Spice Mill Lane runs north from Adelaide Street East to Lombard just west of the Spire Condominium. It was named in 2012 to commemorate the spice mills that were once prominent in this neighbourhood and nearby to Lombard Street. City directories from the late 19th century list many importers and wholesalers of all sorts of goods, including spices, coffee, tea, chocolate, and other baking goods like extracts and baking powders.
The laneway is clearly indicated on the 1899 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map (highlighted below in green). The entire block to the right of the lane is now occupied by The Spire Condominium and the Verizon office tower at 60 Adelaide Street East (denoted by red box). At the top of Spice Mill Lane on the north side of Lombard (in the blue box) is the present site of The Indigo residential and commercial buildings.
While not the largest spice mill in town, Thompson, Bradshaw and Co. occupied the building labelled “Spice Mills” at the north end of Spice Mill Lane. They were the first tenant, occupying two floors and the basement of a new factory building that was constructed here in 1889/90. By 1892, Thompson had dropped out of the picture and his partner Mr. William A. Bradshaw, had switched gears to soap manufacturing, using the business name Toronto Soap Company. He remained in this building until 1895.
There were other larger and more established spice mills in the neighbourhood. One well-known business was located on the southwest corner of Princess and Front Street East, a corner that will soon see a new development by Pemberton called the “Time & Space” condominium.
On this site, Mr. Dalrymple Crawford, a soap/candle maker and spice grinder, opened Toronto Coffee and Spice Mills in 1856. After a considerable run, the business was bought by the Dalton Bros., in 1871. They continued to run it under the old name, but records mostly refer to it as the Dalton Bros. spice mill.
The proprietors of Dalton Bros., Mr. Charles C. Dalton and Mr. W. Bayly, were soap manufacturers from London, Ontario. The 1880 Goad’s Fire Insurance map provides a detailed schematic of their business. They had a two-storey office on the corner. The grinding mill faced Princess Street and the soap and candle buildings were behind. They had a large coal bin on the south end of the property to feed the 75 HP steam engine used to run their operations. This site was advantageous because Dalton Bros. would have received animal by-products for soap making from the nearby William Davis pork packing outfit. Dalton Bros. remained on this site for 37 years (1871 to 1908), and it was only because the city expropriated the land for the Canadian Pacific Railway (a deal which then fell through), that Dalton Bros. moved to 11 Front Street East in 1909.
Dalton Bros. remained at 11 Front Street East until at least 1935. In 1996, the company was bought by Reinhart Foods, a Canadian company based in North York.
Todhunter, Mitchell & Company was another successful spice mill nearby. James Todhunter immigrated to Toronto from Cumberland, England in 1870. His company first appears in the City Directory in 1877 as Todhunter, Black & Co., cocoa & chocolate mills.
Two years later (1879) he had a new partner, William A. Mitchell, and had moved into 130-132 Adelaide Street East, part of the John D. Lewis row of heritage buildings on the northwest corner of Jarvis and Adelaide (today’s Edible Arrangements).
Todhunter & Mitchell produced their own coffee blend and sold coffee mill supplies made by the Cole Manufacturing Company.
Like Dalton Bros., Todhunter & Mitchell were wholesalers who advertised their extensive product line to housekeepers, bakers, and confectioners across Canada. They sold cocoa, chocolate, pickle spices, and other seasoning herbs.
At the turn of the century, the availability of spices to the Canadian cook or baker was limited compared to today’s choices. Early recipes often left out exact quantities or ingredients; they assumed cooks knew what they were about and called for “spices to taste”. Bakers would have had the following options: cinnamon (cassia), ginger, nutmeg (mace), cloves, and allspice. Along with pepper and chilies, these are the most ancient spices, the first to be sought out by sea-faring empires and spawning the quest for east-west trading routes and the discovery of new worlds. Savoury spices commonly used by Canadians included pepper and curry powder. An 1877 recipe for Mrs. Ellas’s Chow Chow calls for celery seed, turmeric, and cayenne. Todhunter & Mitchell advertised sage, rosemary, and thyme.
It is not clear where the Toronto spice mills would have sourced their spices. Dalton Bros. and Todhunter & Mitchell offered a variety of goods and therefore would have had substantial supply chains. Small clues from historical sources indicate that both companies had their own buyers and transportation arrangements. For example, an 1899 Globe article describes a fire in the Dalton Bros.’ boat house at the foot of Frederick Street, where the Merchants’ Wharf extended into the harbour. It could be that they either had their own boats or used the boat house as depot for offloading and storing supplies from merchant boats. An 1895 Canadian Grocer magazine describes a buyer for Todhunter & Mitchell surveying the wheat fields on the Pacific Coast.
As a colony of Great Britain, Canadian spice mills would have imported spices from Great Britain, benefitting from its established trading arrangements. It is unlikely that they would have had direct trade with the spice producing sources in Asia and elsewhere. It is also probable that imports came from the United States via spice merchants in New York City. In 1902, it was reported that Canada had about 15 spice mills and while many of them ground their own spices, “the manufactured article can be imported from the United States…”. Shipments by rail would have been possible as early as the 1850s. This ad in 1849 for wholesaler A.V. Brown and Co. indicates that they were receiving supplies by both rail and ship. By the 1890s, railways would have become the preferred transportation method.
Todhunter, Mitchell & Co. was acquired by Pure Gold Manufacturing in 1924. Pure Gold was a competitor, also founded in 1877. The Toronto agent for the trade name “Pure Gold” products was Alexander Jardine. Mr. Jardine had started his own Coffee and Spice Mills business at 31 Front Street East and, by 1899, was operating exclusively under the Pure Gold company name. In 1929, four years after it acquired Todhunter, Mitchell & Co, Pure Gold itself was bought by competitor Blue Ribbon Corp Ltd., which later became part of Unilever.
The heyday of spice mills in Toronto was from about 1850-1930. By the turn of the century they started to consolidate into fewer but bigger firms and were eventually absorbed into large food conglomerates. This was part of a trend in all industries. From 1900 to 1931 there were 374 commercial consolidations in Canada that absorbed 1,145 independent organizations.
The story of Toronto’s early spice mills and how they supplied most independent grocers throughout the country in the 19th and early 20th century is entirely forgotten. The next time you walk past Spice Mill Lane think about how you can get almost anything you want living here in city, and how this abundant availability was first made possible by pioneering companies like Dalton Bros. and Todhunter, Mitchell & Co., who, as wholesale grocers, established early supply chains and drove consumerism in 19th century Toronto.
Sources Consulted: Consolidations in Canadian Industry and Commerce: Jan 1, 1900 to Dec 31, 1933; Canadian Grocer July-December 1909, Maclean-Hunter Pub. Co.; Fred Czarra, Spices A Global History, 2009; Goad’s Fire Insurance maps as captioned via Goad’s Atlas of Toronto-Online; The Home Cook Book, Rose Publishing Co., 1887 via Internet Archive; Toronto City Directories as captioned via the Toronto Public Library; Toronto Daily Star and Globe and Mail Historical Newspapers as captioned via ProQuest; M.G. Bixby, Industries of Canada – Historical & Commercial Sketches of Toronto and Environs, Jan 1, 1886; Our history page of Reinhart website; “A belated bye-bye to Blue Ribbon Tea (1897-2015)”, West End Dumpling blog, April 4, 2017.