The first successfully marketed soft cheese, MacLaren’s Imperial, was introduced to the market sometime in late 1891 or early 1892 by Canadian born Alexander F. MacLaren.
According to his April, 1917 obituary he:
originated the method of marketing soft cheese, resulting in the establishment of an important branch of the trade. The new idea brought him fame and fortune, gaining him the presidency of the Western Ontario Dairy Association and the familiar title of “Cheese King of Canada.”
An August 15, 1892 Hudson Bay Company advertisement described his Imperial Cheese like this:
“MacLaren’s Imperial” is a creamy, nutty, full-flavored Canadian cheese, put up in 1/2-lb. to 3-lb. glass jars; it is made in Stratford, Ont.
Acquired by Kraft in the early 1920’s, the brand has survived to this day.
MacLaren was a successful businessman who throughout his career was involved in over 40 corporations. Also a seasoned politician, he served in the Canadian parliament from 1896 to 1908. That being said, a feature on MacLaren published in an 1896 publication called “Farming,” recounted his early years and made it clear that first and foremost he was a dairyman.
When a child he had the advantage of a year or two of schooling at a rural public school; but he had to begin to earn his own living at the early age of nine years. He worked on a farm until he was seventeen years of age, and then he entered the Fullerton Cheese Factory to learn cheesemaking. He followed this business for several years, and then he began to buy cheese. He first bought for Thomas Ballantyne & Co., of Stratford; then for J. L. Grant & Co., of Ingersoll; then for the Ingersoll Packing Company.
According to the 1903 edition of the “Newspaper Reference Book of Canada,” in 1891 he established his own business buying cheese, and a year later began the manufacture of Maclaren’s Imperial Cheese. A May 4, 1893 article published in Ontario, Canada’s “Windsor Star” picks up the story from there.
He operated out first in the Forester’s block, Stratford, where he thought probably he would be able to get along for the first year. He had not been started more than six months when he had so many orders on hand that he was compelled to move into new and more commodious quarters, where of course he had to employ extra help and further increase the capacity of his factory but still the business keeps on increasing, until he now finds in order to do an even greater business, he must move to a place that will give him the very best shipping facilities, such a place he has in this city and he has decided to move the entire plant up here at once.
MacLaren’s stay in Windsor was short-lived and within a year, on April 17, 1894, he announced that the company was moving again, this time to what would become their long time home in Toronto. Once again the “Windsor Star” told the story.
A.F. MacLaren will move his cheese business to Toronto on May 1st. The firm will be known as A. F. MacLaren & Co., and will manufacture the Imperial Cheese on a much larger scale than was attempted heretofore.
Mr. MacLaren does not complain at the business he has done from this point, as his business doubled since coming here. Windsor is not central enough for his Canadian trade and the profits are largely eaten up in freights.
In his removal from this city Windsor will lose one of its best citizens.
The Toronto business was listed in the directories with an address of 51 Colburne (1895 to 1914) and later 69 Front (1915 to 1920). It initially operated under the name A. F. MacLaren & Co., with MacLaren, along with Henry Wright named as the proprietors.
Wright, a manufacturer’s agent, was also listed in the directories as the proprietor of his own business called Henry Wright & Co., so it appears that the two firms worked together with MacLaren focused on manufacturing and Wright on sales and distribution. In 1900 the two companies merged and incorporated as the A. F. Maclaren Cheese Company, Ltd., with MacLaren serving as president and Wight general manager during the first few years. Then, in 1903, with Maclaren’s business interests apparently broadening he took a step back and Wright was listed as both president and general manager.
Back in 1892, faced with a duty of six cents per pound on exports to the United States, MacLaren also established a factory in Detroit Michigan at 571-573 Michigan Avenue. As early as 1893 they had cultivated agents and were advertising in the United States as evidenced by this February 21, 1893 advertisement in the St. Louis Dispatch.
The Detroit operation was established in association with a man named John D, Thompson who I suspect served as MacLaren’s U. S. Agent during this period. Up through 1899 the business was sometimes referenced in the Detroit directories as MacLaren & Thompson and at other times as A. F. MacLaren & Co . Their Imperial Cheese was exhibited under the MacLaren & Thompson name at this Food Exposition advertised in the April 23, 1897 Chicago Tribune advertisement (fifth line down).
As far as I can tell, Thompson was not involved in the company’s 1900 incorporation.
According to “A History of Ontario: It’s Resources and Development,” published in 1907, around the turn of the century the company was established throughout Canada and much of the United States. In addition to their Detroit facility they had established U. S. offices in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. According to a May 18, 1898 advertisement in the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader/Telegram it was around this time that they made a small contribution to U. S. naval history.
Alex.MacLaren, the well-known Stratford cheeseman, has through his Boston agents, contracted to supply MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese to the United States warships Columbia, Minneapolis and Lehigh. These vessels are now cruising off the Middle and Eastern States ready to intercept the Spanish fleet should it appear thereabout.
No wonder that our navy sweeps all before it. That MacLaren makes a notable cheese. Sailors fed on it are bound to assert themselves, it gives them stomach for the fight.
It was also around the turn of the century that the company began branching out overseas. One early effort to increase their product awareness across the Atlantic was a holiday campaign that induced Canadians to send Imperial Cheese to relatives and friends living in the British Isles. The hook, used today more than ever, was “free shipping.” This 1904 advertisement laid out the deal promoted in several Canadian newspapers during the fall/winter of 1904.
The “History of Ontario” went on to say that by the time it was published in 1907 MacLaren’s had become known world wide having been introduced in countries that included Australia, China, Japan and South Africa. At that point the company’s output was the largest of any North American company.
Their growth was no doubt driven in large part by their signature product, Imperial Cheese, which according to this advertisement in the 1904 edition of the Steward’s Manual was winning awards world wide in the early 1900’s.
It was also in 1904 that John D. Rockerfeller served as a spokesman for Imperial Cheese, though, most likely, he was completely unaware of his role.
While the word “probably,”inserted in the above advertisement provides a clue, another advertisement published around the same time made it clear that while Rockefeller did promote the value of cheese, it was actually MacLaren’s marketing department that made the connection between Rockefeller and MacLaren’s Imperial.
Rockefeller Says: “Eat Cheese.”
John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil King, was interviewed in Philadelphia the other day, and asked why his health had so greatly improved. His answer consisted of good advice as to the benefits of slow eating, but he added a most interesting opinion as follows:
“Do you know that I recently read an article by a well known scientific man, to the effect that cheese is an excellent article of diet? I wish that I had read that article a long time ago. I had been afraid that cheese had a tendency to produce indigestion and for that reason never touched it. Now I find that its effects are directly contrary, and I eat a great deal of it, and find that it agrees with me. Take my advice, eat cheese, eat slowly, and take outdoor exercise, and you will enjoy good health.”
MacLaren evidently eats MacLaren’s Imperial. He had visited the World’s Fair where MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese secured 100 points in degree of excellence. MacLaren’s Imperial is a perfect food, and has been pronounced by connoisseurs the highest grade of cheese ever shown.
While Imperial Cheese was their signature product, the company also marketed a number of other cheeses several of which were included in this 1912 advertisement.
In addition, they also included a peanut butter, dessert jelly and mustard on the product menu.
In late 1920 the MacLaren Imperial Cheese Company was purchased and consolidated with the J. L. Kraft & Bros. Co., of Chicago, Illinois under the name: “Kraft-MacLaren Cheese Co., Ltd.” The announcement of the newly formed Kraft-MacLaren Corporation was announced in the January 21, 1921 edition of the (Toronto) National Post.
Announcement is made of the incorporation of the Kraft-MacLaren Cheese Co., Ltd., capitalized at $1,000,000, and having its head office in Montreal. The new company has acquired the interests of the MacLaren Imperial Cheese Co., Ltd., of Toronto, with factories in that city and Detroit. It also takes over the Canadian business and a large portion of the export trade of J. L. Kraft & Brothers Co., of Chicago. A modern factory, refrigerating plant and warehouse, to cost $200,000, is now under construction in this city.
MacLaren had passed away three years earlier in 1917, but Henry Wright continued as a director in the new corporation up through the mid- 1920’s and possibly longer.
Twentieth century Imperial Cheese containers produced under the Kraft name occasionally appear for sale on the internet.
As late as January 14, 2015 a recipe published in the (Vancouver) Province called for MacLaren’s.
The product can still be found in Canadian Walmart’s to this day.
The jar I found is white and 2-1/2 inches tall. Its 1-3/4 inches in diameter, though widens abruptly at the top to 2-1/4 inches. It matches the jar shown in this 1912 advertisement (sans the top and label).
A 1909 price list published in the April 28th edition of the “Victoria (British Columbia) Daily Times” mentioned three sizes being offered around that time; large, small and individual. As small as this one is, it’s almost certainly the individual size.
The jar is embossed on the base “MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese.” The embossing also includes their trade mark (Serial No. 71002870) described like this in the trade mark records:
Heads of oxen, cows, calves, bulls…medals (alone or suspended from ribbons or pins). Banners.
The first commercial use was indicated in the records as December 18, 1891.
On a final note, I couldn’t end this post without touching on one final talent exhibited by the founder of MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, Alexander F. MacLaren. As it turns out, in addition to his varied business and legislative pursuits, he was also heavily involved with the game of curling. An April 28, 1899 feature in the Montreal Gazette tells the story.
Alexander F. MacLaren is one of the jolliest of curlers and his presence in a game and at curlers’ social gatherings is always welcome. For many years he has been a member of the Stratford Curling Club. He has worked his way up through the grades of apprenticeship to be a master of the intricacies of the game. He is president of the Stratford Club, and is at all times ready with advice, skill and help to further the interests of curling. His training and experience on the curling rink have fitted him for high legislative duties, and for some years he has been a member of the Dominion Parliament, where no doubt, he will be an intelligent skip to direct the policy of his party. He is known among his friends as Imperial MacLaren, imperial in his business, imperial in curling, imperial in the Dominion Parliament, imperial in all the relations of life, and under this name of Imperial MacLaren, he is almost as well known in Europe as in America. He is now president of the Ontario Curling Association, which delights to honor such men.