example, if jack pine was used for the crates instead of basswood or elm, damp weather caused the eggs to absorb a very nasty odour. Egg crates, the ever-watchful Grocer warned, had to be well-constructed and ventilated, since breakages could release a dreadful and permeating smell.70 Cheese boxes needed continual inspection, especially in warm weather; unless they were cool and dry, gases could form. When this happened, the merchant was instructed to use a wire to poke a hole in the cheese to give vent to the gas. Mould had to be scraped off, and the surface rubbed with sweet oil.71

The average Dawson resident was cautious about what he bought, not because he was an overly fussy customer, but because his experiences with frozen outfits, tinned or cold storage foods, goods shipped over several thousand miles (not to mention his encounters with poorly packed or adulterated products) had made him acutely skeptical at the grocery counter. While the merchant could never wax too descriptive in his newspaper advertisements, he did recognize the prevailing insistence on purity and worked his slogans around that demand. "Warranted perfectly pure," "everything we sell is guaranteed" and "no goods are sold over our counter until we have personally sampled them and found them to be good" were common phrases in newspaper columns. Some merchants were more blunt. The AC Company in 1900 advertised "Bro-man-get-on" as "a delicious dessert jelly, absolutely pure ... no injurious adulteration." This store refunded money to the dissatisfied customer as a policy,72 as did the Ames Mercantile Company. Weld's Minnesota Grocery claimed in 1902 that "adulterations are barred out and pure groceries are sold at very moderate prices."73 In general, goods were advertised as fresh, palatable, nourishing, wholesome, good, of the finest or highest grade — or any combination of these.

Even in making his actual purchase the consumer had to be careful, although the phasing out of bulk goods alleviated much of the need for surveillance at the scales. The Dawson customer had added cause for caution, at least as long as he was dealing in gold dust. The understanding which existed between merchant and customer in this ritual has been discussed in the preceding chapter. The eventual insistence on hard currency as tender also contributed to the reduction of this worry. In the early days of Dawson trade, the scales — for dust and for goods — were among the most conspicuous features in a commercial establishment, for a variety of goods from beans and blankets to soap and candles was sold by the pound.74 Romantic though they may have been, the gold scales were the first to go. They were replaced by one product from an up-and-coming company in Dayton, Ohio, which was already working its way into many a North American store. In 1898 the National Cash Register Company was retailing its wares at $50 to $70 in Vancouver.75 Two years later, McLennan and McFeely were selling these machines to any merchant who wished to modernize his business.

The Canadian Grocer thought that the efforts of even the best-intentioned merchant to present his goods in an attractive fashion would be totally wasted if he did not ensure that the interior of his store was brilliantly illuminated. By 1900, however, a large number of Dawson firms were able to convert to electric lighting using the power supplied by the Dawson Electric Light and Power Company. In January, the AE Company had 50 lights installed, the SYT Company had 40 and the Ames Mercantile Company had 20. Rowe and Townsend (cigars and tobacco), the Melbourne Annex Lunch and the Criterion Hotel, as well as several other hotels, offices, homes and stores on Second Avenue, were also among the first to convert.76 Two large corporations had already hooked up their own electric lighting.

Most Dawson stores were dependent for their large, centrally located stoves, which (naturally enough) became the social focus of the establishment. The larger department stores could not rely on this method of heating for their huge retail outlets. Many of them turned to the steam heat generated several blocks away at the Yukon Saw Mill. The old AE store, which became the hardware department of the NC Company, got its heat from one 100-horsepower and two 75-horsepower boilers. The connecting pipe was wrapped in asbestos and placed in a 12-inch box packed with sawdust. Radiators in every room supplied the heat. The company could claim proudly that they needed not one single stove.77

One important aspect of the store's immediate appeal to customers was the way it smelled. While the merchant had probably grown accustomed to the olfactory jungle in which he worked, he had to take care that the total effect was not overwhelming. The Grocer suggested that foods emitting the most powerful odours (cheese and pickled goods, for example) be kept near the rear, that dried fruits be covered, that confectionery be kept under glass and that the sugar be checked regularly for melting and souring around the wood. At least one Dawson grocer discovered that, if he roasted his own coffee daily, the pleasant aroma would manage to dominate all the others.78

Food was not necessarily the only concern of the grocery and provisions merchant. T.W. Grennan, as has been shown, carried a considerable stock of household supplies; Germer stocked tobaccos — although the competition from confectioners and tobacconists must have been stiff. The following was considered to be a full slate of the household items offered by one merchant in 1899:

stoves and ranges
kitchen utensils
clothes pins
potato mashers
wash boilers
flour sifters
muffin tins
portable forges
stove furniture
knives and forks
wash boards
rolling pins
coffee mills
tubs and pails
lemon squeezers
cork screws79

While these items were more in the line of the hardware merchant than the grocer's, the latter stocked everything possible in household hardware equipment. The Dawson Hardware Company Museum contains a "kitchen reminder" issued by Ahlert and Forsha grocers. It contained such useful items as alum, blacking, blueing, lamp wicks, lye, stove polish and washing powder.

The appearance of rubber boots in the middle of the NC Company's grocery department (Fig. 39) is something of a mystery, given a department store which had a section exclusively devoted to Klondike clothing — especially since goods and clothing were among the earliest specializations in Dawson business. Newspaper advertisements placed by such clothiers as J.P. McLennan, Sargent and Pinska, Oak Hall Clothing, Hershberg and Company and Red Front Store were consistently prominent.

The most fundamental truism of Dawson business was that prices were exceedingly high, both on the wharves in 1898 and in major department stores a decade later. At this point the basis of the problem should be fairly clear. Appendix J has been compiled from the numerous references which had been made to the price of commodities over the years. Many of these were accompanied by complaints; many more were included in letters to shock the folks at home. A cursory study of this appendix brings a number of trends to light. The most evident is the monstrous gap which separates Dawson's retail prices from those in outfitting centres or in the Eaton's catalogue. The analysis of shipping and distribution conditions already given justifies to some extent Dawson's comparatively exorbitant prices. An indirect effect of long-distance shipping on prices was the need for Dawson's merchants to bring in the highest quality and most climate-resistant goods. Another way of looking at the same set of circumstances was to observe that, with freight rates so high, it never paid to bring in anything but the best.80

Another trend made obvious by Appendix J is that by 1907 prices had dropped considerably. Consequently, in some lines (especially canned fruit and vegetables) Dawson prices appeared to be nearly competitive with those in Eaton's catalogue. Explanations for this phenomenon are various. In general, the entire mercantile structure had been adjusted by 1907 to fit Dawson's population comfortably; that is, a settled trade operation was able to predict and provide for the needs of a more stable population. There were particular factors involved as well, including the reduction of rail rates and the insistence on cash or short-term payment — changes which created a more suitable system for the businessman dealing in the modern business world. The character of the merchant himself was also a consideration, for everyone agreed that the boom days of speculation and sudden, immense profits had come and gone. In these and many other ways, Dawson was taking on the appearance and character of any contemporary Canadian town.

Nonetheless, the prices charged for staples after 1903 were in no way readily accepted by Dawson's citizens. "You can buy as handsome things here as in San Francisco or New York, if you don't mind the price," one visitor wrote coolly,81 but Dawsonites themselves could not afford to be so nonchalant. From all sides came repeated criticism that merchants, like landowners, refused to lower their prices in keeping with the general depressing effect of falling wages. There were, of course, instances — usually corresponding with general shortages, such as that felt over the winter of 1899 — when merchants were actually accused of cornering the market and deliberate price manipulation.82 During a suspected meat combine in 1900 the Dawson Daily News took up the cause of the "labouring classes" who could not afford the $1 and $1.50 per pound which was being charged for meat, and whose families, it was argued, hardly received enough nutrition from the cheaper moose and caribou.83

The comparative price chart (Appendix J) has been set up in such a way as to bring out one striking pattern of Dawson prices, seasonal variation, for the years 1897, 1902 and 1905. Without exception winter prices are higher during these years. The winter of 1897 (the "starvation winter") is an especially dramatic example of this phenomenon, and the price of flour most accurately reflects the pattern. As winter drew to a close, scows of provisions were dragged over the ice or were sent to Dawson immediately after breakup; the market broke, and prices returned to normal. The price of flour, for example, dropped to a startling low of $2.00 per 50 pounds.

It is difficult to follow the sensitive reactions of retail prices to yearly market fluctuations. For instance, the end of the winter might mean that one line of goods (Carnation cream, perhaps) had been sold right out while overstocked canned goods, such as vegetables, were selling at rock-bottom prices in an attempt to clear them out before the arrival of fresh goods over the ice and the summer pack of canned goods. Such was the case in April 1902 when the Dawson Daily News declared that "staples are cheaper than ever in the history of the country,"84 and commission grocers were practically giving their stocks away. The arrival of goods over the ice from Laberge did much to re-establish equilibrium in the market. By the end of May and June, prices in fresh goods and perishables were as low as they ever would be.

This basic pattern was played out annually. Once the structure had been established, improved and stabilized, once the city's tastes and needs had been formed and recognized, and once the number of participating merchants had reached a level commensurate with the reduced population, the machine was virtually self-perpetuating. As Dawson settled into its respectable middle age, its customers resigned themselves to the constant features of northern trade. Clark's "Ready Lunch Beef," Borden's "Eagle Brand" milk and the ubiquitous canned fruits would be with them always. Those who carried such commodities inside as part of their outfits had not been aware at the time of the precedent they were setting. Years later, if they were still in Dawson, they had no doubt resigned themselves to a northern diet which was, at best, tinned and boxed.

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